Hand-embroidering pieces for clients ranging from members of the Royal family to Stella McCartney and Burberry, Hand & Lock is couture’s best-kept secret, says fashion historian Dr Kate Strasdin
Tucked away in a modest building on Margaret Street in London, only a step from the bustle of Oxford Circus, sits a bespoke fashion and textile manufacturer that has been trading in the city since 1767. It has counted among its clients members of the Royal family, fashion designers from Norman Hartnell and Catherine Walker to Hardy Amies and, more recently, has collaborated on projects with Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Chanel. Far from being a household name, however, it has plied its trade on the periphery of the fashion world – the highly skilled trade of couture embroidery. The company is Hand & Lock.
In 1767 a Huguenot refugee named M. Hand added ‘Embroidery’ to his existing service as a ‘Gold Laceman’ He expanded over the course of the century until the firm of M. Hand was supplying royalty and the aristocracy of Great Britain.
When the talented designer Stanley Lock took over the embroidery firm of C E Phipps and Co, he was set to develop a company that, by 1971 had been awarded a Royal Warrant for his services to the monarchy. In 2001 the two firms merged bringing together an astonishing embroidery heritage under one roof.
Couture and bespoke embroidery is a little known art. Emerging first from the ceremonial requirements of the court and the military, heavy and intricate goldwork became an intrinsic part of ceremonial roles: insignias, badges of honour, royal crests and heraldic motifs were couched in gold onto uniforms, flags and robes. In the middle of the 19th century, fashion houses such as Worth began to apply intricate hand-embroidered motifs to their garments. Rather than crafting them at great expense in-house, however, they turned to the great embroidery ateliers that filled the city. While these early fashion houses grew into the great institution of Haute Couture, the studios that provided them with their most dazzling embellishments remained largely unknown.
To visit Hand & Lock now is to step into a world of glittering, hand-crafted opulence. The walls of its small waiting room are covered in copies of grateful letters from celebrated clients, photographs and samples of their finest garments and row upon row of sample books, sequins and shaded threads. Whether the commission is the heavily embroidered tabard that adorned the Queen’s Gloriana barge during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations or the embellishment for a velvet Louis Vuitton slipper, the skill of the couture embroiderer weaves itself into the fabric. The company specialises in elaborate goldwork, silkwork and the art of tambour beading. Like the embroidery studios of old, however, theirs is a little known art.
Hardy Amies summed up the predicament of the couture embroiderer in a letter he wrote to Mr Lock from a reception at Versailles in 1972. Amies was there as dressmaker to the Queen and in the letter he congratulated Mr Lock for the quality of his embroidery, which was adorning the Queen’s dress as she made her way through the Reception (he also took the opportunity to reassure Mr Lock that the French President’s wife was wearing ‘Not quite suitable red embroidery by Dior’). He went on to remark: “It is a shame you can’t get more mention in the press…”
It was a disingenuous comment for Amies never publicised his working relationship with the embroidery firm. He was not alone, however. Editorials generally only credited the garment’s designer and not the company responsible for its skilled execution and this is a trend that persists today. There are signs of change. An exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath, A Life in Fashion – Bellville Sassoon Lorcan Mullany, considers an array of socially significant garments from the collection of David Sassoon. The curators have taken the unusual step of crediting S. Lock for the embroidery on each piece, acknowledging the collaborative nature of its creation.
Moving into the 21st century, Hand & Lock have positioned themselves both as heritage and couture embroiderer and as educator. They continue to carry out their exquisite hand-embroidered commissions for a spectrum of clients as diverse as the Royal Household and Stella McCartney. Annually, the Hand & Lock Prize is awarded in two categories – an open competition and a student award – raising the profile of hand embroidery to a wider audience. They offer regular courses for those interested in learning some of the age-old skills. With an extensive archive celebrating their heritage, Hand & Lock have much to be proud of. For now, however, they remain couture’s best-kept secret.
Dr Kate Strasdin is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion History at Falmouth University. She is Deputy Curator of the Totnes Fashion and Textile Museum and is a freelance writer and lecturer on many aspects of dress history
Images by Saoirse Crean (saoirsecrean.com)