Paul Allen, Uniform Maverick

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“You can’t beat Portobello. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?”

 

Change is the lifeblood of markets, like it or not. Whether you’ve been going to London’s market for two years, or 20, each of us will have our own memories of the perfect stall that disappeared one day, gone without trace. That unpredictability is, of course, part of the attraction. But how wonderful to have one stall that’s been there for us, year in, year out: and this is Portobello on Parade, run by Paul Allen, and his friend John, for a number of years that, for reasons of state security, must apparently remain top secret.

How did you come to sell military gear, and when did you start?
Well, we’ve been here for a few years now and it’s military stuff all straight from the MOD. We just  happened to be in the right place in the right time, as you can discover from this little lot here.

But how long have you been here? Now, I seem to think you were here in my first visits to Portobello, 20 years ago?
We’ve been going a few years now. We’ve mixed it up a bit, haha.

I’m sure you’ve been here that long, though, maybe it was 25 years?
We have, yes…

Are you being purposely vague?
Well, we’d be giving our age away now, wouldn’t we? But we’re very well-established, as you can see!

What was the attraction of military gear and uniforms for you?
Just the quality. How nice, how well-made it all us, and how stylish. And it’s always in fashion, everyone loves it. All the standup collars are in fashion again now, and the girls love the hats.

You have Soviet military equipment, too – how does the quality compare?
We’ve got a lot. We’ve got a Russian comes over every 3 or 4 weeks, and he brings us hats, badges, coats, all from their military and navy. The quality is not as good, not at all. You can see why they gave up in the end. The badges are not all that good, and the peaks on the caps – on our ones you can lift them up by the peak all the time, with the Russians, they’re flimsier and they start to break.

It’s interesting that, even though we’ve lost so many good quality boot makers in Northampton, that the quality of military footwear is still great.
Yes. And that’s because, even though the factories have shut down they’ve still got a huge lot of storage – they’re bringing in things that are brand new, but it’s really from the ’70s or the ’60s.

Oh, so once those supplies are gone, the new boots will fall apart, like my old Clarke’s?
Now, you’re lucky to get leather-soled shoes. Only the officers’ shoes are leather soled now. The soldiers always had them – but now they’ve got  rubber. And, honestly, the new stuff, people don’t want it, they want the proper ones. So it’s changing, they’re making the ranks wear rubber soles and they’ll have to work with that. But the officers, they’ll be all right!

You have a wonderful variety of items – not just uniforms, there are old medals, memorabilia, postcards, quirky little items. Where do they all come from?
Yes, we cater for everything, we get lots of stuff come up, like all those walking sticks over there, they were from an officer’s mess and they were all put in to a big brass shell casing. It’s surprising what we get. It’s not so much auctions – when I get to the MOD I can sort through the stuff. We like to pick out the good bits. Like, look at the flight trousers on the mannequin here. Now that lacing on the front was covered, and I took the fronts off so you could see the lacing. Now they’re wearing them up the clubs, the girls are! And we hire things out as well. People do lot of photo shoots and all that, so we help ‘em out, and video shoots.

All this gilt, all this braid, it embodies so much history, you still get the feel of the Victorian era, the time of Empire…
True. The tourists absolutely love it. It’s a bit of English history and it states it everywhere you look – on the buttons, on the jacket, so they do like it.

You have an absolutely beautiful uniform up there, is that a Beefeater’s?
It is indeed, it came from a character who was a Beefeater. And in his cottage when it was cleared, there it was. And it’s come our way. It’s astonishing, a fella from Christie’s came by, he’s putting on a show for the Olympics, and he asked if I could put that in the display for him. And at the end of the display it will be auctioned off.

How much has Portobello changed in the time you’ve been here?
A lot. We used to have all the antiques coming in, the lorries, shipping. Now it’s all stopped, and there’s a lot of people complaining. But we just happen to be in the right place, a nice position, well-established and fingers crossed for the rest of them. But it is picking up. You can’t beat Portobello road. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?

