Canadian artist and fashion designer Michelle Lowe-Holder talks about moving to Whitechapel, how the area has influenced her art and becoming part of the community.
Michelle Lowe-Holder, 64, is a Canadian artist and fashion designer who moved to Whitechapel in 2000. She lives with her son, 23, in a quaint Victorian house at the heart of Whitechapel. Born in Canada, she spent twenty-five years in New York before moving here.
We caught up in her studio, tucked away in the corner of her house. It is filled with an eclectic mix of her designs, materials and equipment. Every nook and cranny of her studio has something crammed into it. She reassures me that there is a method to the madness.
We chatted about the East End’s fashion industry heritage, becoming part of the local community by joining the Whitechapel Resident’s Committee, the art she has made with nitrous oxide canisters and why you should consider going on the Jack the Ripper tour.
What brought you to Whitechapel?
‘I became aware of Whitechapel because there were great [textile] factories in the area.
Each wave of people that has come here has been linked to the fashion industry or to the textile industry. For example, the Huguenots were silk weavers. And then you have the same thing with the Jewish wave. They were amazing tailors and great craftspeople. And then you had the Bangladeshi wave, they were very good leather makers.
And so working in leather and in sewing, I got to know this area, many, many years before we even moved in.’
Is that tradition still strong?
‘No, a lot of it has left. It has gone to Eastern Europe. Some of it is [still] out in Stratford and in Bow, some in Bethnal Green.
The land became too valuable for factory buildings, so most of them have gone, particularly the leather factories that I was working with when I first arrived here.’
What was it like moving to Whitechapel from New York?
‘There were so many changes. New York is the 24-hour city. And when I arrived here, you still didn’t even have shops that were open late. And, of course, [New York] has amazing nightlife and all the rest of it. It was pretty fun.
But I had a different lifestyle here anyway. I became a mother and I set up a business. It was a bit more of a mature lifestyle.’
When did you feel like this was home?
‘I joined the Whitechapel Resident’s Committee five years ago. They were looking a new Chairperson to volunteer their time. In the past five years doing that has helped me feel like I am part of the area.
My concern was that I’m a minority here. I don’t go to the Mosque, I’m not of the Islamic faith. So I was worried that having someone who couldn’t reach people in the Mosque was going to be a negative rather than a positive.
I did it, and it’s been really positive. What’s happened is by word of mouth and our meetings are resident diverse and totally inclusive.
The meetings focus each time on four areas for police to concentrate on – where residents have come forward to bring to light certain concerning issues and anti-social behaviour. The results have been closures of drug dealing locations and arrests.’
What brings these diverse groups together?
‘The reality is, no matter what your religion or your background, most people get frustrated with the area, but also really want to want to make it better. It has been great to see a lot more people come and a lot more people be involved.
I’m really thankful for the people that keep coming. They believe in it. And now we seem to be gaining a little bit more confidence in the community.’
Has Whitechapel influenced your art?
Oh incredibly. You are your environment. This place was nitrous oxide city. You would go out and it’d be littering the street. So I started collecting in 2015. I would go out every day on my bike. In 2018 I did an exhibition at London Design Week, between 2020 and 2023 I created a jewellery collection using the canisters and I founded the ‘Toss Your Nos’ project with the ‘Nos Box’ recycling point through a grant from Tower Hamlets.
I made a sculpture called ‘Swarm’ in 2018 which really showed the volume of nitrous oxide waste. It went all the way up to the ceiling. People in the West End didn’t know what it was. It almost didn’t relate to them. It’s a real shame I didn’t have it in the East End, because East End people know [about nitrous oxide canisters].’
What was it about the canisters that caught your eye?
‘Aren’t they beautiful? And they’re a waste. They’re made in Taiwan, they’re shipped, so imagine the carbon footprint surrounding these things for a twenty-second high?
Then people throw them out. What is wrong with our society that we believe everything is so disposable?’
Do you see yourself living here in the future?
‘That’s a good question. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a garden. In Canada people build outwards because they have the space. We used to say the sky is bigger in Canada.
But the big cities have something special, don’t they? London is addictive.’
Does your son feel Canadian? And was that important to you?
‘Absolutely. Because it’s a different perspective. He went to a camp that was on an island in Georgian Bay and spent time with my parents in Canada every summer until covid. It’s completely different to here. There are no people. It’s a very different lifestyle.’
What is Whitechapel’s best kept secret?
‘I tell you what’s weird that I did recently, the Jack the Ripper tour.
It was fascinating. I mean, I could have probably done without the pictures of the deaths. But in terms of giving a sense of what Whitechapel was like before, and why it has some of the problems that seem to have permeated through time, it’s fascinating.’
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy This is Home: Sam Valiant, second-generation Bengali in Bow.
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