My friend Cylene had had a disastrous night out a few days before, so on my day off I took her for a meal at her favourite Ethiopian restaurant (Kokeb in North London, in case you’re interested – and don’t be put off by the astroturf bizarrely covering the front yard), and then for some retail therapy in Camden. It is a truism among alternative people that ‘Camden is not what it was’, but then that opinion has been current since about 1990. In some places, ‘gentrification’ means rising property prices and less prosperous residents being squeezed out; or it can simply mean that there are fewer drug dealers in street corners and fewer pools of body fluids around the pubs. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. I have never seen much that’s genuinely creative and edgy about Camden: it’s always been touristic and self-conscious.
Of course there are differences. The area seems to have decided that the late Amy Winehouse is a bit of a draw, on the slender grounds that she worked on a market stall there for a few months: her statue now stands in the Stable Market and her image graces T-shirts and memorabilia in the outlets. The one-stop Goth-shops continue to retreat and vanish, but one can’t really lament too much the loss of opportunities to buy overpriced synthetic-fabric corsets and coats that will fall apart after you wear them twice. Of the higher-end retailers, Black Rose is still there, Sai Sai is still there, Burleska Corsets are carrying on, and because Cylene wanted something fluorescent we even ventured into the Stygian pit that is Cyberdog, still plying its varicoloured wares despite the near-complete eclipse of the rave culture that it ventured into once it decided cybergoth wasn’t enough to pay the rent.
But then we found Psylo, and I thought that was genuinely interesting. Its tribal/punk fusion aesthetic clearly isn’t marketed exclusively, or even mainly, at Goths, but there was a Goth lady serving when we were there and the schmutter is at least Goth-friendly, provided your taste veers towards the punky or industrial end of the spectrum. Natural fabrics, muted colours, well-made and showing signs here and there of interesting design – although none of it is to my taste as such, I was quite impressed. None of the clothes and accessories are cheap, but there’s no reason why they should be.
I was more impressed still when I found out the background to the company – not so much the hippie-ish story of its origins in the experiences of two Westerners travelling through the developing world together or its hifalutin self-image, but its management and organisation. The design team and production is based in Bali, and the company’s major outlets are – apart from Camden – there, two in Mexico and two in Thailand, which is an unusual profile to say the least. It seems to be a conscientious employer, a developing-economy business based around exporting neither sweated bargain-basement standard Western fare nor faux-ethnic costume, but something genuinely different rather than just posing at being different. As I say, not for me, but interesting nevertheless. Cylene even made a purchase.