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Archive for May, 2013

It was the turn of the 80s and me and my wife Gerardine were new to London from Lancashire, just out of our teens. We were having fun – records, clothes, nightclubs – and we just fell into our business all thanks to a market. It showed us for the first time you could make money from fashion.

I had blown the rent on my band. To raise some more, we hired a stall at a new market in Camden, North West London, that I’d read about in Time Out. It just up from the Electric Ballroom and only £6 to rent a pitch, which wasn’t a lot of money even then. You didn’t have to be wealthy, or go to the bank with a business plan to get a loan. You could just have a go.

Gerardine sold some of the clothes she’d made for herself. I had always had a good eye for clothes and so I sold some of my second hand ones. On the Saturday we made £100. We came back the next day and took £180. Within a year we had 16 stalls and were selling second-hand clothing and footwear that we sourced from all over the country and abroad.

Then a few months later, we started up another in Kensington Market in West London. It was youth culture heaven, full of tattoo artists, hairdressers and people with sewing machines selling the clothes they were busy making. We were selling Gerardine’s designs, made with fabric she’d bought on Blackburn Market. They didn’t even have a label in them.

Within a month of her being there a buyer from Macy’s in New York came along to the market for a look round and liked Gerardine’s designs so much that she placed an order with us. Our business Red or Dead was born. Without Kensington Market, that Macy’s buyer would never have found us. She’d come to attend London Fashion Week at Olympia, but there was no way in 1982 that London Fashion Week was on our horizon.

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Red or Dead grew into a worldwide brand, and we went on to do 21 consecutive seasons on the catwalk at London Fashion Week. We trace it all back to that first market stall. Gerardine and I can see how starting out in a market taught us very quickly so much that it might have taken years for us to learn at college. Some of the lessons were simple, such as get their early, so you can get the best pitch. Others become second nature.

We learnt what good design was, what was rubbish and by being on a stall and seeing the whites of customers’ eyes. If they said they’d leave it and come back later, we soon learnt whether the design could be improved. And there’s no better place than a market to learn how to sell. In your quiet moments, you get to chat to other stallholders, find out where they get their stock from, what works for their customers.

It is all very different from starting out on the internet as many designers do now. The internet is great, don’t get me wrong, but be multi-platform and experiment with a market stall as well. It gives you that opportunity for what you’ve made to be touched and felt by customers, for them to meet you and like you.

We carried on running our market stalls until 1990, adding other outlets at Afflecks Palace in Manchester, Quiggins in Liverpool and the Corn Exchange in Leeds, but eventually the expansion of Red or Dead was taking up too much of our energy. We let them go. Since then Kensington Market has become PC World and Camden today is very different. These things go in cycles.

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In London, though, there are still some exciting, diverse markets, and Afflecks is still going strong in Manchester but outside the major cities and posh market towns, too often markets have become associated with selling broken biscuit assortments and mismatched slippers. They don’t need to be like that. It is like so many public events. There are good ones and bad ones.

What makes a good one is careful curatorship. So the reason Glastonbury is such a successful music festival is that they don’t just open up a stage and put anyone on it. They curate it so there is a narrative. And the same has to be true of a market. You can’t just let anybody set up. The local council, or whoever is in charge, has to know their onions and have a clear idea about who they want to attract and what balance of products they are aiming to achieve

There are changes afoot today that are encouraging that return to markets. Take the growing interest in artisan or organically produced food. That is prompting the rise of farmers’ markets. There is plenty to build on.

In the end the attraction of a market is human interaction. People like to get together. There is only so much solitude, sitting at our computer screens, which most of us can take. Historically town centres offered us that chance. It was in many ways what they were designed for – a big coming together. We may go for shopping, or we may just go to look, eye people up, judge them even. That is never going to change. You can’t do it virtually.

A well-curated market can be at the very heart of that human getting together. I do a lot of work now at London’s Southbank Centre I remember it, from the late 70s , as a desolate place, but now it has been transformed into an all year round vibrant and really successful public place, a very modern “marketplace” where people come together to eat, drink, take in the arts, culture, views.

Part of that is down to real generosity – there’s free Wi-Fi, and you can take your packed lunch and eat it in the Royal Festival Hall. There’s also a brilliantly curated and diverse arts and entertainment programme and there are market stalls, selling one-offs. Outside of the food retailers there’s barely any traditional retail at all. The location next to the River Thames helps, of course, but it does show that you don’t need a Topshop or chain store to pull people in to a market.

