LONDON, United Kingdom — Mare Street will never win a beauty contest. Quite the contrary, in fact. When the East End thoroughfare that connects Bethnal Green and Hackney Central comes up in conversation, it’s often its singular lack of charm that’s noted. Yet even those who bemoan the street’s hopeless grit acknowledge that there is a certain buzz to it — a sense that the area it cuts through is experiencing a creative renaissance. In fact, if this nascent energy has a locus, it may well be the little triangle at the intersection of Mare Street and Westgate Street.
The centre of Hackney’s latest creative bonanza is just a few blocks east of Broadway Market and slightly west of the leafy streets surrounding Victoria Park, home to many of the city’s successful creative professionals. In every direction — especially north, towards Lower Clapton — countless young fashion designers work from their homes, bootstrapping their fledgling businesses to hopeful success. Quite a few of them are at a crucial stage where bedrooms can no longer double as studios, but locking themselves into expensive multi-year leases for their own studios remains daunting.
This is where the Trampery comes in. The shared workspace company — known for nurturing young companies with quirkily outfitted office spaces offering spotless hi-speed Internet (in a city where this is surprisingly elusive) — just opened its third location, at the intersection of Mare Street and Westgate Street, dedicated specifically to supporting East London’s young fashion companies.
Spread over four floors, the new fashion hub, for which the Trampery partnered with Hackney Community College and the London College of Fashion, comprises eight individual, light-flooded designer studios (which rent for £30 a sqft per year), an open-plan space for fashion-related businesses — including fashion app developers, photographers, agents and others — and a grand 2500 square-foot hall with a coffered wood ceiling, which designers can use for fashion shows, castings and receptions. In the front of the building, there’s also a cafe that’s open to the public.
The Trampery is not the area’s first building to offer studios to small creative businesses. Just a few houses down, Creative Network Solutions runs Netil House, a formerly run-down block built in the 1960s that’s now home to almost a hundred artistic and creative studios. But Trampery London Fields promises more than just studio space.
Its ambitious aim is to support the next generation of fashion talent with access, not only to workspaces, but tools and strategic advice, all of which are vital but traditionally scarce for emerging designers.
Communal workspaces originated in California’s Bay Area (home to Silicon Valley), as a solution for technology start-ups that require cheap office space (co-working eliminates furniture and Internet set-up expenses, among other costs) and environments that encouraged the easy exchange of ideas. It didn’t take long for the model to spread to cities around the United States, from New York to Austin, Texas — and in the past few years the concept has crossed the pond and taken root in London. Here too, it was small to medium-sized tech companies that first embraced the idea.
So what sets the Trampery London Fields apart? And what does it provide young designers that they would not have at a regular building with studio space?
For starters, the Trampery London Fields is squarely focused on fashion and unusually selective about its tenants, which it refers to as residents or members. Indeed, both the Trampery’s founder Charles Armstrong and operations manager Ben Pickering wanted, not only an interesting mix of occupants with the potential to cross-germinate, but designers who had already demonstrated market traction. “We really targeted designers who have got through the first growth stage; who already have an established team and an established reputation and are starting to make sales,” said Pickering.
The current crop of designers housed at the Trampery includes Holly Fulton, Lou Dalton, James Long, Charlie May and Danielle Foster. Leather goods and accessories design consultant Ellen Kern, whose clients include several major luxury brands, has also taken one of the studios. And a few days ago, it was confirmed that fashion knitwear label Cats Brother and textile design atelier Mr Grieves Originals will be sharing the last studio in the building.
“We wanted people who are very clearly on the upswing, because we know that there are specific challenges around the growth stage. And this is true in the tech industry as well, the UK has a real problem,” said Armstrong. “Our business formation rates are great, but the scale-up rates are poor in comparison to the United States. We’re good at the first stage, but we lack at the growth stage.”
The Trampery expects a certain degree of commitment from its tenants, hoping that they will use the space intensively for at least a few years and are willing to be part of the community that is forming. In return, the designers benefit from specialised equipment (paid for by a municipal grant), a curated program of networking events and the ability to rent the building’s grand hall at a significantly reduced rate. “You can make the greatest impact by helping the businesses that are already on the growth path and help them grow faster and make it to the level where they are established as a global brand,” said Armstrong.
