Founder of tailoring dynasty whose suits were fit for reggae stars
10 November, 2017 — By Joe Cooper
James Allen: Invitations to embassy parties
JAMES Allen, who opened England’s first black tailoring shop in Finsbury Park, has left behind a proud legacy with his death at the age of 93.
He learned the trade from his future mother-in-law on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in the late 1930s. The fourth generation of his family is now joining the trade.
Born in 1924, James left school at 14. He learnt tailoring from Missy Khora, a woman who made garments for the island’s nobility. There he met her daughter and his future wife, Mary.
The young couple moved to the island of Curacao in 1950 with their two young children. James worked on an oil refinery doing welding during the day. He would then join Mary to work on their tailoring late into the night.
The couple married in 1951, both making their own outfits, and three more children followed.
Inspired by English fabrics and designs, which he was already incorporating into his work, James decided to move the family to England, where he would combine knowledge passed down the generations with the latest modern designs.
They ended up at 228 Blackstock Road, where the family business, J Allen and Sons, opened in 1960, with a full suit costing £20.
“Life was tough at first,” said James’s son Joe, who owns a tailoring business in Cross Street, Islington. “People would come into the shop and ask my father and he would be saying: ‘I am the tailor!’”
James and Mary’s brood eventually grew to nine. With such a large family, children were expected to pitch in and support the business.
For the children coming home from Highbury Grove School, it would be a case of homework first and then teaching women from the area to sew for the rest of the evening.
Inheriting his father’s strong work ethic, the young Joe would make extra money by doing tailoring for his classmates.
The family business catered for everyone from the local Irish community to High Commissioners from the Caribbean islands and reggae singer John Holt. Invites to embassy parties where he mixed with dignitaries followed and the Allen name grew.
The council wanted to demolish the building in 1978, so the Allens moved to Cross Street, where Joe’s business remains to this day.
Tailoring runs in the family. Son Charlie is also a designer; a daughter, Sharon, is a dressmaker; and Johnny is head of bespoke tailoring at Kilgour, of Savile Row.
Others took different paths. Junie is a chef, Ethlyn a retired cancer researcher, Rolston an accountant and Maureen a special needs teacher. Youngest son Roger is an architect.
Joe, who started his own business in 1985, has created garments for Madness, Lulu and the Eurythmics, as well as royalty.
His daughters, Jade and Jillian, have joined the family trade, with Jade creating her own label, Missy Khora, in honour of her great-grandmother.