A Tale of Two Markets
Fashionistas, designers and celebs are flocking to London's once-humble outdoor markets
Treasure-Hunting in Portobello Road
Flea markets, whether in humble parking lots or exotic bazaars, draw shoppers practiced in rummaging through junk in search of jewels. Every Saturday, London's Portobello Road flea market draws thousands of treasure hunters to its mile-long strip. With more than 2,000 arcades, the Road is a maze of chaotic stalls. It's easy to get lost in the pushy crowds - but well worth the visit.
The market began in the 1880s, selling everyday necessities and inexpensive products. Antique stalls were introduced in 1930. Today, Portobello is hip, drawing fashionistas, chic businesspeople, and families.
The top of Portobello Road is home to celebrities, like Stella McCartney and Elizabeth Murdoch, and to some of the best antique stalls, too. Polished 1920's typewriters, bright blue Victorian china, vintage cameras and equestrian items whisper sweet nothings to collectors' credit cards. Furnishings and tableware are crammed next to boxes of spoons, dented keys, and once-cherished family photographs. The Admiral Vernon Antique Market, one of the oldest arcades, offers rare and authentic collections from Amour to Art Deco (The professional dealers begin the Saturday Antique Market at 5:30 a.m., so the best selection is available before noon.) Credit cards are accepted some stalls, but others only take cash.
Even for the non-collector, this area worth a stroll. The antique shops give way to stalls selling less pricey bric-a-brac, paintings, stamps, and coins. Visitors can come away with inexpensive -- and unusual -- souvenirs, such as ivory-handled magnifying glasses or silver-plated frames.
By 10:00 a.m. the market is bustling with locals, who shop for fresh produce and baked goods near Lonsdale Road. Meat, fruit, and vegetables stalls fill the middle of the market, and the aroma of sizzling falafels and sausage tantalizes. Elderly men and woman steadily drag their carts along the same street where they've done their daily shopping for decades. A boisterous fruit seller yells: "Best bah-nan-as and cherries at the best price!" Behind the blurs of red and orange fruit stalls, outdoor caf'e tables fill with patrons breakfasting on coffee and eggs.
A few blocks away near the Ladbroke Grove tube stop is a vintage clothing mecca. This popular flea market, in a cluster of tents beneath an elevated roadway, also sells designer castoffs and jewelry. You could see Kate Moss; you'll definitely see the fashionista crowd. Victorian brown boots hang next to blue floral Indian dresses and sheer blouses imported from Japan. Rare pieces from Biba, Zandra Rhodes, and Vivienne Westwood hide in these collections. This is serious hunting territory, and shoppers should bring cash and a large shopping bag, and come early Friday morning, for the best selection before the frenzied weekend crowds arrive.
Funky Finds in Camden Markets
Outside the tube stop, two young blonde women wearing backpacks and sunglasses pause, refer to a map, and walk toward the crowds gathering outside the shops. They are American 20-year-olds in search of sparkling jewelry, black platform boots, flowered dresses from the 60s and dusty, rare records -- all available at Camden Markets, increasingly a magnet for hipsters.
"We were here last night looking for music, but today we're just looking for something funky," said Amanda, a student at Iowa State University.
The Markets, located off Camden High Street between the Chalk Farm and Camden Town tube stops, are London's capital of "funky." With its vintage clothing, used records, international food, and "alternative" clothes -- including Goth, fetish, and raver -- and eccentric salespeople to match, teens, bargain-hunters and fashion fiends find the place especially appealing.
"There's just a completely different atmosphere," said Striker, an attendant at a T-shirt stand that sold cotton shirts of all colors, adorned with catchy sayings, rock star silhouettes and portraits of George W. Bush. "The teens love this scene, especially the different types of music blaring from the different shops."
The sounds provide a guide of sorts to the merchandise found in more than 350 shops. Clothing, music and souvenir stores are located on Camden High Street, while the most eccentric of the shops are inside nearby Camden Lock. Soft oldies mixed with unrecognizable and beat-driven instrumentals leak out of Rockit True Vintage. Manned by tiny girls in layered dresses, colorful dreadlocks, and at least three beaded necklaces each, this shop offers vintage clothing for both men and women. Women's blazers are priced from £13 to £20 ($24 to $37) and dresses from the dollar equivalent of $28 to $65. Rockit also stocks an unusual selection of vintage armed forces jackets, all under $55, and impressive Luis Vuitton and Fendi knock-off purses, at $65 to $93.
Just across the street from Rockit is the Electric Ballroom, the most popular weekend attraction. A converted Irish ballroom associated with a club that showcased London's Irish music scene, the indoor vintage mall includes many rooms of second-hand clothing, sorted by style, as well as used records and CDs and new T-shirts.
"You see designers here, sketching, getting ideas," said Wendy, a long-time employee. "Designers will buy the older pieces and use them in their fashion shows."
A native of the area, Wendy said her own teenagers come to shop in the Markets, drawn by the sheer magnitude and high quality of the merchandise.
Next door is one of two locations of the Music and Video Exchange. These are popular spots for local teens to hunt for the work of their favorite musicians. The Exchange boasts large selections of Beatles records and 1960s music, including rare treasures like a recording of "Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds Live With Sonny Boy Williamson."
Just as colorful and diverse is the display of food from all nations. These stalls sell food from everywhere -- Italy or Vietnam, India or Indonesia -- at less than $7.50 a dish. On Camden High Street we found a small stand called The Chocolatie Zone, a place to stop for chocolate-covered strawberries and strawberry shakes.
Weekends are predictably busiest; Striker recommends visiting on less-crowded weekdays, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. , when Londoners typically shop. Most of the stores in the Market and Camden Lock are open during the week, but the Electric Ballroom is closed.
Pointing to the stall selling Dr. Martens shoes for $28 a pair, Striker described this as "the best bargain around." As music and merchandise swirled, he added "[It's] like a carnival all the time."
Getting to London's Markets [BOX]
Closest tube stops: Notting Hill Gate or Ladbroke Grove
Open M-Sa 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m., except Th, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Closed Sunday. The website has a comprehensive guide to shops. http://www.portobelloroad.co.uk/
Closest tube stops: Camden Town and Chalk Farms
Many businesses open 7 days, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Electric Ballroom Market
Open Sunday only.
The website has a map and guide to the main regular stalls.
Black leather and mohawks are part of the uniform for some Camden Markets employees.
Photo by Diana Rosenthal
Londoners come to Portobello Road for the fresh produce, baked goods and flowers.
Photo by Michelle del Rio