The Rag Trade

The Rag Trade

Words Gordon Ritchie

Illustrations Lucy Bayliss

In Fitzrovia, behind Oxford Street, boxed in by Regent Street, New Cavendish Street and Berners Street lays London’s very own Garment District. Anyone who has spent time on these streets, just one block behind one of the busiest shopping streets in the world, would have seen signs reading “Sample Sale,” “not open to the public,” “trade only.” This is where the stores go shopping. Straight out of Fitzrovia, the garments head to shops around the UK and even further afield.

The world of wholesale: where the buyers buy, secret undercover operations where mainstream trends, fashions and styles spring forward. Around Eastcastle Street, Great Titchfield Street and Margaret Street, behind closed doors, up on First floors, commercial creativity is in future thinking mode. Deciding what you’re going to want to wear before you’ve even thought of it. Before you even know you want it. It’s from these streets that brands, businesses and people have built reputations, and in some cases riches, in the Rag Trade. For how much longer though?

The Rag Trade is referenced in every article about property prices in the area, and the local industry used to extend much further towards Tottenham Court Road. In the Charlotte Street Hotel they have tailors’ dummies in every room. The area has fashion written in the stone walls, but is becoming increasingly fashionable. Galleries and coffee shops are moving in and opening at a rapid rate. Berners Street has big brand showrooms in number, but with The London Edition and Berners Tavern joining The Sanderson on the street, the new fashion set might well be edging out the old!

Kevin Stone worked for Fred Perry and Ben Sherman, who were both once based in the area, and has spent the last few years running his successful wholesale agency from a showroom based in Eastcastle Street. He has now taken the decision to move on. “It is becoming so expensive. I would stay if I could. The area is really accessible and business has been incredible.” The trade used to be a lot more visible, says Stone, “with the Cash and Carry places and Morplan, you used to bump into people in the street.”

Once upon a time the rattle of metal running rails on concrete and tarmac would ring through the area as hundreds of cellophane-wrapped clothes on hangers would go from lorry to showroom to van, in and out as the constant hubbub and bustle of commerce took place on the pavements. Out of Fitzrovia, flew clothes destined for boutiques, not just in London or the South East, but to be shipped up and down the country and even to ports and docks to be loaded into containers, destined to be stowed or stacked on ships bound for Spain, sometimes Japan, even the Caribbean.

Morplan is the best known supplier of shop fitting equipment and fixtures. Bill Edwards is their CEO: “Our Business has grown up over the years, serving the rag trade which is why being situated in Great Titchfield Street has been key to us. Although the business started elsewhere, it changed direction and specialised in supplying the rag trade in 1894, when we moved to our current premises at 56 Great Titchfield Street. Most people in the rag trade know Morplan. In recent years we received the Royal Warrant from H.M the Queen. We supply her Dresser with specialised supplies.”

Giant Spanish Department Store chain, El Cortes Ingles, used to have a buying office stationed high up on the corner of Eastcastle Street and Great Titchfield Street, with an eagle eyed view over Market Place, and of course, in the South West corner of the area, the loading bays of Philip Greens monolithic temple to consumerism. Top Shop and Top Man consume the prime product through the back doors. In the past, they used to spit back. The cabbage, the dead ducks, the bits that didn’t sell pushed back out again, barrow boys waiting to snap anything they could get their hands on at rock bottom prices. Dyed and sold up the market, it still turned a pound, no matter what it sold for.

In the area, cash was king and some of those market traders would go on and open shops. Hand to mouth in the beginning, the Rag Trade in Fitzrovia eventually allowed them in and gave them a break. In the late eighties, author and film-maker, Mark Baxter was one of them. “I started walking down Eastcastle Street and Great Portland Street, and the stuff was just fantastic. It got us going. Some would deal with you and some wouldn’t. Jewish families, London families, Asian people, it was really mixed, every second shop. Some were quite hard-nosed business men and others were more open to negotiation, doing a deal. It was quite entertaining. There was one that had really good stuff, loads of samples, odds and sods, bits and pieces. One day, the guy just said to me, ‘we’ve got a room at the back here. Go and have a look at that.’ I was going through it and there was a button missing, or it was a bit grubby or needed a bit of sewing. I’ll have all that, I told them. You’d buy it for a pound or two quid each and knock it out for fifteen or twenty. The cabbage was stuffed in a black bag. There wasn’t a lot of glamour to it. People don’t really think about where this stuff comes from, they just buy it.”

For those involved in other industries and businesses, there have always been perks to working among the merchants of Fitzrovia. In the pubs, coffee shops and snack bars around the area, office girls and receptionists would keep their ear to the ground for the next sample sale, when the showrooms sold off at even cheaper prices, the pieces they had been tempting the boutique buyers, that had now ran out of steam, with were replaced by the next trend. Nowadays, they are more likely to be savvy software and new media darlings who get tipped off digitally when the locally based PR firms that represent cool and classic brands are selling off sample ranges in basements full of bargains.

So why are there not more stores in the area? “When everyone works in the trade, used to healthy discounts, no one wants to pay retail, but that is going to change soon,” says Kevin Stone. “I think the future is retail.” The area is in such close vicinity to the world’s prime retail properties that it is surprising it hasn’t happened before now. Reiss now dominates Market Place and there is no doubt more High Street chains will be breaking out into the back streets in the South West corner of Fitzrovia before long. Let’s hope that an area that has a real heritage and stories, that has remained out of sight but contributed to commerce and the look of the nation of shopkeepers, can keep small pockets of resistance alive and keep some of the character and characters that make it a unique hub of an industry that everyone is closer to than they realise.