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When I was a lass, back in them 1980s, I had a Saturday job. I wangled work in a sports shop, so I could indulge a fledgling trainer fetish (what right-minded 15-year-old wouldn't want trainers with colour-coded heel shock absorbers? Take a retro bow, Adidas Los Angeles). So, when I was invited last Christmas to revive my Saturday 'girl' skillchops at We Built This City, the Carnaby Street pop-up London art phenomenon, I jumped at the chance to lend a hand. I met recently with Alice Mayor, the founder of WBTC to have a chinwag and discover her plans for the next phase for the creative superstore.

Hello Alice. Tell me a bit about you for the lovely readers of TMT.
I started out in PR. I did that for 4 years, and worked with a lot of arts and entertainment clients, but I had itchy feet and really wanted to do something of my own, start a business right from scratch. Whilst I was thinking about this, deciding what form it would take, I joined an e-commerce company that sold art and design online, aggregated the best products and works from museums and galleries from around the world. Whilst there, I was meeting with a lot of London artists and designers, and many from around the UK, with the aim of selling their product online.

 

What I found was many of them coming to me with their woes, the main one being that all they wanted to do was concentrate on what they did well - their art! So, they didn't want to be a salesperson, be constantly bigging themselves up from a PR perspective, marketing, targeting social media, finding the right outlets to stock their creations - all the exhausting, time-consuming stuff that can take up too many of the precious hours in the day which they felt could be better spent creating the actual work.

You saw a service gap you could fill for the artists?
Exactly. I thought I could create something that helped my local artists and designers. But I had to work out what form it would take. I felt that online had so many limitations with connecting to the customer, and that good, old-fashioned retail was the best way to go, especially at a time when people are looking for physical experiences and human connections more than ever. I then just had to decide where. I'd considered the obvious choice of East London, but I felt I might be preaching to the converted, and I wanted the creatives I represented to genuinely reach a broader audience and in doing so build a really accessible brand, a new gateway if you like, that would invite people in who wouldn't otherwise know where to discover all this amazing work.
At what point did you decide to go it alone, it's quite a brave move to go into a physical retail space in this day and age?
Once I truly realised there was a need within the artist community to create a platform, and that there was a gap in the market to make it more accessible to the man in the street and not just those 'in the know', I couldn't really help myself! The penny dropped while I was still at the e-commerce site, when I was working with an artist Ursula Hitz, who created wonderful typographical maps of London. We did a big promotion on her in an estate agents publication. The response was huge, she sold a stack of her work in a very short space of time, and I just knew this was something to be built on. Knowing this magazine isn't aimed at those in-the-know, but instead a broader audience of new homeowners who might not know where to find a lovely piece for that blank wall in their home (that isn't from Ikea or Habitat), made me think art could be inclusive, affordable, and that many people also have a genuine attachment to the town they live and work in, and more particularly that London really does engender those feelings.
So, really, WBTC is aimed at the London 'everyman' - not just for cool Londoners who already know where to find it?
You could definitely say that. And also those who visit London who want a memento of the city that's reflective of their experience here, not the cheap, unsustainable stuff you can buy on any street corner in Oxford Street. People who may have travelled here from another town or country, and would love a reminder of their trip that is beautifully drawn, or sculpted, or photographed by a local artist. In 2013, London became the most visited city in the world, so every day the streets of London have an enormous influx of people coming here just to take in the city.

 

There's another statistic - oh, here's where I go a bit vague, but there is substance to this, I promise! That's it - that 4 out of 5 visitors to London will have planned a cultural or art related part to their visit. People come here, they want to experience the creative culture, and I wanted to give them the chance to help support one of the best creative communities in the world by letting them take a bit of it home with them. Souvenirs! But so much better than much of the tat you can find just anywhere. What we're doing is about supporting our artists and the UK economy, promoting goods that have been created and produced here, the best kind of localism.

