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Handcrafting a Sustainable Future

How determination helped this couturier create a viable alternative to fast fashion

“I create clothes. That’s what I love doing — it’s kind of my calling. And when you do it in the way I do it, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a real craft. I think the world is asking for more and more of that now as well. People like to know where things come from and how they’re made.”

You’re sitting in the Bloomsbury atelier of Lucy Tammam, a couturier and artist who specialises in bespoke, fair trade and ethical fashion design. Lucy’s label Tammam, set up in 2007, was one of London’s first high-end fashion labels that considered sustainability an integral part of its identity.

It’s 2018, but once inside Atelier Tammam it could be any year in the last one hundred. In the workshop, decorated as it is with a refined choice of traditional apparatus, it’s clear that both time and attention are key materials of Tammam’s ethos. Atelier Tammam is a place where clients seeking the perfect (and ethical) garment go for a traditional and personalised experience, one in which the process is as important as the product.

In reality, Tammam has only been at its central London premises for five years. But those five years represent a culmination of principals and skills Lucy developed long before.

“It was a wreck when we moved in. It used to be a locksmiths, and then it was empty for a couple of years. We put floors down, plastered the whole place, and sorted everything out. The front is slightly more well done than the back — with the back we were like, “We’re out of money! Let’s just paint it.” But it’s fine. It’s a lovely space.”

Talking to her, you can immediately tell that one of the characteristics of the Tammam label is an extension of Lucy’s own character: this is someone who genuinely cares about doing things properly and effectively.

Lucy grew up in Dorset, where her family is well established in the rag trade. Her grandfather was a tailor; her aunt and uncle had a fashion business; another aunt and uncle had another fashion business. The world of fashion, it would seem, was her calling.

Her first foray into making clothes was for her dolls. Her father watched in horror, and did what he could to convince himself not to intervene (often not successfully).

As a child, Lucy made a discovery which holds true to this day. Contra to what you might expect, Lucy maintains that she isn’t, and never has been, fashionable.

“Actually, I never really wanted to do fashion because I wasn’t fashionable as a child. I think I would consider myself stylish and into classic style, but I’m not particularly into trends or continually having to buy new stuff. I hate shopping. I love vintage. I love stuff that’s made to last. It’s very evident from the stuff that I do.”

Lucy’s love of vintage took her to vintage and antique shops all around the country. She was endlessly inspired by pre-1980s fashion.

* * *

“‘No one cares about recycling, Lucy. Stop thinking about it. No one cares about it.’”

Entering the doors of Central Saint Martins with something to say about the fashion industry — its ongoing cycle of waste and obsession with the New — Lucy was met with more resistance than she had expected.

“Don’t get me wrong — there were so many aspects I loved about studying fashion and being at Central Saint Martins. But generally, my thinking was too far outside the box for them. They like you to be outside the box but within certain constraints. And I think I was just a bit too far out.”

The more Lucy focussed on her projects, the more she found herself drawn to issues of sustainability, fair trade and recycling. “I don’t think you can do it,” one teacher told Lucy as she embarked on her final project — the same teacher who discouraged Lucy about recycling.

Lucy fundamentally didn’t want to be part of an industry that was exploiting people and wasting resources.

It came to her as a pleasant surprise some years later when, at an event at the British Library, Lucy bumped into Willy Walters (one of the course tutors at CSM when Lucy was there). “Oh, hi Lucy! Of course I remember you! You were all about sustainability! We’re all about that at Saint Martins now! It’s massive now!”.

As part of her degree, Lucy spent a year working in the industry. She went to Rome to work for Claudio Cavalcanti.

“Working for Claudio really cemented my love for craftsmanship, spending time on making things properly. I think that’s so important. And that’s really where the industry has gone wrong nowadays. Everything is made so quickly; it’s fast and furious. There was an article in the New York Times recently about H&M, who have more than four billion dollars-worth of unsold clothes. It’s unbelievable. That’s just so much.”

Lucy returned to the UK and set up the label Tam & Rob with a friend, using fair trade as one of their key principles as well as focussing their efforts on making an ethical fashion collection. They went about organising work with a unit in Bangalore, India (one with which Lucy still works with today), and began sending over designs to be made. This marked the beginning of yearly visits to India in which Lucy would be constantly meeting new, talented producers, who continually inspired her to built fully monitored supply chains.

