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, painted and taken over by the sort of people that seemed to define the term ‘bohemian’. 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.
Stalls 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.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it catered primarily to hippie 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 1970s High Street via C&A and Littlewoods, Kensington Market had a department store feel, but of youth culture. It was where 1960s hippy wear, tie dyes, indian cottons, psychedelics, and ex-military wear, were sold shoulder to shoulder with punk stuff, rock and roll, vintage, bespoke one off creations, capes and tarot, candles and runes to bangles and leather.
From 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, Kensington Market had the feeling of being timeless, with an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. 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 – pop culture’s ace faces all found something at Kensington Market.
Part 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”.
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