I am often asked, 27 years on, could Gerardine and I start our careers today in a similar way to how we started out. In 1981 whist still in our teens, Gerardine and I emptied our wardrobes onto Camden Market on a Saturday morning, the rent was £6 and we took just over a £100. We returned the next morning, coughed up our £6, took a similar amount and realised that people liked our take on fashion. Gerardine, despite having no formal training, then was able to experiment with her dress making skills and open a unit in that hotbed of creativity Kensington Market. For £18 a week Gerardine was able to get direct feedback from the consumer, sit behind her sewing machine and hone her skills and Red or Dead was born. Soon after we opened stalls within Affleck’s Palace, and The Royal Exchange in Manchester and open little shops in Soho. In the mid 80’s we opened a store on Neal St in Covent Garden with a weekly rent of £60.
Could our kids do some similar today? They have got something that we didn’t have, the internet, but their opportunities to experiment at face to face retail are limited and our towns and cities are becoming worse for this. As the pension funds and PLC’s buy up the UK’s Try getting a shop on Neal St for less than £2000 per week and without having massive backing and a business track history. Kensington Market has long gone, as has Hyper Hyper in London, Quiggins in Liverpool and unless the kind of fight that has just been put up to save Affleck’s Palace, The Corn Exchange in Leeds is just about to be turned over to a cheesy food court. (Zurich, the insurance company that manages the building, seem to be ignoring the protests and pleas of over 15 thousand for the building to remain an independent traders venue… shame on you Zurich).
Yes, the land value of these places might be higher if occupied by a chain like Next, or some bloody buy to let flats but when we lose the serendipity and entrepreneurial experimentation of these places we lose so much, and our towns and cities go further down the clone town route.
The reason The Hemingways travel to shop in cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm and Vancouver is to experience retailing and expression of ideas that is becoming increasing rare in the UK. When I go to Manchester, Harvey Nicks holds nothing for me, but rather, I head straight to the Northern Quarter, where independent music stores, great vintage shops, cool cafes and restaurants can survive because of the affordable rents.
And now that government and industry is waking up to the value of creativity to the UK economy, and the fact that the creative sector is second only to the service sector with an annual value of £61 billion, surely its time to make sure that there are places where the 60, 000 or so annual creative graduates can have a go. Creativity needs places to “seed” and to “flower”.
Councils have to wake up to the fact that “clone towns” is not just a media term and that “Crap Towns” is not just a witty series of books but a serious comment on why some places in the UK are driving creativity out.