Labour and Wait. Inspired by a dustpan and brush.

December 12, 2015

Labour and Wait, 85 Redchurch St, London E2 7DJ

Rachel Wythe-Moran and Simon Watkins’ shop was born of discontent.  Bored with their respective jobs as menswear designers and disillusioned with the fickle world of fashion, they were both looking for an escape. Designing for the high street wasn’t cutting it anymore. “It had all become very samey and boring.  The design aspect involved reinventing the wheel every six months”  says Rachel.  Simon wondered why design had to be trend-oriented:  “The things I like to wear, I’ve always liked. Why can’t this apply to all the products in my life?”

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

Rachel and Simon are a striking pair.  They are stylish, but unpretentious; cool without being flashy; empassioned but restrained; with a general air of neat and tidiness and a bespectacled streak of studiousness about them.  They are, in an offbeat way, chic.  These old friends have created a shop that reflects their own aesthetic but has also created a life and a philosophy of its own.

Mutual friends urged them to meet when they saw they had a lot in common, and in the midst of one of their first conversations, Simon mentioned he was looking for a good dustpan.  This proved to be their founding inspiration.  “We started listing everything we liked, things we just found difficult to find, like a metal dustpan or a wooden brush…I wanted a traditional one that is painted, I didn’t want a rubbishy plastic one that looks like something else.”

A list of longed for objects grew and grew: a proper wooden toilet brush, good quality pencils, old-fashioned wooden washing pegs, a can opener with red handles.  Their list evolved to include not just things for the garden or kitchen, but books and clothes too. A criteria emerged.  Fed up with the fads and artifice of design – “Does anyone really need or even use a giant Alessi citrus squeezer?” – Rachel and Simon decided the more prosaic virtues of usefulness, timelessness and functionality needed celebrating.

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

pencilsjar

They set out to create an environment full of ‘classic’ objects that do not date:  simple things with a purpose.  A sort of photo-collage was put together – in lieu of a ‘proper business plan’ – for their first and only meeting with a bank.  Their list was brought to life with images and tear-sheets from magazines featuring the sorts of things they sought to sell. The bank, somehow charmed by this scrapbook full of buckets, blankets, brooms and twine, said yes.  The loan boosted Rachel and Simon’s own savings, and the hunt began – first, for products.

What Simon and Rachel revere is design in its purest sense; high-quality objects that have evolved through their use.  Although they all have a functional purpose, the products in the shop aren’t boring.  Simon explains: “We like doing slightly offbeat things – you can hear us saying ‘odd’ a lot.  We like to try to find things that aren’t the obvious.  We say: ‘I like that because it’s a really odd colour, or the colour you’d never do.’” Such explains the provenance of moose-shaped firelighters from Sweden.   Over the years, the shop has had imitators, but none has achieved quite the same effect, or the same success.  Rachel and Simon note that “so many people think they’ve locked into exactly what our shop’s like and this is what you’d have…and then [looking at the product] we’re like ‘Hmmm. No.’”

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogTheir search for products was – and continues to be – a struggle.  Friends’ houses, junk shops, foreign cities and trade fairs are regularly scoured. Rachel and Simon’s particular brand of everyday objects is surprisingly difficult to source.  As Rachel explains: “Quite often the things right at the back of the trade fair stand are the things we hone in on.  Something the supplier has been making for years that they’re really bored of and don’t like at all.”  The kinds of things that make it to the LABOUR AND WAIT shop floor are often produced by manufacturers who don’t have an exhibition stand or a website, or sold through small families who don’t make a big noise.  But they seem to take a peculiar sort of pride in just how difficult it is to source things that are ‘right’ for their shop.

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogIn fact, it seems that the responsibility of choosing what’s right for LABOUR AND WAIT has shifted over the years; from the shopkeepers onto the shop itself.  “We started originally with the product.  The shop was built on its products. But we’ve found they somehow reinforce each other.” says Simon. “To begin with, you tell the business what it wants, you choose products and put them in the shop, but then what happens is the shop tells us what it needs.  It almost won’t allow us to put the wrong thing in there.”  Rachel adds that the shop’s idiosyncratic nature can cause last minute issues. “A few things we’ve nearly ordered and then thought, ‘you know what…? We’re not sure about that.  It’s not right.’ And we have to step back and say no.”

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

Rachel and Simon admit that the shop reflects their own tastes and personalities, to an extent, but insist that it is also very much “its own thing.” The enigmatic character of the shop is part of its appeal, but its owners are struck dumb when asked to describe the shop’s personality. When I suggest that the shop feels intrinsically English to me –it is tidy and ordered but not overly glossy or smart; it is slightly eccentric and a bit left of centre – Rachel and Simon say it’s an unplanned side effect: “We are both quite traditional English types, we like British things, the British aesthetic, but that’s not really a conscious thing.  The products are from all over Europe and America.”

Eight years ago, the shop’s first location on Cheshire Street was certainly cutting edge and trendy, but largely unkown.  A few wholesalers and used furniture traders sat huddled alongside a bustling Brick Lane, but the street’s proximity to Columbia Road’s Sunday flower market meant a steady flow of pedestrian traffic at weekends.  In those early days, customers were curious and intrepid – arriving like “rabbits in the headlights,” unfamiliar with the edgy East end, clutching a page they’d torn out of a magazine, thinking “’Wow, I’m really running the gauntlet in this scary area,’” says Rachel.