And you, as one of the oldest stalls, still get the younger kids in.
We’ve got ‘em coming through here all the time. As you can see, it’s a complete mixture, all the way through youngish kids to the old boys getting their bits of old  paperwork – the old boys love that, and the badges and the medals. Then we have the braided jackets, the guard ones – they’re very popular with the singers and the stars. Like Pete Doherty, when he was going out with Kate Moss, they both bought one, and they’ve had a number of things off of me. And Paul Weller was standing here chatting the other day about our American cape. We get a lot of people here, it’s amazing.  But we often don’t know who we’re talking to – until other stallholders say, Do you know who that was? It’s good.

Portobello On Parade is at the bottom of Portobello, near the Westway, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They also hire items out for photo shoots. Contact:brigadier__@hotmail.co.uk

David White, denim Indiana

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“I was once chased off a property by a guy with a rattlesnake.”

 

Old items have stories behind them. And few of the stories are as gripping as those of some of the items on David White’s stall . It’s jam-packed with blue-collar treasures, beautifully-worn US workboots, or deadstock jackets that have languished in some forgotten store out West for decades. Other items, like the jacket he’s holding, boast almost unbelievable pedigrees, evoking stories of tough guys who didn’t always make it home.

Why vintage clothing?
I’ve always been very passionate about vintage clothing,  it’s always been my thing – I was always a big fan of Levi’s and vintage leathers. And about eight years ago I was dissatisfied with what I was doing. I was a set designer,  building and designing sets for TV shows, and I decided to follow my passion. I think you’ve got to do what’s most important in life.

I’d spent a bit of time in the states on holidays, my wife was working over there at the time so I kind of knew about the vintage scene in America. Back then it was possible to find the odd treasure in a thrift store. I didn’t have any contacts. I just bought myself a ticket to Los Angeles, and off I went.

What’s the most resonant piece you’ve owned?
I was honoured to briefly own a 1920s pair of Levi’s 501s, that’s probably about as good as it gets. But I’ve also had some wonderful pieces with not so high price – I like a lot of no-brand generic denim. I had an original A2 [flying jacket], that was nice, had a wonderful 30s US Navy denim work-coat that was nice, and I like a lot of the old knitwear, there was was a company called Utah Knitting mils, they made some of the most amazing sweaters I’ve ever seen in terms of style, durability and all round quality.

Tell me about the diamonds in the rough, the items that you’ve come across where you didn’t expect them.
At one point I found a pair of ’50s 501s in with the offset belt loop in a thrift store. And digging though the bottom of a rag pile once,  I saw a 1940s woolen CPO (Chief Petty Officer) shirt that had a nice embroidered anchor on the breast pocket.

Is it getting harder to find original items?
Absolutely. By the month, I’d say.

Tell me about the jacket you’re holding.
It’s a USN N-1 deck jacket  that belonged to a crew member of the USS Swordfish. If you google the submarine USS Swordfish you come up with a whole bunch of information, they were a pretty ruthless bunch and they sunk a lot of ships. It’s £150 more than a standard jacket. It’s a jacket that’s been there.

Have you had any close shaves on your buying trips?
I was once chased off a property by a guy with a rattlesnake on the end of a stick. I do a lot of cold calling, we go out into the west and drive around, and if we see a likely looking ranch and it looks like they haven’t thrown anything away in 80 years we call in… and this guy was not taking any chances. And I’ve met some lovely people. People who still live out in the west, with no running water, who generate their own power, live and die out in the ranch.

David White’s Ragtop Vintage is at Spitalfields, Thursdays; he has recently opened a shop in the basement, 1a Turville St E2. You can find his blog here.

Julia Chettati, Feather’d One-Off

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“I don’t like anything mass-produced. One of everything is enough.”

