Philip Pittack and Martin White have every reason to celebrate this new year. As the last Jewish cloth merchants in the East End, their business is thriving, with clients ranging from local hipsters to designers like Vivienne Westood and stars such as Helen Mirren and Mick Jagger.
But a year ago, the pair were facing ruin, after a devastating fire, caused by an electrical fault, threatened to shut down Crescent Trading for good.
They were called to their premises in Shoreditch on erev Yom Kippur to find only a blackened shell.
“I go cold just talking about it,” said the 70-year-old Mr Pittack, who was on his way to synagogue at the time. “I couldn’t open the door. I just fell to my knees.”
But the defiant duo would not give up the business that they had spent 35 years building up. While their warehouse was being renovated, they carried on trading, selling cloth from a shipping container. They officially reopened last month.
“We had to show people we still had a presence here,” explained Mr Pittack. “We had to start again.”
Much to the relief of their celebrity customers. Mick Jagger’s infamous pink-striped silk suit that he wore to his daughter Jade’s wedding was made from cloth bought from Crescent Trading. Costume designers from the sets of James Bond, Harry Potter and the upcoming Far from the Madding Crowd have flocked to the store.
Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren regularly visits because “she likes making her own clothes using her grandmother’s treadle machine,” Mr Pittack revealed. “She walked in two years ago and I said: ‘Hello, your majesty,’” he chuckles, recalling Dame Helen’s performance as Elizabeth II in The Queen. But she wasn’t having any of that. She has no airs or graces. She’s an absolutely delightful woman.”
Mr Pittack and Mr White, who is 82, have over a century’s combined experience in the shmutter trade.
East End-born Mr Pittack left school at 15 to join his father David selling remnants in markets. “One day my father said: ‘Come and help me schlep this cloth’ and that was it. I was a rag sorter for 10 years and here we are today.”
When he started out over half-a-century ago, the East End was still a very Jewish area. “Every other house was a Jewish home and there was so much to do. There were Jewish dances and clubs — a proper community,” he recalled.
“But they’ve all moved on and educated their children now. Everyone’s a doctor, lawyer or dentist.
“But we have to be in this area — it’s the cottage industry for textiles and there’s a lot of passing trade. It’s hard to explain but we love being around nice shmuters. We can’t do anything else. When we pop our clogs that will be it. We’re the last ones.”