“I’m in the transition from being an outerwear designer to being more active in helping others to join in with it,” says Nathalie Limon from her live-work studio space in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick.
After graduating in bespoke tailoring from London College of Fashion, and seeing her friends crippled by the pressure to find a job, Nathalie chose to sew her own path. She started ‘The Needle Exchange’ to encompass her various businesses and creative projects.
“The name is a play on a drugs theme, but by doing that it’s not supposed to be shocking, it’s about the ritualistic-ness of it,” she explains. She then talks me through some of the rituals that go on every day in her studio; cleaning her sewing machine, sharpening her shears in her hair, strengthening the basting thread with beeswax. “You have to respect your tools, it’s what you use to make money. You have to be kind to your equipment and it’ll be kind to you.”
Currently, Nathalie’s business consists of a women’s tailoring service called Gold Coat, an alterations service, a capsule fashion collection created each summer with her roommate, and workshop classes. Despite only now realising that it is crucial to her work going forward, Nathalie has always played with the idea of “helping others to join in with it.”
Her highly personal tailoring service creating coats, jackets and outerwear for women is as bespoke as the garments she makes for them, involving the clients deeply in the work. She starts the process by asking a series of questions to get to know the personality, style and taste of the woman she is making for from ‘What colours have you been told suit you?’ and ‘Which era’s style appeals to you?’ to ‘Do you have any heroines?’. She requires two fittings per item and it takes her approximately three or four days’ pure creation time to complete a garment. Unlike many other tailors who simply alter existing patterns, Nathalie makes each one from scratch. The full time frame of the process from the start to finish depends on the availability of the client for fittings, fabric delivery times, and how quickly the client can make decisions on the choices Nathalie offers. The average cost is between £500 and £700 per piece.
Many of the women she works with enjoy having a say in the design of their clothes. She picked up a number of clients after a residency at a local art gallery, many of whom were artists themselves. Nathalie observed that they were full of ideas and had a great eye for design but lacked the skillset to realise them and so turned to Nathalie to help create something they truly wanted to wear.
Other women simply see the value in wearing something that fits them perfectly. Although it may seem obvious, many customers are surprised at the difference it makes, as Nathalie pointed out to me in the example of one particular client. “She was astounded at how differently it made her feel. It made her feel valued, it made her feel that it was important that her clothes fit her properly, it was important that she was the one who decided how it looked.”
We’re all far too aware of how easy it is to settle for the generic-looking, ill-fitting offering on the high street, especially with limited time on our hands, but Nathalie strongly believes that women should have more options. “I didn’t feel like women had much made-to-measure options,” she reflects; “Considering we have the most complex bodies it just made no sense to me.” Combined with her belief that clothes should be designed to last, she’s made a convincing case to the women who come to her, so much so that she has grown the business purely through word of mouth.
However, a desire to make her work more inclusive and accessible is leading to exciting new projects. “I’m really interested in the idea of open source,” she tells me. Open source is the notion of making computer software freely available to anyone to use or modify. Combining her traditional vocation with the benefits of new technology, and inspired by street art, she hopes to start a guerrilla sewing project. The idea is to stick one-piece patterns to walls with a QR code that will take the ‘finder’ to instructions on how to make it. There will be no instructions on what fabric to use and Nathalie hopes that people will use their own imaginations and creativity to make a plethora of designs from the same pattern.
Her ‘open source’ fascination also stem from her passion to revive sewing skills amongst the public. Through workshops that she has run for the Hackney Wick community she teaches practical classes that will help people to make and mend their own clothes.
“I really detest the twee stamp that people put on craft. I want to make it the norm that people get things fixed or pick up a needle and thread themselves,” says Nathalie, mocking the ‘make your own cushion cover!’ classes that spring to mind when you think ‘sewing workshop’. An advocate of reducing waste, she wants to equip people to fix clothing rather than throw it away. She cites the punks of the 1970s and 1980s who used dental floss to sew patches to their jackets as inspiration and Nathalie herself prints her business cards on old art canvases which look and feel unique, as well as saving them from landfill.
