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