An insider’s guide to secret shopping in London
As Londoners and overseas visitors hit the New Year sales, writer, broadcaster and London guide Antony Robbins ventures off the beaten track to explore the city’s more surprising shopping treats.
The story of any city can be told through its shops and services. They reflect our lives, our times and our changing tastes. The ancient street cries of market traders have long echoed through the centuries and they remain one of the distinct sounds of London. But the city evolves. Nothing stays the same. Who would have thought for example twenty years ago that gyms, beauty salons and sandwich chains would come to dominate what we Brits call the high street?
The challenges of modern retail
The relentless march of the internet has made that high street a tough place to operate. Household names like Mothercare, Woolworths and Austin Reed failed to adapt and have sadly gone to the wall. Businesses bucking the trend – including coffee shops, beauticians, gymnasiums and morticians – deliver services that, by their very nature, cannot be provided online!
Charity begins on the high street
Charity shops, which benefit from reduced rents, are also notable additions to today’s retail scene, offering up bargains to the imaginative and ethical shopper. More importantly, they help support some of the UK’s 85,000 good causes – organisations fighting poverty, promoting education and combating disease. The high street presence of these shops plays into the growing awareness of the environmental and social impact of the fashion industry. Dress for less I say – and with a clear conscience.
Despite the challenges faced by our modern-day retailers, London remains a great place both to shop and to browse. You’ll know that bespoke suits for men and women are still made in London’s Savile Row – a small street world-famous for its tailoring. Here you’ll find the names of the great tailoring houses, including Norton, Huntsman and Maurice Sedwell. Each has a distinct style and cut. The (relatively) new kid on the block is Ghanain maker Ozwald Boeteng. He brings craft and wit to his dazzling tailoring with its distinctly African twist.
Barn the Spoon
The East End is famous for retro-chic eateries, cutting-edge fashion and ironic street art. It’s also a hot-bed of artisanal craft and making. There’s the resplendently-bearded Barn the Spoon. Barn looks like an urban woodsman and devotes his entire life to whittling beautiful and sustainably-sourced wooden spoons. He teaches his craft too. Each spoon is he says: ‘A joyous celebration of functional sculpture’.
The noble East End grape
Perhaps more surprising is that wine is made in Bethnal Green – here in the heart of London’s East End. Renegade Wines, which opened in 2006, makes about 28,000 bottles a year. Our climate is changing and some of the wine even comes from English grapes.
My cockney ancestors grew up here in the East End. My great grandfather worked not in the wine trade – but in the local breweries. He delivered beer on a horse and cart to pubs and off-licences (liquor stores). He would be simply amazed at this former working-class neighbourhood’s transformation in just a few generations.
Here for the beer
Despite the onward march of technology, traditional skills still thrive in London. The metropolis is home to jewellers, watchmakers, shoemakers and cobblers, gin distilleries and breweries. Brewing is a particularly notable return to the capital with the global growth of the craft beer industry. Tastes are changing and today, American and Australian guests in particular are more prepared to try artisan beer served, like red wine, at room temperature … not ‘warm’ as some critics are wont to describe it.
The ties that bind
Ties are still made in London’s East End, by Drake’s. The company has a swanky shop on Savile Row in Mayfair. Lesser-known is its factory shop in Hoxton, in the East End. Here ties are made by skilled craftspeople in the old-fashioned way. These beautiful products feature exquisite and luxurious materials like Shantung silk. Drakes also sells other accessories including scarves and pocket squares. They can be bought here in the factory shop with a significant discount.
Tailors of the unexpected
Near the British Museum, complete with a Penny Farthing bicycle outside, is retro mens’s and women’s outfitters Thomas Farthing. Its beautiful windows display silk ties, Homburg hats, sturdy footwear and indestructible tweeds. If you’re fans of Downtown Abbey or Peaky Blinders, then this is certainly the place for you.
Desperation and depravity
A Child of the Jago, in Charing Cross Road, draws on London’s history but in an entirely different way. The name derives from Arthur Morrison’s 1896 book, which exposed the desperation and depravity of Victorian London’s Jago slum in Shoreditch, now an edgy but desirable east London neighbourhood – and the capital’s home of the hipster.
Bucking the system
Owned by Joe Corré the son of punk-priestess Vivienne Westwood, A Child of the Jago sells unique and dramatic pieces for men and women. All of its clothes are made in the UK, some in nearby Clerkenwell. The brand prides itself as being outside the ‘fashion system’ and makes its pieces in small runs. Some of the designs are outrageous. The Georgian pornographic print fabrics are certainly not for the faint-hearted! These are fun clothes. They are cut with wit and swagger and are made to be worn, as Corré says, ’until they fall off your back’.
No city gent can hit the streets without a quality umbrella. My favourite maker is Oxford Street’s James Smith and Son. The firm has been making ‘brollies’ here since 1830. Its perfectly-preserved gilded-glass Victorian shop front advertises ‘Umbrellas, canes and life-preserves’. It even gets a mention in Graham Green’s wartime novel The Ministry of Fear. It’s still going strong but, alas, no longer stocks maritime buoyancy aids.
London excels itself in really specialist shops. Blade Rubber, near the British Museum, provides high-quality rubber stamps mounted on wooden blocks for the crafty among you. There’s a shop in north London dedicated exclusively to the production the delicious Indian bread known as Na’an and stores across the capital selling meteorites and archaeological finds. A visit to a specialist auction house – like Spink and Co, with its expertise in coins, medals and stamps – can reveal a curious world of hidden treasures.
In Soho’s Carnaby Street is We Built this City. Owner Alice Mayor wanted to completely reinvent the tired concept of the tacky tourist shop. She realised her vision to create a space to showcase the works of talented artists and makers. Visit the store’s basement to see artists at work. Come here for prints, ceramics, jewellery – or simply to buy a postcard. Even these are little artworks in themselves.
Daunt Books is a chain of independent booksellers. Its branch in Marylebone occupies stunning Edwardian premises said to be the world’s first custom-built bookshop. It was originally opened in 1912 for Francis Edwards, a firm of antiquarian booksellers. The late Mr Edwards would no doubt be proud that his glorious site is being used once again for its original purpose.
Join me on my ‘Secret Shopper’ tour. I can seek out a limited edition print from a London artist, a handmade tie manufactured in the heart of the city or a beautiful suit from a traditional tailor. I’ve known many of these businesses as a loyal customer for most of my life. Brilliant old-fashioned service and a warm welcome is always guaranteed. And one or two of our friendly retailers may even offer us a little discount.
Antony Robbins, aka Mr Londoner is a London Blue Badge Guide running Christmas tours throughout the festive season. He is also a communications consultant and broadcaster@meetmrlondoner. Tel: 07725 617883.