Like any market, Portobello has changed over the years; chainstores, like All Saints “of Spitalfields” have moved in, while the antique and junk offerings get thinner on the ground. But at the bottom, underneath the Westway, everything gets more diverse. Julia Chettati’s corner, on the near side, is one of the most intriguing. Her own stall is filled with jewel-like, vibrant concoctions, crafted from vintage fabrics or brightly-coloured feathers. Julia is old school: like many of us, she’s seen her own area change, pressured by development and commercialisation. But again, like many of us, she’s still in love with the buzz of the market, drawn ever back like a moth to a flame.

How did you start your stall?
I was doing vintage shoes and dresses and saw a hole in the market – this was in Portobello. How long have I been doing this? I can’t remember – years!

How would you describe what you sell?
I’m just doing my own thing, right now I’m making all my headpieces. It’s bits of design I do myself, and I do up things. How would I describe it? Unique, I’ve always been different.

What are your style influences?
I just do it off the top of my head, really. I think parts of history influence me, different periods of time: the twenties, that period, the head pieces, that’s the kind of themes I’m working on now. I just like beautiful, nice things. I don’t get influenced by high street – I don’t go to the high street, I don’t shop in those shops, I’ve never owned a pair of trainers, I don’t wear jeans, I don’t like anything that’s mass produced. One of everything is enough.

You seem to have a thing for feathers?
I do like feathers. They’re a slice of freedom. I’m working with feathers right now, making up stuff, I’ve made a beautiful little hat with butterflies, the base is leaves, then it’s all butterflies, I’m pleased how it’s turned out, I do it from my head, there’s no pattern. Then I found some beautiful old Victorian trim, that would be nice thrown round the head like a garland. That’s what’s nice, making things… I don’t make loads of money, my stuff should sell for more, it’s very time consuming. But I’m grateful I can do that.

And how would you describe your customers?
A bit quirky, artistic, unusual, you have to get it.

Have they changed over the years?
The market changed years ago. It was when the Euro first started, really. You used to see exciting people, people from European companies, designers, make-up artists, models, intriguing people, really nicely-dressed people, bands, stylists. All characters. I don’t think you see people like that any more.

What was the cause? More chain stores?
The stores aren’t as nice, I suppose they have to let the bigger stores in, the coffee shops, it’s not what Portobello is about. Greedy corporate companies push all the good little interesting people out and that’s what kills it, because they are what makes it what it is.  MacDonalds did try a few years ago, at least we got rid of them!

There’s still a real camaraderie in this corner though, isn’t there – do you look out for each other?
Yes, we do OK. It’s like a family, really – like it or lump it, we’re all used to each other! Don’t forget, it’s a business-place too, it’s stressful at times, and everyone’s all chasing the same pound. But the whole area has always had its characters, always been on the edge. That’s how it will always be. Everywhere has to change and move on… on the whole, we’re alright, there’s a lot of decent, hardworking people and fabulous stuff. I love it. I’ve always been a vintage person – you never know what you’re going to find, you never know how much you’re going to take, either. And that’s how life is, isn’t it?

Do you need a particular attitude to run a stall, as opposed to a shop?
Shops are very expensive, a big commitment, it’s cost, cost, cost. A stall’s less expensive, it’s like a little office anyway, people know you’re there. In a shop you wait for people to come to you, in a stall there’s a flow of people who will pass you anyway.  When it’s cold, like now, you move around and it’s alright! It’s all cosy and cushy in a shop with no preparation – but I’ve always liked to graft. I make my stall like a little picture, every time I set it up I enjoy it. I’m a free spirit. I couldn’t bear sitting in a shop all day, how depressing, Oh God, no!

Julia Chettati is at the north end of Portobello Road, under the Westway, on Fridays; on Saturdays and Sundays you’ll find her at the Ladbroke Grove end, or on the far side of the canopy.


Alex McHattie, Foul Weather Friend

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“When the rain’s coming in horizontally and you’re clinging on to your stall… it bonds people!”