You're creating socialist art retail!
Haha - that's a good one. I liked the phrase 'rock 'n' roll retail' someone used about WBTC, but maybe yours is more relevant with the election coming up. There's a new local government initiative in the offing to help artists who live in London to stay here. As ever, artists are struggling to survive in London, rents are flying through the roof, and it becomes more difficult to earn a crust from your creativity unless you're one of the lucky few who have already made it. I do feel a real responsibility to help showcase the good work that's being done here in London, and hope that by championing it, it can prosper here without having to relocate out of town.

 

That's the idea behind the name - We Built This City - it's a nod to the artists and designers who make a city 'happen'. Who'd have thought that places like Shoreditch and Spitalfields would become what they are today? The artists who set up studios in these run down areas so many years ago are a big part of the reason they became so sought after and why London is now able to attract so much global attention and wealth. It's important that people don't forget that and that our creative community reaps some of those rewards too.

You've chosen to base yourself in Central London - why is that?
What - the most expensive place for retail space in London? Haha - it's the place we can get the most exposure for the artists. It gives us the chance to showcase to people from all over the world. So, our role is to find the biggest and widest possible audience for their prints and products. It was risky, but it definitely has paid off in the best way imaginable. There's also the chance that our artists and designers will get even more exposure, not just to the retail customer, but also to the other audiences that walk in the door...interior designers, buyers, hoteliers and business owners, all wanting artworks and products for their own projects that have a more individual feel than the usual mass-produced stuff they can find on any high street.
Your first shop opened last year - how did that go?
We brought it together in a mad flurry, such is the world of pop-ups! In the end, we had just 4 weeks to take it from a pitch presentation to reality. We opened the doors mid November 2014 right through to mid January 2015, and we had 115 collaborators and around 600 products. It really made me realise how many artists and designers have saleable product ready to go! We didn't even have to commission anything bespoke for the shop, although this is something we're planning for the future.

 

The beautiful thing for us was that we were on Carnaby Street, smack in the middle of a load of the usual high street brands. People would spot the shop, be curious as it wasn't so run-of-the-mill, hover around the door, and then they'd take the plunge, come in and realise there was art and design they could afford, sold by staff who knew their stuff and loved what they were selling. It's also unlike the experience they might have at a traditional 'white space' gallery, which can be intimidating, and who knows - the art they buy from us could belong to a star of the future who might end up gracing the walls of those galleries in years to come?

And I'm getting the impression that WBTC was a success?
We had around 200,000 people pass through the doors of our Christmas pop up - it's an enormous amount of eyeballs to see the work. Ultimately, that's what it should be about - the individuals and their work. We can't become one of those huge chains that sell people 'cool' but profit is their main goal, so they end up screwing the artists over, as if having the chance to be stocked in the store should be payment enough. We feel quite missionary about all this. What I gained real satisfaction from was, when we made the payments to artists for goods sold in WBTC (on a regular basis so they weren't out of pocket for long periods), that I had a number of artists phoning me up to say 'think you've made a bit of a mistake, you've paid too much into my account' because they simply couldn't believe they were selling over 100 prints in 4 weeks.

 

I got a huge kick out of this, and it felt that something really special was happening. I felt customers picked up on that magic in the store too and we're excited and proud to be playing a part in something so positive and supportive for the creative community. The shop we open in May will have around 65 new people on board with their work - that means around 200 artists and product designers under one roof. We're hoping we can 'build' on the success of WBTC and keep on flying the flag for homegrown creativity right here in the centre of London.

Strikes me that WBTC is the perfect mix of retail, gallery and showcase for both up-and-coming and more established creatives in London. It aims to be as innovative in its promotion as those it champions, with the genuine and heartfelt aim of getting the very best for their artists. Keep your eyes peeled for its latest incarnation opening on Carnaby Street on the 21st May 2015.

WE BUILT THIS CITY

 

Written by
AN ORDINARY TYPEWRITER
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