But beyond providing physical space — and equipment like steam presses, knitting machines and button pullers — perhaps the most significant way in which the Trampery aims to help young designers is by mobilising its impressive network of connections. After all, the Trampery’s long-term tenants at its other London locations (in Clerkenwell and Shoreditch) include a wide range of firms, from financial software start-ups and digital design businesses to aerial imaging (i.e. drone) developers. Large corporations like Microsoft and Unilever are also members.
Armstrong has carefully cultivated the support of universities, industry associations and government, as well. “We’ve achieved enough prominence to have quite high-level relationships — with Downing Street, the Mayor’s office, senior officials from the universities, the Arts Council and the British Fashion Council,” he said. “We will be bringing some of these people here to do events and to get all of the designers here directly engaged with some of our top-level contacts, so that they have a voice with all of the funding bodies and with the people who program fashion week. Our job is to give talented people access at that level and to help them build links strategically.”
At its new London Fields site, the Trampery plans to organise events similar to those it regularly holds at its other locations: speed-dating with potential mentors, as well as networking events that put the designers in contact with angel investors and technology players.
“There’s a whole field of innovation at the junction of fashion and technology and that is where a lot of the really revolutionary possibilities lie,” added Armstrong. “Today there are people developing portable computing and sensing and visualisation technologies. Imagine what can happen if these people meet a designer who happens to be thinking about how you can build sensing into a garment or how you can have displays on it. Part of our mission is to facilitate that innovation in that area by allowing the two sectors to come into contact in our spaces.”
His interest in bridging the tech and fashion worlds is not incidental. He also runs a software company, Trampoline Systems, which developed the interactive ‘Tech City Map,’ which charts the proliferation of technology start-ups in East London with the goal of encouraging creative cross-pollination between young businesses. “The tech industry has had a huge amount of attention paid to it, to how its ecosystem works, what pathway an entrepreneur follows, what different skills you need in a founding team, how you bring those skills together. There is a lot of knowledge out there and there are a lot of initiatives to support it, but none of that knowledge and none of those support systems have been applied to the fashion sector.”
From his vantage point, Armstrong sees many similarities between the challenges young companies face in the two industries: “The issues are similar: you have the difficulty of accessing resources at the early stage; the need to very rapidly build up skills and networks across a whole range of different fields; the need to bring together different complementary elements: financing, design, retail, manufacturing. We are applying everything that we learned between 2009- 2013 in the tech space in the context of the fashion industry.”
At the same time, Armstrong doesn’t believe that solutions that work in tech can simple be cut-and-paste for fashion. “None of the solutions [from tech] can just be packed up, taken over and dropped in the fashion industry, because it wouldn’t work — they need to be tailored to the sector’s specific needs. And here, partnering with LCF and their DISC program has been a tremendous asset.” DISC is the London College of Fashion’s dedicated platform for innovation in fashion manufacturing and the Trampery is drawing on its expertise to adapt its own know-how to the specific needs of the fashion industry.
With its new London Fields hub, The Trampery is betting that Hackney will continue to flourish as a significant frontier for fashion businesses. It’s not a wild assumption. As rents in Shoreditch — which had its own explosion of fresh fashion activity in the 1990s — became unattainable for young companies, the creative centre of gravity has decidedly shifted northeast to Hackney, which has emerged as a natural habitat for a new wave of design-related enterprises. Already, the area boasts one of the densest concentrations of early-stage fashion businesses in Europe. “We did a lot of research. Just like Hoxton Square was very important in the 1990s, once we looked at it strategically, this was the place where we had to be if we wanted to work with the fashion industry.” According to Armstrong, there are close to 2000 designers in the area trying to set up labels.
Significantly, the Trampery is also helping the educational institutions with which it has partnered to inject courses on entrepreneurship into their curriculum and the new facility’s doors will be open to recent fashion graduates who can rent space and use equipment on a drop-in basis.
Will it work?
Only time will tell if one of the tech world’s proven formulas can shake up and bolster the fragile and ingrained ways of the fashion system. But if the initial response is any indication, East London’s fashion community has long been ready for something like the Trampery. Lou Dalton, one of the designers who just moved into the London Fields location, told BoF as much: “The facilities are fantastic, the 24-hour access is vital when you own your own business and I think it’s really important to be able to engage with people from different walks of life. I feel incredibly lucky that we got in here.”