Cult Shop: Labour and Wait – the store that made a £6 loo brush a must-have luxury
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“The toilet brush and bucket,” suggests Rachel Wythe-Moran.
“The enamelware – that’s been there since day one,” adds Simon Watkins.
The two friends are reeling off the products they’ve been selling at Labour and Wait since they first opened on east London’s Cheshire Street in 2000, before moving in 2010 to bigger premises on nearby Redchurch Street – a former pub. Having just opened a second London store in Marylebone, they refer affectionately to that original space off Brick Lane as “the little shop”. There, clad in traditional shopkeeper aprons and armed with a make-do-and-mend spirit, they put together a core collection of wooden brooms (£28), Duralex glass tumblers (£2), Welsh tapestry blankets (£260) and Guernsey sweaters (£125) – items that remain beloved bestsellers.
“We didn’t want to be a seasonal business. We hated the idea of starting from scratch every six months,” says Watkins, who, like Wythe-Moran, used to design menswear products, including for Liberty. “We felt that in most clothing and homeware there was too much ‘design’. What we wanted were simple, good-quality things.” Their paean to practicality has captured the millennial mood, encompassing as it does a shift towards a more sustainable, considered lifestyle.
“We’ve always thought, why can’t you just have products that stay the same?” says Wythe-Moran, who includes the washable and compostable Swedish linen dishcloths (£12) as one of her personal favourites. “If it’s a good product, it doesn’t need to change.” And some of the products have stayed exactly the same for nearly a century. The dinky milk pans (from £25) are produced by Austrian company Riess – a specialist in porcelain enamelware since 1922, which now creates exclusive colours for Labour and Wait. The bistro-style Duralex glasses (£2) have been manufactured in France for more than 90 years. The Swiss-classic Rex peeler (£4) with its pivoting blade was invented in 1947. And the striped Breton tops have been made by Armor Lux in Brittany since 1938. “A friend of mine said to me the other day, ‘You know, I bought one of those striped shirts and it has only lasted me 18 years,’” laughs Watkins.
The made-to-last, utilitarian wares have broad appeal. “It’s really something for everyone,” says Wythe-Moran. “We get all sorts of people in, which is the joy of it.” One person who popped into the original shop was Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo. Shortly afterwards, Labour and Wait was offered a concession in London’s Dover Street Market, where the latest Molly Goddard and Cecilie Bahnsen collections sit alongside balls of jute twine (£7) and tins of Huberd’s shoe grease (£15) – as well as the now standard-hipster-issue workmen’s jackets (from £120) and knitted mechanic’s hats (£50). Wythe-Moran and Watkins also create some exclusive pieces for the fashion store; in 2019, the Guernsey sweater, cotton drill pinafore dress, leather tool case, indoor watering can and hurricane lamp were all produced in Kawakubo’s signature hue: black.
This partnership underlines an affinity between Labour and Wait and Japan. “There are a lot more outlets for Labour and Wait in Japan than there are in the UK,” says Watkins. “There’s a standalone store in Tokyo and concessions across the country.” In the UK, their second London space has just opened. “It’s taken us a long time to come around to this,” says Watkins. “This is our 21st year. As you can see, we believe in doing things slowly.” It’s been even slower than planned – a year of delays meant they had to heed the words of 19th- century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, after which the shop is named: “Learn to labour and to wait.”
The new building on Dorset Street is “very different” from the green-tiled pub they occupy in east London. It is, however, equally characterful, its red bricks and classical columns dating to around 1900. Inside, the products will predominantly be the same, while fittings and fixtures adhere to “established Labour and Wait codes: galvanised metal, pegboard, steel and a mixture of old and new furniture”. Like the Redchurch Street shop – which rubs shoulders with Shoreditch House, hotel-meets-restaurant Boundary London, and the APC and Aesop boutiques – the new W1 location is a hub of independent businesses, from the 18th-century Barley Mow boozer to Trunk Clothiers on neighbouring Chiltern Street. Having delayed the new opening for a year, they are understandably keen for this bricks-and-mortar scene to spring into life.
“Luckily, our website was very good and took us through that difficult period,” says Watkins, “but we’ve always been adamant about having a real shop. The things we sell, you need to touch them and see the quality.”
“We like that contact with the customer too,” adds Wythe-Moran. And with Chiltern Firehouse nearby, who knows who might stop by for a loo brush? Not that they’ll tell you who. “We don’t like to name-drop,” says Watkins. “It’s not really our style.”