Shopping in Camden Town has traditionally had a touch of the Jekyll and Hyde about it. Head north out of the tube into the riot of market stalls, one-off fashions, tribal furniture and vegan cafes. Or take off to the south and the first impression is of the predictable Anytown UK: M&S undies, Argos flatpacks and Maccy Ds coffee.
But the road to Mornington Crescent is changing fast. Rundown retail units have been commandeered by Camden Collective, the dynamic local organisation who’ve operated a wildly successful programme offering pop-up shop and office space to the area’s young creative community.
The latest project, just two minutes from the tube at 159 High St (hence the name) is properly ambitious. A couple of months ago the large three story building had rain pouring through the roof, a depressingly vacant double shop front and several hundred pigeons-in-residence.
Today, the ground floor buzzes with human rather than avian life. Art is for sale, displayed on beautifully exposed brickwork, fashion hangs from repurposed palates, accessories spill from inside crates, the aroma of super-strong coffee pervades.
Upstairs, desks are filled with enthusiastic twentysomething teams working on mind-bending projects. It’s quieter, as everyone seems completely absorbed in their tasks, but there’s not a vacant chair going. A side room is packed with people deep in a computer coding lesson, while in a meeting area the talk is of textiles.
The Collective have worked with sustainable design experts Build is Everything to transform the whole unloved space into a hotbed of optimism and genuine opportunity. Their clever, open-plan layout at street level aims to encourage collaboration between fledgling business-owners, who are getting the finest leg-up imaginable with this ready-made, affordable high street shop space.
It’s making this strip of mobile phone stores and Prets infinitely more interesting too. Everybody seems to be winning, in fact.
But despite all the structural improvements, Collective don’t have the space for long. You’ll only catch it here until October, when, like all the best creative projects that burn swiftly but brightly, this ambitious pop-up will vanish.
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Meet the stallholders…
Clime-it Brothers (pictured, above) is a Camden-based social enterprise who run empowerment workshops talking climate change, and sell a clothing range via a stall at Collective 159. The 25-year-old owner, Mubarak, jumped at the chance. “I’ve lived in Camden all my life and it’s always felt so vibrant, with a healthy mix of rich and poor too, but I’ve seen a lot of problems here with opportunities for young people. This space allows us to build the direct link between our workshops and meaningful employment.”
Meanwhile Christabel, who offers on-trend ‘superfood fingerfood’ served on her own designs of crockery and salvaged furniture, is similarly enthusiastic, while coming from a very different perspective. “I enjoy the buzzy mix of customers from the creative companies around here like MTV and ASOS, who always make for an interesting chat. So many high streets feel monopolised by huge big brand stores, but here we’re creating a unique retail and dining experience where you can buy truly one-off gifts.”
Also pictured above is Sara, Italian owner of artisan shoemakers Portamento, who sees huge benefit in being part of the un-drabbing of lower Camden High Street. “Feedback has been really great as people are happy to have something different from the usual markets going on here,” she says. “Camden is really changing. We have a stall in Dalston too, but people in east London are a bit too used to getting all sorts of new things. People here are genuinely excited.”