Coming Full Circle: The Story of Soldier Blue
Tucked away on Toynbee Street in Shoreditch, a stone’s throw from the famous Spitalfields Market sits Soldier Blue, a small and unassuming storefront. This isn’t a space that is open to passersby but a ‘behind closed doors’ operation. That’s not to say visitors aren’t welcome—just call ahead.
Behind the single pane glass windows lies the hustling chatter of old industrial machinery; the repetition of a needle passing through fabric and the gentle hum of an old motor. The exposed brick walls are the backdrop to this other-worldly environment, decorated with vintage advertising, signs, and ornamentation.
Long oak shelves imported from Germany support the weight of steadfast workhorses which go by the names of Reiss, Singer, and Union Special. Every corner of the room is home to piles of fabric—much of it indigo-dyed—and vintage workwear neatly folded or dressing a mannequin. Sat at her work station, Steph concentrates on giving new life to an old garment through intricate stitching and patchwork, while Linda makes a coffee and Rudy admires the environment he has created.
A Blue Empire
The brainchild of Linda Rieswick and Rudy Budhdeo, Soldier Blue opened its denim doors in 2017, but the idea had been bubbling under the surface for much longer. Linda and Rudy’s store—Son of a Stag—is a short walk away, amidst the bustle of the Truman Brewery in East London. Son of a Stag is now over 15 years old and continues to gain popularity with a consumer base that strives to invest in well-made goods.
Rudy had always been passionate about denim and involved in menswear for a number of years prior to its opening, but the owner of the company he was working for at the time didn’t want him to leave the business. However, he eventually received his blessing and Son of a Stag was born.
As many readers will know, the store has a strong heritage focus but a contemporary lean. Offering one of the broadest selections of high-quality denim from across the globe, the shop itself is a lesson in indigo history. As you’re greeted by an impressive collection of original ‘Buddy Lee’ dolls and notice the Levi’s banners hanging from the ceiling, you immediately recognize that this is not ‘for show’. Rudy and Linda are firm believers that they are supplying customers with more than just a jacket or a pair of jeans. The focus is on transparency and authenticity. Where is the product made? How is it made? What is the history of the brand?
Son of a Stag has offered chain stitching and denim repair work for some time but Soldier Blue elevates this to another level. Having spent time hunting down vintage machinery and the tools needed to carry out true artisanal and authentic repair work, Linda and Rudy have curated a space which is a one-of-a-kind denim destination. Many of the vintage Lee, Headlight, Osh-Kosh and Sweet-Orr advertising is worth a small fortune in itself and took years to hunt down, whereas the famed Union Special 43200G is the ultimate denim workhorse anyone would be delighted to own.
Mr. Mac’s Soldier Blue
The store’s name is a nod to Rudy’s early experience in the denim business as a sales rep for Wrangler in the mid-1980s. After numerous visits and a lot of persistence, Rudy secured a client by the name of Mr. Mac (much to the surprise of his colleagues and other sales representatives). Mr. Mac owned Soldier Blue, a shop on the infamous King’s Road in Central London. Always dressed in triple denim, Mr. Mac was a real character and Rudy always enjoyed the ‘back and forth’ joking they exchanged. Becoming great friends over the years, Mr. Mac assured Rudy that one day he would have a Soldier Blue of his own.
A couple of decades later, Rudy was preparing to open what would become his own Soldier Blue but it was intended that the name would simply be an extension of Son of a Stag. That was until Rudy was shopping for some vintage denim at a London market and a stall-holder remarked that Mr. Mac was a relative. Always with Soldier Blue at the back of his mind, Rudy saw this as an opportunity to get Mr. Mac’s blessing to name the new store in his honor. But Mr. Mac had passed away, only one year earlier.
All the more fitting of a tribute, the stall-holder gave his blessing and knew that Mr. Mac would have been honored for Rudy to take the shop’s name. Reminiscing on how things come ‘full circle’, Rudy smiles fondly and remarks that he’d even had an intricate ‘Son of a Stag’ sign made up for the store at this point. But that didn’t matter, what really mattered was Soldier Blue.
While the store is something to behold for anyone with an interest in denim and garment construction, what you see at 38 Toynbee Street is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only a small portion of the passion, enthusiasm, and determination that Linda and Rudy possess, which has led them to fill up many a storage unit with vintage sewing machines and fabric, before embarking on their Soldier Blue journey.
Rudy himself admits he’s got an issue with the number of sewing machines he’s collected over the years. But it’s this obsession that’s forged Son of a Stag’s reputation in the denim scene. With repairs and hemming becoming more popular at the store, accompanied by an amazing inventory amassed over years of collecting, Linda and Rudy knew that Soldier Blue was the logical next step. Keeping up with demand was becoming an issue amidst the denim cave of Dray Walk and Soldier Blue allows for a slicker operation with a more comfortable work space for staff.
Repair and Recycle
Repairs and hem alterations are the most popular tasks at Soldier Blue, with a varied customer base bringing in their favorite pairs for some TLC. It’s not all selvedge and Japanese made either—just well-loved jeans that their owners cherish. But what’s all the more fascinating is the custom patchwork and embellishment that the Soldier Blue crew are pioneering.
Soldier Blue will soon offer its own line of bespoke garments which reflects the unique approach of the store, combining vintage textiles (which Linda and Rudy have sourced on their travels all over the world) with classic European workwear. This might mean a simple chore coat with some added African indigo, or a workwear jacket with a pictorial back patch cut from Japanese kimono fabric. But the result is bespoke and unique, crafted by hand.
With the current conversation on denim being focused on a ‘circular economy’, Linda and Rudy are part of the ‘repair rather than replace’ school of thought. They understand that a well-made garment can still have its life extended even when it literally falls apart at the seams. By repairing and recycling existing garments, Soldier Blue is conscious of their carbon footprint in an age of mass-production. But this isn’t vintage for the sake of it. The team’s creative freedom allows denim design to be elevated and re-presented for a customer who wants something different.
Linda and Rudy talk enthusiastically about the details of these old workhorse machines they’ve collected—from the tension to the pedals to the stitch count. Many of the machines used at Soldier Blue are over a century old and require a trained technician to service them. With many machines reconfigured over the years and parts exchanged, the pair know that specification is everything. Some Union Specials, in particular, have ‘donor’ parts which impacted the quality of the finished product. Not everyone is aware of these details and specifications, so customers can be assured that this really is the closest to a ‘period’ repair.
An Addition to the Family
When talking about the team of expert sewers he’s enlisted, Rudy is passionate about keeping the team motivated and the creative juices flowing. Steph is just one of the team who brings her skills and expertise to give these garments another life, alongside David and Yasmin.
While Rudy is immensely proud of the skills that the team possess, what is just as important is the sense of community within the organization. The team is more than just staff who push jeans on a shop floor or manually work the machines; they’re a close-knit unit which Rudy considers family. Wanting to keep the team challenged, engaged and on-track, Rudy wants them to bring ideas to the table and take initiative. After all, this is a passion project and labor of love. While Rudy knows how to run a successful business like Son of a Stag, you can tell this is something different. This is his baby.
Departing Soldier Blue and wrapping up conversation with the denim duo, there’s a lot to be excited about in the near future. Hoping to launch their repaired and re-made collection soon, the couple is also considering their own denim line when time permits. There’s also rumors of expansion, but we can’t say any more than that right now. What we do know is that Soldier Blue reflects a lot of what’s great about the denim community: something built on knowledge and dedication, with a thirst to offer the best there can be.
So if you’re looking for a chain stitched hem or unique repair to your favorite pair of jeans, head over to Soldier Blue and tell them we sent you.