The world's first pop-up shopping mall

Is clothes browsing inside refurbished shipping containers in east London as hip (and non-corporate)

It's midday, and I am walking along Shoreditch High Street headed towards the northern end of Brick Lane. I turn into Bethnal Green Road. There is a lot of activity going on -- lots of young people of various nationalities purposefully moving stuff around while others stand back and survey the results of their endeavours. I wonder what's happening as this is normally a dead area -- except on evenings at weekends, when the affluent young people of London and their counterparts from overseas come out to play and move between the various bars, clubs and restaurants in Greater Shoreditch.

The reason soon becomes clear. There is a line of grey recycled shipping containers, adjacent to the pavement area, which have been turned into retail outlets. The brand names, all in the same style of lettering, are flagged up above the entrances: Calvin Klein, Farah Vintage, Levi's, Original Penguin, Marimekko and Puma. There is even an Amnesty International shop selling "limited edition" jewellery, stationery and prints for the festive season.

This, as I later find out, is Boxpark, described in the PR as "the world's first pop up mall" in the "coolest part of the coolest city in the coolest country in the world", which opens today.

It certainly seems a world away from London's other recent, purpose-built shopping centres like Westfield London in Shepherd's Bush and Westfield Stratford City, as well as older models like Brent Cross; enclaves detached from the surrounding area with shops like John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Mothercare offering customers of all ages a very safe and mainstream retail experience to the sounds of George Benson, and the like.

But how different is Boxpark? My first reaction -- from the sheer number of well-known brands targeting young people and the clever symmetry of the double-storey assembly -- was that this is not the usual activity of small, independent retailers that have colonised parts of Brick Lane and the Old Truman Brewery site in the last six or seven years.

Such places have transformed the western edge of Tower Hamlets -- the second poorest borough in London and third poorest in the country -- into a zone of "ultimate cool" for the middle classes.

The space where Boxpark now sits was earmarked for some serious retail and leisure development, but the global economic crisis has put paid to that, at least for the time being.

It turns out that one of those backing Boxpark is Charles Dunstone, the former public schoolboy who turned £6,000 worth of savings into a fortune through the Carphone Warehouse. Always on the lookout for new investment opportunities, he and his partners (although they don't always get it right; witness the recent closure of the Best Buy electrical megastores) might well have found a crock of gold at the end of Shoreditch's rainbow: a huge influx of visitors will visit east London for the Olympics next year and, it is hoped, thereafter.

Irrespective of the PR behind Boxpark, it has to be pointed out that the concept is not totally new.

Refurbished shipping containers have been used in several parts of the world -for example, the Puma City in Chicago and the Illy Café in New York -- and there are even plans to create a space for a church in the US. Moreover, Dunstone and his partner, Roger Wade, chief executive of Brighton-based Consultancy Brands Incorporated, are now looking further afield for another site in London to use the containers to develop a leisure complex.

So it looks like this is just the beginning of a new wave of innovative retailing, which will make the traditional high street shopping experience for many very old fashioned indeed. Perhaps the government's retail guru Mary Portas, whose review of the future of the UK high street is due for release any day now, should take note.

What does all this mean for London in general and greater Shoreditch in particular? Undoubtedly, Boxpark's arrival is yet the latest sign that the centre of cultural and economic gravity in the capital is moving inexorably eastwards. My guess is that the pressure will continue to build up and it is only a matter of time before permission is granted to build an airport in the Thames estuary.

As for E1, Boxpark can stay for five years. Then, assuming the UK economy has returned to some sort of growth, it will vanish; preserved only in memories and digital photographs. However, unless the urban planners and members of Tower Hamlets Council put some very creative hats on, the probability is that something more mainstream will take its place.

The coolest part of the world won't be quite so cool anymore. But that's progress for you.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era