Camden market

From ad hoc market stalls to ubiquitous chain stores, the area's evolution has been dramatic. Time Out meets a Camden pioneer whose timeless sense of style has led to a fashion institution

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    The beginnings of Julia Dollimore's stall

    Madonna isn’t used to people saying no but when she tried to buy one of Julia Dollimore’s outfits in 1996 she was turned down flat. Dollimore, one of Camden Market’s originators and now propri- etor of the ModernAge Vintage Clothing store, doesn’t make exceptions for anyone; the outfits from the hire side of her business are not for sale, no matter who you are. Madge ended up renting them instead, paying upfront for a year.

    While much of her competition trades in the quick-turnover, fast street-fashion of polyvinyl bodysuits and ‘The Pope Smokes Dope’ T-shirts, Dollimore’s clothes are far from disposable. Her Chalk Farm shop is packed with post-war garments that have been carefully hand-stitched, rather than flimsily mass produced.

    Her Walthamstow warehouse contains 30,000 items spanning the 1930s to the ’60s, and her client list is diverse; regulars include Penélope Cruz, Renée Zellweger, Daniel Craig and, perhaps less salubriously, Pete Doherty.

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    Julia with suitably stylish friends

    This mighty fashion oak began as a humble sartorial acorn. It was the late 1970s and Dollimore was a fashion student who wanted to look cool, but with a limited budget had to make the most of what she had – an eye for good tailoring and an individual sense of style. ‘My mum had a lot of 1940s clothes in the loft which I used to wear,’ she explains. Soon, Dollimore’s fellow students were asking where they could score similar garments for themselves. Spotting a business opportunity, Dollimore began buying for them and ended up with so much surplus stock she decided to start selling it at the market. ‘I shared a stall with a friend. The rent was about £15 between us for Saturday and Sunday.’

    As her business gathered momentum Dollimore hired an arch in what is now the Stables Market to store stock for a few pounds a week. ‘It was a bright place back when I started,’ she recalls. ‘There seemed to be more customers to go round.’ In those days, the High Street featured a Co-op, a cinema, Greek bakery Olympia and also ‘a fair number’ of antiques shops. ‘I was the only person selling vintage clothing,’ she says. ‘It was one of a kind.’

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    The Siren shop front

    Even then, the early ’80s, Camden was a big draw for the browsers, gawkers, perambulists and somnambulists that still make up its pavement traffic. The area was especially popular with Sunday shoppers (since markets were licensed to trade when it was illegal for the West End department stores). Dollimore opened a shop called Siren on the High Street, which soon became the place to go for vintage clothing.

    ‘We would get all sorts of people coming in. Punks, rockabillies, new romantics,’ she says. ‘People were more individual in the way they dressed, they had their own look. I’d stand at my door and look up the street and everyone would be worth a photograph. It was a sense of anything goes, of real diversity, and that was reflected in the clothes for sale. It acted as an agent for driving Camden Town forward as a fashion centre.’

    So what does Dollimore think of Camden today? ‘It has become a big business,’ she says. ‘Rents have gone up and this means the independent traders can no longer take risks. There are now so many people selling the same thing and lots of traders worry it will eventually be just another shopping centre. And the shoppers get exhausted; there is so much to wander through now and that also ruins the Camden experience for some. It is like a cash cow for the landlords.’

    Despite the changes, for Dollimore there is an up side to increased competition from cheap chain stores: ‘People who have been shopping
    with me since the 1980s still come back regularly and say “Thank God there is still somewhere like this .” It means a lot to them; for so many people, this reminds them of what Camden Town is all about.’

    ModernAge Vintage Clothing, 65 Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 (020 7482 3787).

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