Stitch in time: the traditional, hand-made workwear that has earned a cult following

Rhiannon Harries
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:03

Holt in Norfolk has probably never been described as a hot spot on the global fashion map. But for Will Brown and Marie Willey, there could not have been a more fitting location in which to house their label. Quirky, understated and very British, Old Town is a small but beautifully formed range that has slowly acquired a cult following of people too stylish to care much for the vagaries of fashion but more than willing to go the extra mile (or, in this case, the extra miles to East Anglia) in search of something special.

And that is precisely what they get with Old Town, as the husband and wife team (he designs, she handles everything else) approach every aspect of their enterprise a little differently from the rest, avoiding any hype or crowd-pleasing, yet still creating a unique offering with plenty of style cachet.

It is the clothes that immediately set Old Town apart, inspired as they are by the rather unusual reference point of early 20th-century British workwear. The focus rests on a limited number of garments, worked and reworked in traditional, durable fabrics such as drill, serge and flannel. For men, there are high-rise trousers with braces buttons and overall-style jackets with patch pockets and waistcoats, topped off with peaked flannel caps. For women, apron dresses come in retro prints and florals, while wide-legged trousers sit high on the waist. The look is humorously dapper and affectionately nostalgic without ever straying into twee.

The designs have changed very little in the 16 years since they established the business. The decision to stick to this aesthetic stems from a combination of Brown's love of the style and a firm belief that people are more interested in staying loyal to clothes that suit their taste and physique than any sartorial fad. "There's always the temptation to introduce more styles and water it down a bit," says Willey. "But we haven't; we've kept it very tight. And if we do introduce something new – which you have to occasionally – we take something else away. It works well."

In a world where endless choice and immediate gratification characterise clothes shopping, it might be hard to believe that the Old Town formula works at all. It has never had a London store, nor any concerted marketing strategy beyond word-of-mouth. And for those who do get as far as visiting the Holt shop or placing an order online, a four- to six-week wait is in store, as all items are made to order, placing Old Town's clothing somewhere between ready-to-wear and bespoke (though the prices suggest the former).

The label has been the unofficial uniform of modish architects and authors as well as graphic designers who have outgrown their trainers and T-shirt days, but it's slowly filtering down to a younger, vintage-loving crowd too. "We get a lot of repeat custom," says Willey, "and most of them make a point of coming to the shop itself and spending the day in Holt."

If Old Town's fans are a devoted bunch, their commitment has a fair way to go to match that of Willey and Brown, who took the risk of abandoning London at the start of the 1990s to set up a business founded on small-scale production and an appreciation of craftsmanship long before such ideas became popular. While overheads are low, the recruitment and meticulous training of local staff is time-consuming. "This must be the slowest-growing outfit ever," laughs Willey, "but we never had a big plan to make pots of money or have some huge empire."

That the couple are not in it for the money is made clear when Willey is pressed for clues as to forthcoming items in the range. Reluctant to mention certain particularly labour-intensive garments so as to avoid being swamped with orders that can't be met, she explains: "I'd rather people just discovered what we do for themselves so we can keep it sustainable."

Maintaining that sustainability as Old Town grows from its niche roots will be difficult. But Willey and Brown have a good track record of moving on before things get too trendy for their liking – they left their former base in Shoreditch just before its evolution into London's hipster heartland – so rest assured that if Holt should ever undergo a form of Hoxtonisation, the pair will already have made their escape.

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