Punk Places #4 – Kensington Market

Kensington Market was a three floor indoor market, located at 49/53 Kensington High Street, London. It had the appearance and layout of a former department store, albeit one that was past its peak, and had been customised, carved up, drilled, partitioned and painted. Inside were probably a hundred different stalls in a hotch-potch of different sizes and styles. It seemed enormous, you could wander around for hours before recognising that you’d been back along any one stretch before.

The RegalStalls included The Regal and Sweet Charity who dealt in psychedelia and 60s “Edwardiana”, velvet jackets, cravats etc. Planet Alice sold  Biba style women’s wear and psychedelia from the basement, along with Johnsons who also gave birth to La Rocka – selling custom made leather jackets. There was Moonchild, Rockacha, Ya Ya run by Martin Degville, Western Styling, Artificial Eye, American Retro, Sign of the Times, Fetisch or Die, Flak the military surplus stall, plus a whole host of others spread over the three enormous floors.

stall3In the 1960s and 1970s, it catered primarily to hippie and bohemian culture, grandad shirts, dungarees, tie dye, and to the psychedelics and the mods. Before Queen became successful, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor had a stall on the top floor selling clothes, candles and art, including Freddie’s original paintings and drawings. Freddie remained at the market, selling shoes, even as Queen released their first album.
For those of us brought up on the “fashions” of the High Street, C&A and Littlewoods, Kensington Market was like a department store, but of youth culture. From 1960s hippy wear, tie dyes, indian cottons, psychedelics, military wear, punk stuff, rock and roll, vintage, bespoke one off creations, capes and tarot, candles and runes to bangles and leather.

NotoriousFrom the 1980s to the end of the 1990s, the all inclusive Market catered to punks, post punks, new wavers, new romantics, metal heads, rude girls, rockabillies, skinheads, ravers, goths, trance, acid housers and practically any other sub-culture of modern music. As well as clothes, also crammed in were hair stylists, tattooists, piercing salons, record shops, fanzine stalls, crazy colour outlets, alongside stalls for jewellery, leather, and fetish wear.

Possibly due to the span of eras and tastes, the stalls inside catered to, it had the feeling of being timeless, like it had always been there. Wandering around one corner felt like you were in 1967, the next in 1973, and maybe by the following turn you would be pointed towards something that would only start to really take off the following year. It was like an enormous dressing up box, a fairyland of possibilities and identities. You also started to notice that people didn’t always subscribe to just the one youth culture uniform either, there were mod punks, military hippies, fetish rockers and so on. It became normal to start to mix and match (or mis-match if that was your thing). By the late seventies, the New Romantics were in evidence alongside those early Goths. Regular customers included the Bromley’s, Adam Ant, Steve Strange, and the Stray Cats – pops ace faces all found something at Kensington Market.

Mama FlyerPart of the magic came from the fact that it wasn’t just retro, it was innovative as well, with many of the stall holders making and selling their own designs side by side with other stock, and because of this mighty mash-up, it was regularly visited by up and coming designers like John Paul Gaultier, Paul Smith and John Galliano. This sense of timelessness, the feeling that it had always been there, naturally led to the cosy supposition that it always would be. It was one of those rare places that was as much about the future as the past. In scientific terms, it was the Schrödinger’s cat of shopping.

In early 2000 the market was closed down and the building boarded up, it was then left derelict for a year before being completely demolished in 2001.

Despite the petitions and the protests, the land developers had won, and pretty soon conspiracy theories were ricocheting around the community, who were still looking for the “real reason” their world had been shut down.

Blogger zyra.org comments;

“I believe it was destroyed for Political Reasons. I think that someone decided to pay a huge amount of money to destroy Kensington Market so as to preserve the boring normality of the mundane world. Maybe it was the government that did it, so as to keep the culture under control, or maybe there was some hidden anti-individualist interest in selling bog-standard apparel, in the same sort of way the oil companies aren’t happy about windmills and other eco-energy making old fashioned fossil fuel look old fashioned. Interestingly, whoever did it, it didn’t do them any good. Individualism is still on the increase, and most of the places that were within Kensington Market are still in business and have moved to other areas, Camden for example. Kensington High Street has been made a less interesting place, though”.

Did someone say Camden??

Photos from Kensington Market London facebook group

Further reading, a post by Lloyd Johnson (founder of Johnsons) covering his 30 years at the market, posted on tedpolhemus.com

10 thoughts on “Punk Places #4 – Kensington Market

  1. Used to visit the guys from Artificial Eye at their warehouse in Avonmouth road, Kensington , supplying them with some Clockwork Orange stuff. Good guys but very dark . 😎

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  2. Great memories of KM 1976-8. I can still smell it. Wish I had pictures It was a day trip in itself. I remembers Johnsons when it was mainly army surplus and then branched into its own brand stuff. Still got some somewhere.

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    1. Hi and thanks for commenting!!! But can you describe that smell?? Paint us a picture as you remember it of the glorious rabbit warren that was KM!! What were you buying? What were you looking for??

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      1. In 75-6 I would buy second hand 50s stilettos, and 50s bric a brac, 76-78 more punky stuff , plastic trousers, cire (shiny stuff )t shirts, Johnsons workwear, badges… I think it still smelt of pachouli though

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      2. Hi Psycholady! Thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s always great to get other people’s takes on these things. It sounds like you were visiting there during a really interesting time, 76-78 loads of great stuff going on then, and you’re right about the patchouli! Was patchouli a boy thing? Or did everybody love it?? Anyone??

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  3. It was 1972. I was 18, he was 22 and our son was 2 years old. We lives nearby and frequented KM regularly. Entering into the epic building was a mind blowing experience as you were immediately hit by the fug from burning incense ; sandalwood, jasmine and patchouli and the occasional whiff of marijuana. We never had any order of direction, we just sailed around from stall/unit to unit, floor to floor and bought the odd item now and then. The whole place was ablaze with colour in clothing, pictures, posters, trinkets , footwear and hair dyes. Music played subtly from all angles and everyone was peaceful, happy, smiling and welcoming. Kensington Market I loved you so well.

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    1. Hi Patricia, thank you so much for sharing this. You paint a wonderful picture, and you’re so right about the hit of incense as you walked in. I first went there when I was about 16 and it felt like walking into Wonderland! I’d never seen anything like it (who had?) every thing from every youth cult past, present and future all in one glorious mish mash.

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