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique BlogLabour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

Originally, Rachel and Simon hoped to create a space for things that could be an inspiration for designers, the real ‘classics’.  It was not long before Rei Kawakubo, designer and founder of Comme des Garcons – the brand behind Dover St Market — wandered in.  Then LABOUR AND WAIT was offered a concession at the DSM fashion emporium, to be run autonomously by Rachel and Simon.  Alongside the inspired creations of avant-guarde designers sits a small wood and glass countertop and shelf, filled with things like leather diaries and coloured pencils, balls of jute twine, vintage linen and woollen blankets.  They look like odd artefacts next to suits by Dior Homme and dresses by Boudicca, but actually the concession fits right in to the Dover St. environment, allows DSM to ‘keep it real’ and also allows Rachel and Simon to do things they cannot in the shop – haberdashery kits, for example, providing the nuts and bolts for creative types to produce DIY style.

When Simon and Rachel first told their friends about their idea, they were less than supportive:  “’You’re going to sell buckets?’ ‘Yeah, really nice buckets.’  They thought we’d lost it.”  But Simon and Rachel persevered with their shared vision of what and how good the shop could be. Their partnership was the key to their success: “you’ve got to find the person who really agrees with you. We very rarely disagree on products…” starts Simon, “…and we do have very similar view and eye.” Rachel adds, finishing his sentence.

Labour & Wait via Unique Boutique Blog

dustpanbrush

A photo I once saw of Rachel and Simon standing outside their shop front has always reminded me of the painting ‘American Gothic’ from the 1930s– a farmer and his daughter standing outside a farmhouse, bearing a pitchfork and solemn expressions.  The painting tells a story about hard work and a simple life:  a philosophy harmonious with the LABOUR AND WAIT concept. The shop’s name was taken from a Longfellow poem entitled ‘A Psalm of Life.’  Its conclusion is a mantra to taking action:

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate ;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

 …a message this pair have taken to heart.

 

  • Chris

    Wow. very pro! makes me never want to go to Tesco’s ever again. Great photos too by the way… Hub

  • Kathy

    I am an instant fan! Loved this profile (and only wish they were located in Washington, D.C.)

  • je

    I got a great feel for Rachel and Simon from reading this post, but more importantly.. I feel drawn to go visit the shop. It’s great that they have wooden door stops, the plastic ones smell funny and always end up splitting.

  • Jamie

    I love the story behind it, the scrapbook business plan. Will be scouting for indy shops for you from now on x

  • Heather

    At last somewhere I can buy hermetically sealable jars. This shop I must visit. Thank you. I love the look, the design of the site and the photography. And I enjoyed reading your description of the shop and its owners and your encounter with them. More please.

  • steph

    sam, this is so great. i have actually been into this shop and loved it very much. however, now that i have read this blog about it and understand better their ethos, i can’t wait to return and give it a proper look that it surely deserves.

  • Markus

    Now I wish my flight back to NYC tomorrow was cancelled so I could go and check out this gorgeous-looking place. Well, one more reason to come back to London soon. Great profile & pix!

  • bez

    Now I know where to go for chunky pencils in London! Hey, how do I subscribe to your site? I tried. I clicked on the ‘All posts’ button but it just sent me to a screen with a block of text…

    • admin

      Good question re. subscription. Some folks, who read a lot of blogs or whose email doesn’t have a built-in RSS feed, choose to get a ‘reader’ so that they can view all the most recent posts from their blogs and websites in one place. Google Reader and Bloglovin’ are good ones to look at. Alternatively, if you have a mac.com or gmail, click on the “subscribe/All Posts” button at the very bottom of this blog. You should get a new screen with a condensed version of the post. There should be a column down the right hand side which has a button for “subscribe in mail.” When you click it, then every time there’s a new post online, it will pop up in your mailbox under the “RSS” section. Or…if all of this sounds incomprehensible, just bookmark my site and come back every so often!

  • Julia J

    How interesting this place looks. I’ve walked by it a few times (it’s next to a great jewellery shop, if memory serves) but stupidly never been in. I’m really looking forward to going now – the number of times I’ve wished that I could buy stuff like this… Thanks very much.

  • kim

    sam it’s as though you have read my mind, do you think it’s genetic?

  • Grainne

    Sam, it’s gorgeous! Good on you! just recently tried to buy a dustpan and brush. Gawd – bed bath and beyond just doesn’t cut it! Also am coveting the handmade dishcloths…gx

  • Shari

    Congrats Sammy! I love the first feature – great profile – enjoyable even to someone who (alas) with toddler in tow won’t be poking through shops in London this summer. A topic very close to my heart – I will be scouting for you as well. Currenly in Shanghai where everything seems to be a zara or uniqlo. BUT! I managed to find one street in the french quarter with tiny little shops the size of closets – amazing to see little sparks of creativity even in a hyper-market like Shanghai. Will be walking the streets thinking of you. xo shari

  • David McAllister

    Good article and what a lovely idea for a shop! You can almost smell the wood and leather. And string. And…steel? I think I see a Billingham camera bag hanging on the wall as well, which is nice to see. I’ve had mine for years and love it.

  • sarah

    great to see one of my favourite places in my (work) neighbourhood being championed. you captured the shop beautifully, in text and image. i loved learning about the characters behind it and hearing their story. i’m left feeling inspired to set up shop too, or at least just to shop. sx

  • Gran, Lyns and Helen

    Hi Sam, Now we know why you’ve been so busy, and it’s all been worthwhile. Very interesting, Hope it’s on the tour for GG’s next visit :) Look forward to seeing more, Well Done! xxxxx