From the outside, the ageing brick building on a North London industrial estate looks as far removed from the glamour, pomp and pageantry of the coronation as it’s possible to get. But the 65 men and women inside have a pivotal role to play in its success. Some might say the event couldn’t go ahead without them.
This is Kashket & Partners, a family-run business that makes the most iconic uniforms in the world, from the Tower of London Beefeaters’ coats to the red tunics of the Buckingham Palace King’s Guards – even Prince William and Prince Harry’s wedding outfits. Founded in the 1950s, Kashket & Partners also owns Firmin & Sons, purveyors of metalwork for military clothing since 1655.
And in the run-up to King Charles III’s coronation next Saturday, they’re busy preparing 8,000 spectacular individual garments.
The factory opens at 5.30am. We’re met bright and early by Nathan, 25, the impeccably dressed youngest Kashket, who has worked here since he was 16. He walks me past the fitting room, with its Union Jack rug, leather Chesterfield sofa and wall-to-wall fabric sample books, to meet his family in the boardroom.
Here hang royal warrants (including King George III from 1796 and Queen Victoria from 1837) and a letter from Catherine, Princess of Wales, thanking the family for making her pageboys’ outfits.
This is Kashket & Partners, a family-run business that makes the most iconic uniforms in the world
‘Growing up, when people asked what my parents did, I’d simply say, ‘We make clothes’.’ Only when I started working here did I realise just what an amazing business it is,’ says Nathan.
The family’s tailoring origins date back to Nathan’s great-grandfather Alfred, who made felt hats for Tsar Nicholas II in Russia before moving to London in the 1920s.
Alfred’s son Bernard, now 87, officially retired 20 years ago, but still visits the workshop on Fridays, while his son Russell, 60, the current boss and master tailor, personally makes uniforms for the royal family. ‘Dad started here aged 14. There’s nothing he can’t do, from basic skills to the high-end stuff,’ explains Nathan.
With nine different monarchs on their books and customers in more than 45 countries, Nathan’s mother Cheryl, 55, handles the international side of the business, negotiating contracts and dealing with military and ceremonial clients worldwide.
In the UK, as well as making bespoke uniforms in the London workshop, Kashket & Partners has tailors at barracks across the country, with a dedicated service providing uniforms for young officers passing out of Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, while also making uniforms for the RAF, Royal Navy and Royal Marines
at a larger factory in Leeds. And because Firmin & Sons specialises in buttons, badges, armour and swords, the family firm delivers every part of the outfit, including helmets and spurs.
While there are new items to be made for the coronation, much of the Kashkets’ work is about changing cyphers – the sovereign’s monogram – from
EIIR (Elizabeth II Regina) to CIIIR (Charles III Rex) on thousands of uniforms, across collars and belts, buttons and cap badges.
The workshop appears to be organised chaos, with racks of paper patterns, rolls of crimson fabric, tunics, collars and trousers in various stages of completion, plus bobbins of thread and dressmakers’ scissors across every surface. There’s a busy hum, a clacking and whirring of sewing machines, the whoosh of steam presses and an overwhelming sense of purpose. Everyone knows exactly what they are doing.
‘It’s not a sweatshop – we want people to love their jobs,’ says Cheryl. ‘That’s the secret to getting things done.’
They’re busy preparing 8,000 spectacular garments for the coronation
Making a bespoke uniform starts on the cutting table, where 26 different measurements per client are translated into paper patterns to be outlined on fabric with chalk then cut out by hand.
These pieces are then labelled (to keep track of who they’re for) and sewn together for a personal fitting where they’re marked up, taken apart again, recut and sewn back together so the finished item fits like a glove. Any badges, cyphers and gold details are sewn on by hand or machine. The embroidered feathers and crowns are like tiny works of art.
‘We’d be nothing without our amazing team,’ says Nathan, giving us a tour. ‘We find the best people and have around 20 nationalities here, with staff originally from Vietnam, Ukraine, Latvia, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka and Turkey. It’s such detailed and complex work, they have to be special to manage the speed and quality required. Everyone is like a professional chef doing five things at once; making it look easy.’
To be the best in the business takes a lifetime of training, and many – for example, Hati, 58, assembling trousers, or Jazz, 65, sewing backslashes for jackets (the flaps at the back) – have been here more than two decades, while the head of trouser production, Albert, 64, has been working for Kashket for 35 years and Lloyd, 65, operating a steam press, came back from retirement as he missed his job.
Kashket & Partners’ production manager Olga Snigur with (centre) Russell Kashket and (right) head cutter Timmy Ha
‘We’ll keep people for as long as they want to be here,’ says Nathan. ‘They’re not just amazing workers, they have huge hearts, and we try hard to support them.Everyone here feels like family.’
Having said that, the company is investing in the future. ‘We do take on apprentices – we can’t let these skills die out,’ explains Russell’s brother Marlon, 56, a master tailor with 40-plus years’ experience, who began helping out aged ten. ‘I keep a few secrets to myself, but everything is written down, to pass on if needed.’
In recent weeks, Russell has held a meeting, ‘Operation Orb’ (the coronation codename), every morning at 7am. ‘I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life,’ he says with a smile.
‘I was fortunate to have met our late Majesty [the Queen] and also Prince Philip, who was charming and intelligent. I am privileged to have worked for the monarchy – they all have a keen eye for attention to detail and really understand their uniforms.’
Russell is decidedly bushy-tailed considering he was texting Malaysia at 4am. ‘I have no intention of ever retiring,’ he says. ‘You don’t do this for the money – it’s about passion.’ He holds up a drum major’s sash with intricate golden embroidery that took four weeks to make. ‘When I look at this, I see beauty. Every little bit is proper.’
Cheryl met Russell as a teenager, and now regularly travels to the Middle East for work. ‘I started doing small things then slowly got sucked in!’
Working with her husband isn’t a problem. ‘We’re a team. We may argue, but I bow to his knowledge. He was born to do this, as was Nathan. I’m more about the customers, making people happy, as it means we’ve lasted another generation.’
The work is mostly government contracts, so the family can’t reveal how much a ceremonial uniform costs, but they do offer bespoke tailoring to select clients, from £2,500 for a suit, which seems remarkably good value considering that includes free alterations for life. ‘We’ll always look after you, as we want your children to come to us, for our children to look after,’ says Cheryl.
From the workshop staff to the soldiers they dress, all are incredibly proud.
‘It’s an honourto play a part in making that happen,’ says Cheryl. ‘And when we’re at home watching the coronation on television, it’ll be incredibly exciting to spot the uniforms and think, ‘We did that!’
For the first time the family has let cameras into the workshop for a BBC documentary, Coronation Tailors: Fit For a King. ‘We’ve been described as the country’s best-kept secret, but it’s time people knew about the work we do here,’ says Cheryl. ‘We’re making history.’
Coronation Tailors: Fit For a King will be on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday 3 May
Leave a Reply