Heather John, Curly Queen

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“It’s the thrill of finding something in an old bag… then someone trying it on and it looks amazing.”

Old school Greenwich Market people remember Heather, and her big hair, very well indeed. But it turns out her story goes even further back – to Brixton, to Fournier Street, and back to Brixton again – for markets are in her blood. And as you pick through the items on her stall, or her tiny shop near Peckham Rye, you might find yourself thinking, As long as traders continue to care as much, our street markets can never die.

Explain the name of your stall, and now your shop, Chichirara…
When I was in Texas buying vintage clothes with my brother Ian in the ’80s I used have very big hair – and my nickname used to be Big Hair. When I was in Texas lots of women used to have big hair, then I read in a magazine article they used to be called Chichirara and it’s a name I just kept.

What fascinates you about old clothes?
That’s really hard. What is it? It’s history, colours, design, finding something and bringing it back to life. I’ve always been interested in fashion, I worked at a fashion magazine so the whole thing about design and style, the process about how it keeps evolving.

There’s a big crossover between art students and smallholder. Is running a stall a continuation of student life?
It could well be. I think if you’re an art student or a student, by necessity you’re looking for more creative things, because out of adversity you have to find it cheaply – and you feed off each other.

We were discussing how it’s somehow heroic to run a stall, to get up every morning and start over. But it might help to be also eccentric or insane. Fair?
I would say so. Not necessarily fitting into standard work-practice material, although you probably work a lot harder – you’re doing it for yourself and you don’t have days off sick. My first stall was at Brixton in the ’80s, that was an amazing place to work, people had been there a long time, fascinating people, and maybe some of them slightly criminal, they did really look out for you, and really help you out, I really enjoyed that, it was a great place to work. And Greenwich was the same, when we went to Greenwich from Brixton we thought it would be different but it wasn’t, everybody was really helpful, although they were highly competitive as well.

What do you look for when you’re sourcing clothing?
Anything that is beautiful or wearable from any period, and/or extraordinary. Or has the historic value, not in terms of money, historic value.

Tell me about some of your finest discoveries.
There was a fabulous Vivienne Westwood Witches Collaboration T shirt with Keith Haring. It was in a binbag full of old clothes. I recognised it straight away. I do think it’s extraordinary that  I managed to save it, it is a piece of fashion history from the last collection she did with Malcolm Mclaren, a really important piece – and sometimes these things are destined for landfill. So it was amazing to find. It went in a fashion auction. Yes, the price wasn’t bad. But that’s not typical, that’s not necessarily the main criterion. [There's] the thrill of finding something in an old bag and then somebody coming along and trying it on and it looks amazing. The other day I was driving down Gallery Road…   somebody had bought a dress the week before, she’s a well known makeup designer, Alex Box,  and I saw her walking down the road with her sleeves flapping -  ‘cos this dress had these amazing sleeves. Something she’s bought from me the week before, to see people wearing it in the street and obviously loving it, that’s just great.

Markets are in your blood, I hear…
I discovered that, when I did my mum’s family research, because she was fostered. I didn’t grow up in South London but I’d moved here – and my great-great-grandfather Thomas Moorehouse had a market stall in Brixton, selling hot potatoes in the winter and ice cream in the summer. And he was living in practically the same place, cause I  lived on the Barrier Block,  and his street was right by where I first started my market stall at Brixton. So there was this overlaying, generations of us trading in the same places. Some of them were born in Stockwell Street in Greenwich, over the Spreadeagle, and that’s where our market stall was – they weren’t posh, they were living in rooms. That was my great aunt.  And my grandfather, whose father was the ice-cream salesman, lived in Fournier Street in what was a young boys’ home.

Is that part of the fascination of markets? This resonance of the people who’ve been working in them, for centuries back through our history?
Definitely, I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I found those things out about my family, because we didn’t know. And I hope the markets will go on like that, and continue. But it’s a difficult thing.

Heather John is at the Dulwich Collectors Fair, last Sunday of most months; her shop, Chichirara, is at 18a Upland Road, Peckham Rye.


“I was really cross with myself… making hats just helped me get over a hurdle in life.”

After a few weeks soaking up the bustle, the smells and the noise of London’s street markets, Dulwich Vintage Fashion Fair is a culture shock. It’s a restful place: golden light streams through the windows, illuminating the luscious vintage fabrics and clothing, all lovingly displayed around the spacious upper storey of the Crown and Greyhound, a rambling Victorian pub. Jane Fairhead’s stall is one of the busiest, as groups of two or three women fondle the hats, examining the feathers and construction, before trying them on. Hats, it seems, make people smile.

Hats are very happy objects – people seem to crowd round your stall, trying them on together and laughing.
Yes, that’s the nice things about doing the hats, I always get lots of people coming over wanting to try stuff on, there’s always laughter and giggles, it’s really nice. Though it often looks like I’m doing well and selling lots… but it’s just a lot of trying on!

