Walk past a branch of the UK clothing brand All Saints, and you’ll come across an arresting sight; rows and rows of vintage black Singer sewing machines, occupying the entire shop front from floor to ceiling. From London to New York, Singers have become All Saints signature: there are apparently anything between 10,000 and 40,000 of these antique sewing machines in All Saints’ stores, all apparently imported from India.
All Saints’ store in New York, which opened in June 2011. Photo: The Guardian
According to Brinkworth, the branding agency responsible, their design for the All Saints’ store evokes ‘a mood of decadent decay and distressed glamour’. This ‘mood’ is as present inside as out; step into the warehouse-style interior and the industrial gothic look continues.
There’s no escaping Singers at All Saints. Photo: Brinkworth
There are yet more sewing machines, metal chains hanging down the walls, and rusting cast-iron trolleys and heavy duty tables displaying the brands’ equally seemingly worn-in goods.
Industrial chic inside a typical All Saints store. Photo: Brinkworth
Brinkworth have certainly been successful in creating a brand identity for All Saints that is identifiable on a global scale, yet each time I walk past one of the stores I can’t help but wonder what exactly is the message here. On the one hand, given that these masses of machines have replaced parades of products in the shops’ vitrines, they can be seen as part of All Saint’s beaten up, offbeat aesthetic that goes against the season-led diktats of the fashion world. As Kevin Stanford, the brand’s creative director has stated, 'We don't care what colour Prada plans to do next season…Just look at the average person's wardrobe - it's full of taupe, grey and black.'
Of course by the very merit of their antique, individual, anti-fashion statement, All Saints’ shop windows are in fact highly fashionable. These beautiful nineteenth century inventions are a part of the wave of nostalgia that is currently influencing everything from the craft revival to two of the films dominating this years’ Oscars - The Artist and Hugo. Its intentionally distressed chic is reminiscent of the branches of the Byron hamburger chain, whose similarly pre-aged facades become even more ridiculous when you realise that the branch has been there a month or less, and is in a brand spanking new building: it takes a lot of effort to look that old.
Byron in Islington, established 2010, not 1910. Photo: London Chow.
Yet there’s something that puzzles me about All Saints’ shopfronts: what these dormant, redundant machines say about the state of manufacturing today. I guess that these displays were intended to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and ol’ fashioned quality manufacture. Fair enough. Yet the fact that these machines are antiques, unneeded in any functional sense, transforms these shopfronts into spectacles of de-industrialisation and post-industrialism in Britain.
All Saints, est. 1994. Photo: The Guardian
This is not just true of the UK, but elsewhere too; for there to be tens of thousands of these machines as unwanted for industry in India (presumably at some earlier point these machines had been exported from Europe for use in India’s economic development before being imported back to here) suggests a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit, and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system. Which makes sense in fine in terms of All Saints’ individualistic, craft aesthetic, but surely not in terms of its levels of actual manufacture, in which these machines clearly play no part - otherwise they’d be on the factory floor, not in the shop window.