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Thinking back, Gerardine and I were lucky. It isn’t as easy to get going from a market stall any more. By 1990, when we left, we were paying around £100 at Camden for our stalls. Today I’m told their equivalent would cost £1760. But there are still places where a market stall is a cost-effective way of getting what you are making in front of people. Give it a go. We did and look what happened.

Click HERE to read the published article in The Telegraph.

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The Internet has and is changing the world. We can’t go back, nor would most of us want to. When you fancy watching a film and that sofa is feeling lovely under your backside then a trip to what’s left of Blockbuster or the like may not be that enticing. Even when your old telly starts to go on the blink and it’s time to invest in one of those new fangled HD, 3D, LED models, reading recommendations from Amazon reviewers can quickly inform you which brands and products are cutting the mustard and where the best value can be found. This is progress. We as consumers are more in control than we have ever been. 

The Internet, through the likes of Facebook and Instagram is also emphasising what social creatures we are – we enjoy chatting (which may start online) and meeting fellow humans. The paradox however is that despite the march of social media, humans continue to demonstrate that they enjoy the company of other humans and the benefits to life offered by living in close proximity to other humans. Since 2008 more people worldwide live in towns and cities than in rural areas, and by 2030 this is predicted to be 6 out of 10, rising to 7 in 10 by 2050 (WHO, 2013).

There is nothing surprising about this. The Roman Forum was a marketplace, but also a place for political exchange, public speaking, procession and commercial affairs – operating as the hub of Roman public life. This was a place where the public would flock to enjoy architecture and art, to discuss new thinking or to size up a potential lover – a place of social and cultural exchange as well as monetary and goods exchange . Herein lies the clue to the future of our high streets, suburban and town centres. They do not have to be thought of as just places to buy goods, but rather as social places where we can celebrate everything that is great about human interaction – from celebrating our ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness, to our desire for friendship and discussion. 

Most of us love people watching; we get a buzz from other human beings. I don’t believe we want to spend most of our non-working lives online, especially as we are already spending more and more of our working lives in front of a screen. Design can play a significant role here. We need cafés, bars and restaurants to interact with the streets (we only have to look at Parisian streets and the way that cafés allow their customers to watch the world go by to see how simple this is). We need streets and districts with sufficient serendipity to encourage people to explore what is round the next corner, taking inspiration from the principles and outcomes of New York City’s “Fit and Active Cities” report that looked at encouraging people to explore their local environs in a bid to build fitness into an everyday routine (City of New York, 2010).

We need streets that are pleasing on the eye, where road signs, traffic lights and barriers don’t dehumanize, and where shop fronts and shop signs are attractive, high quality, cohesive, yet unique. We need forward thinking, design savvy, entrepreneurs who understand modern marketing and branding and who understand the value of taking pride in the way shop premises and their content can lift the spirit of the whole neighbourhood. We need the civic generosity that has so excited the public with the Ping! London table tennis tables in the streets initiative, and the Sing London Street Pianos Project. And we need street furniture and lighting that encourages us to linger longer.

Over the past few years “arts-led regeneration” or “culture-led regeneration” have become buzz concepts internationally. Most of the parts of cities that I find exciting were once down-at-heel and have since been made exciting by an effective combination of creative and resourceful thinking rather than just having money thrown at them.

In the 1980s, when we manufactured some of our Red or Dead products just off of Brick Lane in East London, my partner Gerardine and I marveled at those stunning old merchants’ houses that we coveted. And we were not surprised when intrepid artists, designers and musicians were started moving into the area (well it was very cheap!) to establish their studios and start to work and sleep there leading to the “Rise of the East“. Whilst not everyone is a fan of these changes to areas and some use the term “gentrification” in a disparaging way, there can no doubt the increase in takings for the Bengali restaurateurs and the increase in employment opportunities for the community. London has a wonderful history of design-led uplifts – from Soho and Notting Hill to Kensal Rise and Shoreditch – and this should be celebrated.

On our trips to New York over the past 30 years we have seen the same happen to Soho, the Meat Packing District, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and now once described by some media as “no-go”, Harlem. All of these have been brought back to life by, dare I say it, becoming cool. And it is the creative section of society, who by having opened enticing cafés and delis or turning unloved spaces into mini urban farms, have led the reassessment and regeneration of these parts of the city, helping them to become the successes and “must visit” places that they are today.

