4 July 2011

Guest Post: Bargain Hunters

London is home to some of the greatest street markets in the world (a big statement but any tourist guide will corroborate), selling anything from antique furniture, vintage clothing (or second hand to most Africans – followed by a pained look of disgust), original vinyl’s, Indian fabric, collectable coins and at the back end of beyond you’re guaranteed to find stolen bikes, soiled children’s clothes and the occasional shoe with a hole in the big toe, being sold. Portobello, Greenwich and Brick Lane are the most infamous, regularly crawling with Japanese film crews eager to capture the latest trends sported by the poor student, aspiring artist, first time fashion designer and millionaire fashionistas descended upon the market for their staple shop.

A rare sunny day in London inevitably means two things to me – eating and shopping. I start in Borough market, London’s oldest and most notorious food market (and home of Bridget Jones – literally) where I recall popping down in my student days for the copious free samples (the damn recession has put an end to that) constituting a more than ample lunch. Ten years on, I feel I owe it to the market to pay so I grab a well stuffed turkey with extra cranberry sauce roll from Roast (never a more English institution). Squishing my body between the hoards of people leisurely and rather inconveniently perusing the locally sourced food stalls selling paella to pickle preserve, I crane my neck to see the pig head hanging on the walls, snake skin embroidering the walls, overpriced ‘organic’ vegetables (which can be found 100m down the road in East Street Market for a fraction of the price, but equally a fraction of the notoriety and pomp) and general spectacular that is this quintessential middle class establishment.   

With a belly full of food and a growing impatience for the crowds I stroll across London Bridge (not as good a view as Waterloo Bridge, but  still takes my breath away) up past the rapidly gentrified Liverpool street, awkwardly straddling a commercial and cultural revolution on its land, and up to Brick Lane. A couple of ‘cool kids’ hand me a flyer for the Bathing Ape (BAPE) sample sale going on round the corner. The Japanese trend setters, the hip hop heads, the retro thirty year old fathers with the large, thick rimmed, fake glasses and real children (almost too chic for me to believe they have a family); the hot funky female skateboarders, the DJ’s and me (clearly out of my league) tore up the sale.

Brick Lane is home to the greatest concentration of ‘cool’ I’ve ever known. Guys and gals vying for the title of most effortlessly extravagantly dressed; it’s liberating to be amongst their vision and style, their creativity and outlandish confidence. There is however, for the more cultivating bargain hunter, a plethora of alternate hot spots to seek out in London, most of which are not as steeped in fame or in price as the likes of Greenwich, Brick Lane and Notting Hill.  

Deptford Market in the bowels of south London, harmoniously unites the trendy fashionista with the chicken, goat, liver buying African. If you ever want a visible manifestation of London’s cosmopolitan nature, go no further than Deptford. There is one stall in particular (just opposite Ruff Cutz barbers, Ali’s butcher and the theatre) draped by androgynous fashion students, where women clamber over one another, jostling for a rare but spectacular item. There is no discernable order, just a melee of bodies intertwined across the floor dashing and lopping at fabric. My last visit unearthed an 80s flight attendant style dress, with extra large shoulder pads; It shouldn’t work, but it does. There was also a coat which had to have belonged to a greasy haired, medallion wearing PIMP in a former life, which I thought I could turn in to some ‘Paloma Faith esque’ gold dust. I could not and it was recycled immediately. At approx £3 for most items, it’s not so much quality as quantity. At such a bargain one feels obligated to push ones style boundaries.    

For great fabrics from India and Africa there is Petticoat Lane. The side shops have some of the most amazing lace/linen and West African cloth one could imagine. I have bought many a yard which my seamstress has worked her magic on. Remember two yards is plenty for a skirt or top, I’d recommend four-five for a dress or two-piece. Okay okay it’s not paradise, the customer service could do with a brush up, but they are Africans and expect a certain amount of deference simply for being old. Say ‘aunty’ and you’ll get an altogether more positive response. The main market is littered with knock offs. You can find all the high street brands from H & M to Topshop with the labels hastily removed… Just don’t ask where it came from; be grateful that it’s there and at that price.

Brixton market can be heard before it is seen. Tucked behind the traffic riddled main streets, the sound of carnival and smell of weed greets you at the station exit. Ten years ago when I would travel from my student halls to pick up hair, hair products, a months supply of chicken, rice and seasoning, I’d sit conformably on the tube amid black faces heading to a destination no one but us desired. Now, when I make the same journey I’m stricken by the multitude of faces that exit with me into the labyrinth of a market. The meat, vegetable, hair and nail shops still dominate the landscape, but interspersed  are little boutiques sporting unusual and independent labels, as well fancy pizza restaurants, one voted the best cheap eat in London by Time Out. And finally the trendy bars and eateries on Cold Harbour Lane frequented by bands and artists you’ve actually heard of. Brixton is experiencing a rebirth and its market is at the heart of its transformation.   

From East Street, to Roman Road; Brick Lane and Portobello, London’s markets have always been good to me. 


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