Lucy went solo with the launch of Tammam in 2007, which gave her the opportunity to re-market herself as a high-end designer. Her first output was a ready to wear wedding dress collection, which utilised the supply chains she had already worked hard to set up.

By 2012, Lucy diverted the attention of her label away from ready to wear and towards made to order. Needing a space to operate in, she eventually discovered the ex-locksmiths at 5 Hastings Street, Bloomsbury. The Tammam label began its next stage of evolution.

“I think, to make things slowly and properly, even to give people the skills to make their own clothes — that’s something that needs to be understood as well, if people understood how to make a dress and how long it takes, they’d probably be less likely to go into a shop and buy one for a fiver or a tenner because they’d think, “Hang on, this took me three days to make. Surely no one’s going to be able to make it in enough time that they’re paid properly.”

Creative Londoners: What’s the start to end process of having a garment made at Atelier Tammam?

Lucy Tammam:

What I want is for clients to feel like coming to Atelier Tammam is like going back a hundred years. You walk through the door: the service is impeccable and you’re given what you want. Clients don’t just want a garment that fits beautifully and looks good; they also want to know where the fabric comes from and who did the embellishments. So we offer clients the whole story; that’s really important. Using traditional skills, good pattern cutting, and a perfectionist approach; having lots of fittings, and listening to what the client likes, we create exactly what the client wants.
After making initial contact, usually the client will come over, and if they don’t know exactly what they want they’ll try some different samples, we’ll talk about what they’re looking for. There’s a whole styling process as well: I’ll look at what suits them, what fits them, what’s in their current wardrobe, we’ll discuss how they want the garment to look, we’ll draw up some designs, make a draft, so they know more or less what it’s going to look like at that stage so that we can make any alterations. Then, once that’s perfected, we’ll go into the final garment, cut the fabric, have probably two or three fittings depending on what the garment is (sometimes it’s up to 10 fittings if it’s a wedding dress with lots of layers).

Creative Londoners: Have any of your clients become your friends in the process?

Lucy Tammam:

Absolutely. It happens very often. It is a really intensive process, especially for brides. I’ve made some really good friends with some of my past clients.

One Dress

In 2016, Lucy challenged herself with this idea: what would happen if, instead of making an entire fashion collection, she put the same amount of time, effort and money into creating one dress?

A little time before, Lucy had become involved with a London-based feminist organisation called FiLiA, which encouraged her to explore the broader artistic sensibilities.

Creative Londoners: What’s the concept behind One Dress?

Lucy Tammam:

The idea was to make one beautifully-made couture gown. It’s the antithesis of fast fashion. The skirt was going to be embroidered entirely by hand, by women in various places around the world, with words that mean feminism. So a few years ago I started working with FiLiA. They do amazing things. One of the things I work on for them is supporting and showcasing women artists. Working with that gave me more of an insight into the world of art. As a creative, fashion is an interesting art form because it’s commercial at the same time. And I think the commercial side of it is the thing that I get on with the least. One Dress gave me an opportunity to create clothing that wasn’t commercial.
It’s very much a statement piece, an art piece, which is there to provide a basis for discussion and voice for women. So it’s going to have about 2,000 words embroidered on it, words that mean feminism. It’s being made using the supply chains that I built up with my fashion label, so working with the unit in Bangalore. The women there have been doing the embroidery for me. One Dress is an opportunity to create something that’s completely uncommercial. No one’s going to buy it. It’s costing a huge amount of money. The women are paid fairly for their time. Each word takes a substantial amount of time to create. And with 2,000 words embroidered by hand, it’s taking a long time! But eventually, it’s going to be a piece that hopefully will get worn by some inspirational women, and then it can be exhibited and used as a statement.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign and securing Arts Council funding, Lucy was able to begin work on the first 500 words of One Dress. She is now working on the next 1,500. You can choose words for the dress via the Tammam website.

Creative Londoners: How has it been getting the project out there?

Lucy Tammam:

Marketing is such an integral part of anything now. You want people to listen, but there’s so much noise. And pushing through that noise is really difficult. The hardest thing I think as a creative is to get people to hear about your work, see what you’re doing, engage with it, because there’s just so much going on.
But it’s also important not to let that distract from the actual creation, and as long as I’m making something beautiful, that’s all that matters, really.

Photographs by Michael Wayne Plant, London-based social documentary and portrait photographer.