 

Whether market traders count as heroic or deluded, Alex counts as the most heroic or deluded of all of them. He’s run a book stall at the Greenwich Clock Tower market for over three decades – and when the weather’s grim, he’s the one you can count on to turn up. Many times I’ve seen him, with just two or three other intrepid souls, standing behind the stall while the rain buckets down, and visitors are nowhere to be seen. In the past few years, after the adjacent Stockwell Street market closed and fewer visitors come to check out the markets in Greenwich, I suspect trade has got quieter – but as long as Alex is here, like the ravens in the Tower, our market is surely safe.

Book traders are often a lugubrious bunch who, should you ask if they want to buy any of your surplus volumes, sigh and launch into a tirade against the internet, charity shops, and other banes of their life. Not Alex. Rain or shine, feast or famine, he grits his teeth and carries on. We salute him.

You are the man who has been here the longest, is at this market winter or summer, rain or shine. So.. what explains your incredible and irrational commitment?
Desperation and madness really. No… I run the market on Saturdays so that’s why I’m always here. I don’t seem to earn much money, these days off the stall – but what else would I do? I’ve been here since 1978 on and off, and it’s evolved into me running the market for Jane, who’s the manager now. And that’s why I’m here all the time.

How did you start?
I was on the dole, living in a squat in Deptford, running around Greenwich, I would take a bag full of stuff down there and sell it, that’s what started it. I was desperate then, I’m desperate now!

So you started before this area had the hotel and cinema?
Yes – before it was developed it was a lot bigger, five or six times the size of this. That was before boot sales had really taken off so most people who were going to sell stuff would come to Greenwich, it was a much bigger draw. The same as everywhere, Greenwich has been tarted up and the market has been confined. There’s no room for expansion any more. The people who would have come here years ago go to boot sales. But that’s the way of the world, isn’t it?

What are some of your great discoveries?
The best ever sale.. was a first edition of Treasure Island which I bought for 50p, from a junky charity shop in Bermondsey. And I almost didn’t buy it because it was tatty, I thought it can’t possibly be a 1st edition. But it was. And I sold that for, I think, twelve hundred pounds. I think that’s the best ever sale. And 50s and 60s textiles, I’ve done really well with them over the years. And a few good books in between two, three four hundred pounds. But generally, I’ve never made that leap into the higher end, I’m content to tip my stuff out and see what happens!

What’s the attraction of a stall? There must be a magic that draws you back?
It’s so good. There are good people on the market, it’s always fun. Well, most of the time. Rain or shine it’s good. There’s always a chance you’re going to take some money. And it’s not nine to five.

How do you feel about the future in Greenwich, particularly with what’s happening in the covered market?
I think the covered market is going to vanish, to be honest. Once that’s redeveloped there won’t be much of a market there. This one is safe, but the council might discover it  in the end and put an office block in. And that would be the end.

It would also be the end of Greenwich as a place with a particular vibe.
I think so. And there’s not a lot of that vibe left these days. Since the [Stockwell Street] market shut a lot of people have said it’s not worth going to Greenwich just for this market, it’s too small. When the other one was there you could have a good root through, and a lot of people have gone and won’t come back. We’ll see. But at the moment it’s alright. It’s full up. And the sun is shining.

Now, this Sunday, the one with all the snow. Where were you all?
Ha, sorry, Jane the manager called up and told me it was cancelled because it was too awkward for people to get there. You’ll have to change my copy now!

One week out of 52… I think you still keep your title. It’s hard work with a stall, you’ve got to be a self-starter, a hard worker, maybe a bit heroic, and maybe a bit irrational – or deluded?
You’re right. Probably, yes. Especially in the really bad weather, when it’s really windy and rainy and you get trapped and you just can’t go. And the rain’s coming in horizontally and you’re hanging on to your stall to stop it from blowing over. That feels heroic. It sounds crazy. but it bonds people in a way. A day like that, you’ve done it, and you’ve got through it, it’s terrible for business but you have a good laugh and everyone seems to enjoy it, even if you and your stock are soaking wet. You couldn’t get that in a shop!