Her plans for the near future include finding a bigger space where she could hold such classes. At the moment she runs them from her home and studio which she shares with visual artist Gabriella, filmmaker Jacob and Mia the cat. When she found the space two and a half years ago it was an empty shell without windows or a door, now it’s a fully-functioning open-plan living space with a mezzanine for the bedrooms. An assortment of paraphernalia, posters, drawings and notes covers every bit of exposed brick wall. “I did tidy up a bit knowing there’d be a photographer here today!” Nathalie giggles, “It’s like brain mess. As soon as you think of something, you write it down and stick it up and then there’s space in your brain.” I ask her if she has any favourite objects in the apartment and, confessing that “I’m a bit obsessed with gold,” she points out a giant gold fan that’s splayed out above her sewing machine and a makeshift lampshade made from gold foil.
BBC 6 Music is playing in the background, the usual soundtrack to Nathalie’s working day and a cafetiere of coffee is brewing, essential fuel for getting through a day of cutting, stitching and binding. It’s a cosy set up just a short ladder climb from bed.
Whilst we’re talking, a freight train passes by outside, flashing streaks of light through the window and temporarily distracting Nathalie who stops to watch it go past. “I love the colours,” she told me, referring to the different crates on the train and she smiles with a fondness for this little daily occurrence that might irritate most other people.
The appeal of living here extends beyond the four walls we’re sitting in. The sprawling complex of houses and studios, which was once home to Clarnico, Britain’s largest confectioner in Victorian times, has a strong sense of community. “Everyone who lives here has a huge loyalty to keep the neighbourhood how it is,” explains Nathalie. Recent petitions have helped to ensure that nearby pop up events respect the local area and keep it litter free, and the Hackney Wick and Fish Island Cultural Interest Group works to preserve and promote the creative community there. The area has the highest concentration of creative practitioners and artist studios in Europe.
This has practical benefits too and Nathalie pops to see her neighbours who manufacture deionised water for her iron which can be difficult to find in other areas of London. There’s also an openness to trade skills with each other, a handy bartering tool when money is tight, and many people form creative collaborations, as Nathalie has done with her housemate Gabriella.
Together they have created a travel-inspired, capsule fashion collection called Room 55. Each summer the duo pick a different destination and Gabriella creates a unique print from a collage of images and photographs of the destination. This is then digitally printed onto fabric and Nathalie turns it into clothing and accessories. Last year they created a collection inspired by their home turf in Hackney Wick which they sold at the Hackney WickED festival. Another project focussed on Ibiza, another destination with a strong visual identity, and Venice is an idea being thrown around as the next destination. Each item in the collection is also designed to be packable; ready to throw in your suitcase at a moment’s notice.
Working with Gabriella has helped Nathalie to realise that she would like to collaborate and build a team to work with in the future. “I realised how amazing it is, you have two brains almost! You feel like you’ve gotten cleverer or more inspired because you’re fuelling each other. Ever since then I’ve been looking out for someone to work with because I was really shocked by how much of a difference it made.”
The contrast of going from a bustling university classroom to a quiet studio on your own is just one of the challenges faced by graduates like Nathalie who go it on their own. For many, it’s not even possible to be self-employed due to the cost of the equipment required, as Nathalie tells me, “For a lot of makers in any field, as soon as their fancy equipment from university goes, people get a bit depressed because they’re so used to working with their hands. For instance, for a potter a kiln is not just easy to come by! It affects people’s confidence because they go from being knowing they’re really good at something to not even being able to do it.”
Nathalie has been fortunate to have a supportive grandmother who runs a costume department in Wales and lent her the money to buy the tools she needed to pursue her craft. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t her grandmother who initially inspired Nathalie to sew: “In my teenage years my dad’s partner started sewing with me. Partly because I was quite a hyperactive child!” Through family friends who ran a theatre company she began to develop and practice her skills, assisting with the costumes, and when she launched Gold Coat, it was her mother’s friends who were her first customers. Family has certainly played a crucial role in her journey to creating The Needle Exchange.
“It’s never been fashion that interested me, it’s always been the craft,” says Nathalie. Though it hasn’t always been easy, she has followed a career path that many of her classmates would envy. Refusing to be just another lost cog in the fashion industry’s wheel, Nathalie has admirably stuck to what she is passionate about, followed projects that have inspired her, and stood up for her beliefs along the way.
Interview by Olivia Pinnock / Photography by Anastasiya Sergienya
This Article was originally published in our Issue Two.