Fantastic Toiles: Fashion Rebellion Underneath the Arches
Words Joe Bromley
Photography Amber Lorrell
Joe Bromley investigates the shop supporting the designers on the side-lines, who aren’t about to jump into bed with big business.
Forest Gates’ Cave of Wonders
Fantastic Toiles is a hidden treasure trove. Head to East London – then keep going. If you get to Forest Gate, meander through a few residential streets, duck under the bridge and make a sharp left into an avenue full of smashed-up, written-off cars: you’re in the right place.
The shop sells the wares of emerging and independent designers; those on the fringes of fashion, making garments with less uniformity and more risk than those that clog up Mayfair. Halfway between the epicentre of London shopping and the M25, there is a string of railway arches with heavy blue metal doors. One is Fantastic Toiles’ home.
Which, though, is another question. I peep my head into the first door ajar, and sparks explode against one of the bashed-up motors. Nope. Then, café…empty…locked. Number 434 feels warmer; techno music leaking from the doorframe. I’m with a friend to take pictures, and on cue as we approach, Freyja Newsome appears. The final-year knitwear student at Central Saint Martins is a walking Fantastic Toiles advert; masked but unmissable with white mesh and a brown fleece cut-out cascading over one shoulder, and a big silver bulldog clip on the peak of her baker-boy hat, itself collaged from fabric scraps. She has worked here since the September 2019 launch, and stocks her designs inside. Before our camera comes out, she disappears to find the founder: fashion designer and CSM MA Fashion tutor, Nasir Mazhar.
We need to dismantle the monopoly of luxury fashion, and make it accessible for normal people that like wearing cool clothes
The shrine, part of the interior designed in a collaboration between Nasir Mazhar and set designer and artist David Curtis Ring.
Mazhar's fashion career goes back well before 2019. Initially, he’d worked for hair stylist Vidal Sassoon before veering into headgear and hatmaking, which saw him picked up by Fashion East in 2010. Two years later he launched his eponymous label with inventive, deconstructed sportswear; heavily branded and often on the backs of hunky, topless, men. “After AW16 I stopped selling to wholesalers, and from then on it was in my thoughts: designers need to be independent”, he says. His SS17 collection was his last at London Fashion Week, after which he packed up for Forest Gate, worked on commissions, and sold his toiles (design prototypes made in cheaper materials to allow for mistakes) from there. Able to sew, price, and sell his work alone, he realised he had broken free. The priority became making, not designing for department stores. “There were fundamental problems in the industry”, he says. “Which I still think are there.”
It became evident others wanted liberating from the monotonous season-show-shop system that dictates fashion business today. Mazhar hand-picked 26 designers (“Who do I think is amazing? Who isn’t selling in shops?”) to join him selling from his studio, and Fantastic Toiles was away. A year and three months later, the troupe totals just under 50. “It didn’t feel right that in London there’s so many incredible people, but there’s not one shop that sells their work”, says Mazhar. “Camden has been destroyed. Brick Lane used to be good, but it’s mainly vintage stuff today. You hear about things in the past, but now, and in the last ten years, there really isn’t anything.” These fabled boutiques of days gone, crawling out of the woodwork in discussions of later 20th Century British fashion – from Quorum to Michiko Koshino, Koh Samui and The Pineal Eye (to scratch the surface) – are inspirational, but not a mould. “I’m influenced by the energy that it sounds like they had,” says Mazhar. “But this isn’t trying to be some ‘iconic ’ store.”
Designer and shop assistant Freyja Newsome stands watch at the blue metal door.
‘Explosion of appliqué bits-and-bobs’ by Joshua Beaty, the artist, designer, and CSM Fashion Design lecturer.
Newsome returns, followed by the owner who grants free rein to photograph – only not of himself (“I haven’t slept”). He’s been busy working on custom designs for the likes of FKA Twigs; a regular in store too. “She’s a true supporter. She must get so many free clothes, but she always leaves here with her arms full”, Mazhar says.