Alex is at Greenwich Clock Street market, by the cinema, Saturdays and Sundays, whatever the weather.


Albert Olafson, Meeting Man

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“A lot of old people are missing. I’m wondering what’s happened with them.”

 

Halfway down Cheshire Street is a perfect little alley, leading to a walkway over the railtracks. For a long time it hosted a perfect little stall. It’s hard to say what was so good about Albert’s hoard: the old cameras, musical instruments, records, bits of hi fi, random toys, old Super 8 glamour films, hats, pictures, random objects. But there is a certain rightness to it. Now, sadly, Cheshire Street is dying; but Albert’s stall, now round the corner just off Sclater Street, is still, in its glorious randomness, quite perfect.

How did you come to run a stall here?
Probably, it’s from my childhood in my town  – Novi Sad, in Yugoslavia. There was a big flea market and we used to go, dress ourselves with all the 1940s, 30s clothes – it was a fashion. And my mother would sometimes discover there  was something missing from her display cabinet, like a figurine. Yugoslavia was something between the West and the East, it was nice to live in, a free country.

You were on Cheshire Street for a long time – when did you start, and how were those early days?
I started on Bethnal Green Road, a fly pitch, me and my friend, probably when I came here in ’87. The old Brick Lane was a really big market, all year around it was full of stuff… the poor people would bring things to sell that they found on the street, there was a guy I remember in my first days, he used to go with a metal detector searching the river bed and he would come with all this old metal things, clay pipes, all sort of things and he was full of the story of London historically. So, these people are not there now. But, however it changes… you still love it.

You had a nice spot on Cheshire Street – sadly, the whole street is very quiet now. Do you miss it?
It was a nice place. Every time I pass that spot, it’s bringing up all these nice memories. And I see it in movies, too, it’s been in lots, Children Of Men was one of the latest.

Your stall has a special, distinctive mix – how would you describe it?
Bizarre, is that the right word? Eclectic. I was never really a follower of fashion, I always try to make a fashion. It’s all part of my hobby. It’s my interest – my interest in life. It passes through my home, it’s like, OK, have we lived enough with this piece, and it gets handed on to someone. We live very minimalistic, though, I am not allowed by my wife to bring all that stuff.

Where do you find it all?
All around Sheffield, where we live. There are all these old market towns, Chesterfield, Barnsley, Rotherham, they all have a tradition of a market, on different days. I don’t do it full time, though, I am an artist. London, for me, is like a meeting place, I don’t have anyone from my country or my town here in Sheffield, so we meet in the market.

Tell me about your favourite discovery or treasure from the last few years.
I found this skeleton. A real skeleton, from a house clearance in Sheffield. I put it on the market and then one student came and put a deposit on it. He was a medical student, and he told me a really harsh story, that this skeleton comes from India, and he was age nineteen and he suffered from this illness and that illness. And another story, that families  sometimes sell a human being to somebody to kill and make it a skeleton. Horrible stories. And the student didn’t come back the next week. That skeleton travelled with me for four weeks, to London and back to Sheffield. And throughout these weeks, I was with this skeleton, thinking about it and those horrible stories.

I get a sense that, whatever changes, you love this place and will keep coming.
Oh yes. I am over there all day. I come about five o’clock and we go about 10 o’clock. It’s a meeting place. Not just Yugoslavian people, English people, American, Spanish, all the people I know who are living in London. It is important.

Selling on the internet changed a lot that type of contact with people and socialising. Quite a lot of old people are missing, I’m wondering what’s happening with them. For example there was a guy,  he was some sort of spy in Yugoslavia, early after the war, he would come every week, we would have a talk, he was interested in movies, French, Italian. He’s gone now. And I’m wondering what happened to him. That kind of thing. It’s part of history.

Albert Olaffsen is at Sclater Street, Brick Lane, Sundays.