01 May 2008

Crap Towns

Written by Published in Issue 9 - Innovate Read 2865 times

I am often asked, 27 years on, could Gerardine and I start our careers today in a similar way to how we started out back then. In 1981, while still in our teens, Gerardine and I emptied our wardrobes into Camden Market one Saturday morning – the rent was £6 and we took home just over £100. We returned the next morning, coughed up our £6, made a profit and realised that people liked our take on fashion. Gerardine, despite having no formal training, was then able to experiment with her dressmaking skills and opened a unit in that hotbed of creativity, Kensington Market. For £18 a week Gerardine could 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 launched little shops in Soho. In the mid-80s we opened a store on Neal Street in Covent Garden, with a weekly rent of £60.

Could our kids do the same today? They have got something 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 the worse for this. As pension funds and PLCs buy up the UK, try getting a shop on Neal Street for less than £2,000 per week, and without having massive backing and a business track record. Kensington Market has long gone, as has Hyper Hyper in London and Quiggins in Liverpool, and unless the kind of fight that has just been put up to save Affleck’s Palace is replayed, 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, seems to be ignoring the protests and pleas of over 15,000 people 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 much more: our towns and cities go further down the ‘clone town’ route.


The reason the Hemingways travel to shop in cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vancouver is to experience the kind of retailing and expression of ideas that are becoming increasingly rare in the UK. When I go to Manchester, Harvey Nicks holds nothing for me – rather, I head straight to the Northern Quarter, where independent music stores, great vintage shops, cool cafés and re staurants can survive because of the affordable rents.


And now that government and industry are getting wise 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 £61bn, it’s got to be time to make sure that there are places where the 60,000 or so creative students graduating each year can have a go. Creativity needs places to seed and to flower.


Local councils have to wake up to the reality that ‘clone towns’ is not just a media term, nor Crap Towns just a witty series of books.

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