Vancouver is one of the cities that in my opinon gets it right. Rather than relying on its natural beauty for livability, its commitment to the “green” agenda and its mix of independent cafés, second-hand vinyl record stores and vintage clothes stores right next to the big brands gives the city an ambience British cities have lost due to real estate speculation, and big-bang regeneration efforts amongst other factors. Copenhagen is also an interesting example of a city that has mainatained a vibrant mix of town centre uses. There are streets full of quirky start-up businesses next to chain stores. Urban designers such as Jan Gehl have ensured the city is a joy to walk around and cars are relegated to fourth place behind walking, cylcing and public transport. 

Closer to home and on a smaller scale, it is creativity that is encouraging struggling seaside towns like Margate to dream. There the new art gallery, Turner Contemporary is helping to give confidence to local designers, makers and independent retailers and encouraging them to bring the lovely buildings of the Old Town back to vibrant life.

Not everywhere can benefit from the constant input of a creative community and this is where good planning comes in. If we want workable new-style high streets, ones that don’t just rely on us all filling our wardrobes and homes with things we probably don’t need, we need good town centre planning. The cornerstone of this is common sense. Most of us want places that give us everything we need to fulfill our lives. Our high streets, and suburban or town centres have to be places that include or are adjacent to decent affordable homes and places we can walk, cycle or take easy public transport to employment. 

The reason why Hackney is rising is because it is increasingly offering choice. The kebab shops now sit along side serendipitous cafés and retailers that offer individuality and craft. And long-term maybe the local retailers and artists and designers can link up and together ensure that their high streets and centres can have a vibrant future. 

The Design Council and others are proving the value of creative input into business and with the creative industries being worth almost £50 billion to the UK economy, making it the second largest driver of the UK economy (Design Council, 2007; DCMS, 2011) then perhaps projects like the New Windows on Willesden Green, where artists and designers worked with independent retailers to create some stunning window displays points towards the future (See Case Study Section).

References 

City of New York (2010) Active Design Guidelines. Promoting physical activity and health in design. New York: City of New York.

Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) (2011) Creative industries economic estimates, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/creative-industries-economic-estimates.

Design Council (2007) The Value of Design Factfinder Report, http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/publications/value-of-design-factfinder/.

World Health Orgnasation (WHO) (2013) Urban population growth, http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/index.html.

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In June 2009, writing in Sublime Magazine I called for a creative insurgency, a call for the creative community to show politicians and councils how we can benefit society and help the economy along (you can read a version here).

In the 90s during our Red or Dead days, Gerardine, I and the team regularly visited New York we witnessed creative pioneers colonise parts of the Lower East Side and of course SoHo and the Meat Packing District, only to be out priced pretty quickly as landlords did the deals with multinational brands, retail brands and restaurateurs.

Last month we booked into an airbandb in New York for a long weekend. Having heard so much about how Brooklyn had changed over the past couple of decades (so much so that the world’s most famous footballer named one of his sons after it!) we opted to stay in Brooklyn. There has been a lot written about Williamsburg over the past few years and some of it pretty cynical, especially with the word “hipster” becoming a derogatory term by some overly cynical types. We did raise our eyebrows when in the first vintage shop that we went in and asked a question about the ferry over to Manhattan the reply from a young shop owner was “I don’t really know much about that, we never go over to Manhattan there is everything we need here in Brooklyn”. Another couple of days later we understood where she was coming from. Williamsburg is an example of where young creative types have taken a once, unloved, once low value area of a city and made it their own. The place is a hive of indie cafe’s and stores all set in a distinctly higgledy piggledy collection of buildings, streets and open spaces. It’s human in scale, serendipitous, vibrant and a credit to those, mainly youthful, urban pioneers who have proved yet again that it doesn’t need massive government intervention, pension funds, investment by multinationals and chains to create vibrant and stimulating parts of our towns and cities. The owner of that vintage shop did have a point, she and the small army that have joined the exodus from Manhattan have created an antidote to corporate, sometimes overpowering, New York and apart from a few not to be missed things in Manhattan (is The High Line the greatest piece of urban landscaping/the finest example of upcycling in the world?) then Brooklyn can provide everything you need.

Brooklyn has various areas all at different stages in their upward cycle. The most developed is possibly DUMBO (down under Manhattan and Brooklyn overpass), a place of great urban eye candy, with evocative old warehouses vying with those enormous bridges for attention. Here corporate New York has latterly come to the party, but the creative roots of DUMBO set the tone and the food markets, architectural and landscape interventions are most definitely responding to the areas rediscovery by artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs.

