I recently visited a wicked shop on Carnaby Street. You’ve probably heard of it, not least because it shares its name with an ’80s pop banger. I caught up with Alice Mayor, the founder of alternative souvenir shop We Built This City to find out what inspired her to launch the unique shopping destination on one of London’s most iconic streets…
Tell us about what inspired to to start a creative business…
I started life in PR and marketing and used to work with lots of entertainment and arts-focused clients but I wanted to move from agency work to in-house to really get to grips with how businesses are run. I wanted to be part of a young, budding company so I could learn on the job so began working for a website that sold art and design from galleries and museums online. They also worked with a lot of independent creatives. I was there for three years and was heavily involved with brand partnerships and met some amazing people. During that time, lots of independent artists and designers were saying, ‘the creative world is tricky for us because we have no time to create new work and are constantly fighting to make sales’. The business side of the creative industries can become the heavier workload which means sacrificing what you love to ensure you stay afloat.
London is full of marketing and advertising people but there aren’t enough robust sales platforms for creatives. Online can be quite limited and in terms of physical retail, everything seems to be located or limited to certain areas of London. That’s a shame because most of the time the wealth of city is in the centre of town where tourists come in. Small boutiques in East London, although they’re great, aren’t much of a window into the world. I’d seen some amazing products and decided that I wanted to do my bit to help the creative sector to grow and find a wider audience.
Where did the idea to launch an alternative souvenir shop spring from?
Londoners more or less have it covered; if you’re creatively-inclined and you know the city you’ll go to Columbia Road or Portobello and seek out the products you like. If you’re visiting for the day or from another country you won’t know the score. I read a statistic that four out of five tourists cite culture as the reason for visiting, it was also the year that London became the most visited city in the world, and it suddenly dawned on me that all these people were visiting us with so few opportunities to find a lasting and creative souvenir. It didn’t take long to realise just how tired and outdated souvenirs were. We tend to turn a blind eye and just accept the sheer level of tat in every city but we don’t have to. We had some great London-inspired products and a brand new international audience to tap into; we just had to bring them together.
We Built This City lives on Carnaby Street; how did you end up there?
I thought if we do this in the right part of town and do it right we can reach the tourist audience, get the footfall we need and really support these creatives. I spent six months thinking about how to achieve this. Lots of people said, ‘why don’t you set up in Shoreditch?’ and I was cautious because I didn’t want to end up preaching to the converted. I used to spend weekends wandering around the West End looking for space to rent and worrying just how much something this could potentially cost. I loved the concept of a souvenir shop and had about 85 artists I knew who could create with London-specific work. I thought a lot about tourism and the first places people visit in the city, like Oxford Street, Carnaby Street etc.
I pitched the idea to Carnaby and they loved it, especially the products. I expected to be offered a small space sometime in the near future but ended up being given a whole unit to prepare and open in just three weeks! It was exhilarating and everyone from Carnaby Street was so incredible and supportive. We worked with a freelance interior designer who came up with great concepts for the space to tell our story with items such as our brick walls and pigeons. We were in our pop-up space for eight weeks and then we were invited back to open our current space opposite Boots at 56 Carnaby Street last May. We’ve been here ever since.
Tell us about the look and feel of the shop, and the pigeons of course…
When we first opened the doors of the shop someone said, ‘It’s like looking into your brain’ which I thought was really funny and surprising but then, I’ve always liked putting things together and curating things, even though i’m not always a ‘practically creative’ person. The bricks and pigeons are all about sharing London’s narrative and telling everyone what we’re trying to do, but they’re also there to invite people in.
Yes, we’re trying to revolutionise souvenirs and yes, we’re trying to help artists and designers, but we have to remove the exclusivity and shyness that people visiting the city might experience when thinking about stepping into an artist-designed shop. We’re not stuck up or elitist, we’re enjoying this place and we want other people to enjoy it too. In supporting us, Carnaby Street have done something brave and inspiring. They’ve successfully brought independent retailers and creativity back to central London where it belongs.
What advice would you offer anyone interested in starting a creative business?
For me, PR was a great playground to learn about both business and creative campaigns and brands. It’s worth cutting your teeth first and learning what works and what doesn’t before taking a leap of faith. There’s a tension between creative and business – and sometimes putting them together is trickier than you think. Learning on the job or learning on someone else’s time while doing a job that teaches you important skills is the best way to start. Be careful of learning things that might be too niche to apply to your own ideas, keep things broad, keep learning and take your time. People don’t really have jobs for life now so use a process of elimination at the beginning to really discover where your passions and skills lie.
Tell us about the amazing people you support and work with…
We’re now representing over 300 artists and designers. We tend to find people through our own research and trade shows but we also now have a lot of people coming to us, which is amazing. We’re thinking about new ways to support individuals and sell their work to a wider audience too. It’s been a real win-win for the creative industries so far; for Carnaby, for customers and for us. We currently work with artists based in the UK exclusively and luckily for us our community feel very at home here. When we have launch parties there’s a great vibe, everyone is very close and supportive of one another.
We select our souvenirs with London in mind but the concept is broad. A product doesn’t have to show the skyline. We like to think about the city in local terms too so we show the best of London’s subcultures, as well as a healthy dose of beards, bicycles, tea and biscuits. We like to remind ourselves of what we’re about and how others see London. Everything has to have a level of artistic integrity and we like to tell a story. There’s an incredible emotional reaction to the store and our collection – not only because of people’s love of London, but also because most people don’t know where to buy affordable art which means there’s a lot of surprise & delight (and gasps!) when they come and see it all hanging together.
We sell pieces for our community but we also try to promote them as much as we can. The brilliant thing about Carnaby is that it’s a fantastic showcase spot. We’ve been visited by brands and commercial clients who love what we do so now we’re working on projects behind the scenes and becoming more than just a shop. In that way we’re really close to our core mission which is all about supporting London’s creative community.
We’d love to see We Built This City in other places all over the world, which is sort of where the idea for the name came from. The creative community in any city makes it, it builds a vibrant and energetic place that people want to come and visit. You see it everywhere. Our name is a nod to those we work with because they belong in central London and there needs to be somewhere that represents them. It’s justice for them, they deserve to be selling their wares here.
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Words: Emily Beeson | @boogiemargaret