Explain about you and hats and how you get into making them?
It started about 24 years ago. My mother’s best friend is quite a well known milliner, my mum started doing some outwork for her, and started getting sent over all these hats to work on. And I just thought, ‘I’d like to have a go’, and started designing my own. Shortly after that I moved up to Sheffield, there’s a university, a lot of young people and a new age movement there – and I was making these crazy hats that people seemed to like wearing. Later, I gave it up. And then I started again, about two and a half years ago. Because I’d made some plans that had gone wrong in life, had done a teacher training course that went horribly wrong. And I found I wanted to do something creative. I was really cross with myself at that time – and making hats just helped me get over a hurdle in my life.

Where does inspiration for a hat come from?
Just going to the fairs, I see what people like to wear, and I look at the old hats that people are selling. And I’ve just got really attracted to 1940s and 1950s styles. So I’m really using those decades for my inspiration. And I’ve also got some cloche blocks that I’ve had for years, so I make a lot of cloches because people will just buy them, people who aren’t into vintage.

When we photographed you in the summer you were very into feather hats.
That all changed. Now I’m doing a lot of felt hats!

Do you ever think about the fact you’re working in such an ancient, English tradition?
Yes I do, although I have to point out I’m not a properly trained milliner. Historically people wouldn’t go out without a hat on, and there’s still a lot of interest in them. But it’s also a crazy thing to be doing in a recession.

Does it ever get you down?
No! I struggle to survive, but it doesn’t. Actually, that’s a lie, it got me down this summer, I booked into some events that were disastrous, I lost money and I thought, I’ve really got to give this up now, I can’t be losing this much money with something I’m investing so much time in. Then I have a good day and I’m spurred on. I juggle the hats with the [day]job and muddle through that way. And I admit, I do get a lot of pleasure out of it.

You mentioned earlier how some of your new designs have a commercial basis, they’re designed to sell. And market people have this mix, don’t they, of hard-nosed business sense, and irrational exuberance or obsession?
Yes, they do. And I am firmly in the latter group.

Jane Fairhead can often be found at the Dulwich Vintage Fashion Fair, the last Sunday of every month. This winter she will be at the Duckie Christmas Market at the Barbican, December 13,14,15,18, 20, 21, 22, 23 & 28. www.fairheadsheadwear.com

“It will be a constant fight – I think there will be a turnaround where people realise the markets maketh the area.”

In the years we’ve seen Paul Francis around Greenwich, Spitalfields or Dulwich, we’ve never seen him wear  the same outfit twice. His stall is a treasure trove: tweed plus fours, Northampton-made brogues, fine jackets, army officer boots, thick woolen socks, Mackintoshes, Tootal paisley scarves – purposefully so, for often if he has a special item of stock, he’ll hide the gem away, so the customer can experience that joy of discovery that drives us all. His aesthetic is obvious, but hard to define – but his stall is always a joy, an oasis of 1940s England, reinvented for the modern city.

How would you describe your stock?
One of the names I use is Urban Shepherd. That’s it in a nutshell. Countrywear, things made elsewhere, being worn in in London. Some people would call it boring, I call it well-crafted traditional clothing made to be colourful and interesting, with a twist.

How did you get into your Urban Shepherd Look?
The best things that have happened to me have always happened by accident. I’ve bought vintage clothing for a number of years, then spent 12 years in property, at that time always bought new stuff. None of that new stuff lasted, but all the stuff I brought previous to that lasted. In 1996-1997 I designed clothes, first bought vintage stuff and got it remodelled, then from that I did a menswear range called Abdul Jamal, using traditional fabrics, again with a bit of a twist and a bit of color, then bit by bit I got into what I do now, so I’ve been doing stalls for maybe two years.

How do you track down your stock?
The kind of things I find and look out for I’m seeing every day, whether it be charity shops, boot sales, ragyards, and also people bringing me stuff who have an idea what I want, people seem to know my style, and there are people who buy for me, so it’s a combination.

What’s your finest recent discovery?
Just now, I found a jacket in a bunch of stuff at a ragyard. I didn’t even look at it, I felt the weight of it, and I thought… throw it in there. Normally I would try everything on, and I didn’t this time because I knew intrinsically it was something nice. Then discovering it, looking at all the zips and the rest of it, it didn’t have any label but I thought I’ve seen that lining, it looks familiar. And it was a Belstaff, a wonderful jacket, maybe from the 50s.

We’re in Greenwich, where one market has gone and the second one is under threat. How do you see the future of markets in London?
We’re going to have to fight. It will be a constant fight from here on in, and I think there will be a turnaround where people realise the markets maketh the area, as opposed to if we take the market away that’ll improve the area. The market is the lifeblood of the area. All the places people want to live, they’ve all had markets in. It’s crazy how they want to take it away, but I think there’s a fight back. It will turn around but I don’t know when.

Why the shoe horn?
I like things to be able to more than one thing. It’s useful, you can put beautiful, well-made shoes on with it. And it’s a piece of furniture.

Paul Francis is on Camden Passage Wednesdays, Spitalfields Thursday, Greenwich Clock Market, most Saturdays and Sundays, and Dulwich Village Fashion Fair, last Sunday of every month.