Bushwick in Brooklyn is at the early stages of colonisation. This industrial area with the odd stunning street of old townhouses makes for an eerie part of town. The quirkiness of faded beauty set amongst modern industrial dross fits a creative aesthetic and in part you can see the long suffering indigenous residents coming to the party by working harder to bring their cafe’s and bars into the modern world and the incoming population are out in the streets supporting them. If this is gentrification then bring it on.

This creative insurgency that through “early adopters “ (I don’t like the term but it does the descriptive job!) brings down at heel places a new social and financial vibrancy is a worldwide phenomenon from the feted ones like the Mitte District in Berlin to the various eastern enclaves that have seen the axis of influence shift in London to the less feted ones like Baker St in Middlesbrough, yes Middlesbrough.

This week I was introduced to Middlesbrough’s Baker St and came away with the view that the Williamsburg model can work in much smaller places. Middlesbrough is a relatively small town that is clearly attempting to punch above its weight creatively. From the art institution MIMA to the wonderful work of the university, the town is attempting to forge a creative future. Baker St is a slightly, but only slightly “off the beaten track “ street of terrace houses that during the last century had largely been taken over by accountants and lawyers to create a dedicated district. As this sector consolidated and shifted a couple of pioneering young start ups moved in and put a marker in the ground. Some years later, to their credit, the council has started to support Baker Street and its community and as long as they carry on with their support and as long as the retailers stick it out and a few more buildings are colonised. Most importantly, if the local media and population start to support Baker Street more, then this little low rise street can have an enormous impact on the outside perception of Middlesbrough (as well as providing a welcome antidote to the homogenous chains).

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Baker St in Middlesbrough – a residential town centre street that has become the beating creative, entrepreneurial heart of the town.

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Chilli Cake brings a touch of the Seattle cafe scene to Middlesbrough complete with vegan options.

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A hairdressers in the “front room” of a house on Baker St.

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It’s now 13 years since I wrote that infamous article about mass housing in the Independent and coined the phrase “The Wimpeyfication and Barratification of Britain”. My tirade about how ill conceived some of Britain’s housing developments were taken up by Newsnight. My new found voice about urban design was given an airing and my views somewhat supported by Jeremy Paxman.

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Peter Johnson, the then Chairman of Wimpey Homes (now Taylor Wimpey) agreed with some of my comments and we ended up leading the vision on a 750 plus homes development on a long term unused brownfield site in Dunston, a largely unloved, but brilliantly located part of Gateshead.

In the 24 month design period before work started, and during land reclamation period, Gerardine and I immersed ourselves in urban design and toured the world looking at great and not so great examples. The inspiration we found in northern Europe and the Nordic countries, the urban designers Klas Tham (Western Harbour Malmo) and Jan Gehl (Copenhagen) we met, and the “human” developments like Vauban in Freiberg and Almere in the Netherlands that inspired us to put landscape, play and homezone streets ahead of architecture proved to be a stimulating education.

Our own experience of where we grew up in affordable housing in Lancashire and the experience of the team that was assembled to deliver the Staiths with us. Mark and Jane Massey from IDP, the Glen Kemp team (who had worked on Byker), Tanya Garland and the team from CoolBlue, Gordon Mungall from Arups, a Gateshead Council planning department who really showed a sense of ownership and a truly enlightened team from Wimpey North East, proved to be a “dream team”.

Those early years were full of debate and arguments over “secured by design”, “homezones”, communal barbeques, the table tennis tables in the streets, “shared pocket parks”, cycle routes and restrictions on car ownership. We really were questioning accepted practice and Gerardine and I were also being questioned by many architects and planners as to our suitability for the project. “Q…What could a couple of fashion designers know about housing ? A…We have bloomin’ well lived in them for 4 decades each and we care about the quality of life!”

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But we stuck to our guns and fought like we have fought so many times in the past. The Staiths South Bank got off to a great start; people queued to buy the first homes. The Arts Council came and researched the residents and produced the affirming “The Power of The Barbeque” showing how the generosity of the landscape was a key to the good feeling that the “pioneering” new residents were experiencing.

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The Staiths went on to win many awards, is visited by international groups and has continued to be in demand in terms of sales right the way through the housing downturn.

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We completed the design a couple of years ago now and are not on site that often. However at the end of April 2013 Gerardine and I were passing through Newcastle and popped in to the site. We left happy. To their credit Taylor Wimpey have kept up the standards set in phase 1.

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The Staiths is maturing wonderfully and judging by the amount of residents who came out to say how much they were enjoying living there and the emails that positive that keep coming in, the development is certainly a liveable one. 

Is this our greatest achievement in our 30 odd years as designers? It could just well be.

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