Beyond the door is the narrow rectangular chamber, two by about five metres of mirrored-floor standing room. And it’s completely-and-utterly-jammed-up-the-walls-crammed-full of wacky stuff. Amongst doll heads and stuffed elephants, animal skulls, feathers and foam, it’s difficult to tell what’s for sale and what’s decoration. All part of the charm. I pull out a plain looking blue t-shirt to find an explosion of appliqué bits-and-bobs by Joshua Beaty; a yellow paper plate cut like a crown, stuffed washing up gloves and googley eyes (“spot wash armpits”, reads the post-it note care instructions). Higher up, rows of mannequin heads are consumed by hats; the recognisable fluffy trims of Benny Andallo’s, to the ragged, ruffled bonnets by Puer Deorum.
Though the range is vast, a streak of rough and rawness runs through everything here. “There is actually such a demand for these very DIY-looking clothes” says Sarah McCormack. Good news for the designer, whose CSM 2020 MA Graduate collection was a beautiful mix of earthy velvets, bright pink silks and purply mesh, all clumped precariously, yet delicately, together. “I feel like it’s a new grunge type thing, everyone wants their clothes to look a bit fucked up now. It’s kind of a subculture.” Selling today are shoes of the same piece-it-together ilk as her final collection; outside, they instantly attract the local cat. “Everyone can use their leftover fabrics and toiles which get scrapped when you’re trying to make something perfect”, she says. This is the handmade, self-directed aspect Mazhar champions: “What we sell is made by the designers themselves. That’s what we have to encourage – actual skills, real craftsmanship. People’s hands have made this, not in a factory under gross conditions.”
This store represents a new vision of how we shop and sell - of the business side of fashion
For the younger designers, it’s also a space to take first steps. Jawara Alleyne, in the same class as McCormack at CSM, has managed to do so quite successfully. When I arrived, all his electric coloured, draped silk shirts, and safety-pin deconstructed t-shirts were gone. In fact, everything he’s placed here since joining in April has sold out. “It gives us a space to see how to break into our consumer base”, he says. “But the Fantastic Toiles customer is looking for something different, I think that’s the key. It allows me to think about the kinds of buyers who want to actually wear the next version of ourselves.”
Sarah McCormack’s hand stitched shoes, alongside an interested customer.
Rebellion is in Fantastic Toiles’ DNA. It was born out of Mazhar’s rejection of today’s fashion industry – and that spirit lives on. “We need to dismantle the monopoly of luxury fashion, and make it accessible for normal people that like wearing cool clothes” says Newsome, without missing a beat. “This is a stepping stone into doing that. It’s our way of making clothing more available, and shops exciting again. Because shops are so fucking boring now.” Hence the lingering nostalgia around boutiques of old – their gap has never been filled. “Boutiques have always been a big part of the fashion industry, but they don’t really exist anymore”, says Alleyne. “I think what’s considered one now is a small shop with the same concept as the big ones. This store represents a new vision of how we shop and sell - of the business side of fashion.”
Pitched up outside the shop for a few hours, it became clear the sense of community is not reserved for the designers. Fashion students travel over an hour across London to chat, browse, and some bought; one wore their new ‘Fluffy Orc Hat’ by Mazhar on the train home. Jonty Mellmann, another designer who’s been selling here since it opened, just popped by to say hi: “It’s great to have the shop to experiment” he says on his way out. “And it means you can make money to keep doing what you’re doing.”
While waiting to pounce on visitors like Mellmann, I watched as a middle-aged woman passed by (no Fantastic Toiles customer, in jeans and a mud-beige coat). As I’d done, she peered her head round the door to see where that music was coming from – and catching sight of the mecca of new design, she grinned wildly and pronounced: “Aaah! How retro!”
At the same time she’d got it so completely wrong – these clothes are fashion’s cutting new edge – she actually managed to be bang on right. This set of designers and customers, coming together as a group, discussing and selling their work as one, dedicated to creativity and craft, has no place in the conglomerate-squished, retailer-crushed, commercial rag-trade today. What’s happening here is entirely old school. Totally retro. And how refreshing is that?
Fantastic Toiles located at Railway Arch 434, Avenue Road, Forest Gate, London, E7 0LB. Walk-ins at weekends, booking available for mid-week appointments.
Customer Teddy Spencer, a model and musician outside the store.
Jonty Mellmann, part of Fantastic Toiles from the start, pays a visit.
Mazhar's ‘Fluffy Orc Hat’ bought and worn by fashion student and stylist Luca Wowczyna.