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Urban Makers, flying the flag for East London designer-maker markets

A not so secret society of designer makers is flourishing in East London. It’s called Urban Makers. Building on their personal experiences as artists, local residents and founders Ilka Dickens and Julia Redgrove have built a vibrant creative network where designers can tap into the strength of community without dulling individual flair.

After three years of markets, workshops, and events, Urban Makers has become a key outlet for independent designers looking to sell their handcrafted goods (and resource for those looking to buy). Stalls are a regular presence at Spitalfields Market, and Urban Makers makers have appeared at events on Roman Road, Here East, and Stylist Live, amongst others.

Urban origins

Ilka and Julia know the pressures of going into business alone as a designer. They are makers themselves — Julia of jewellery, Ilka of greeting cards, prints, and homewares. Both are Bow locals (SNAP was Ilka’s first retailer), Julia and Ilka crossed paths at numerous events and soon found they shared a frustration: there was a shortage of local designer-led markets.

They held their first market in Christmas 2015, where handpicked local makers gathered at St Paul’s church in Bow. The event was such a success that Ilka and Julia decided to do another one. And another. Demand to sell on Sundays soon prompted a move to Mile End Park, where local ties continued to grow. Nearly 30 makers assembled for the 2016 Roman Road Festival. A turnout that high would have been unthinkable just a couple of years before.

These early steps were fuelled by Bow interest alone, which speaks to intimacy of designer markets. ‘I think the demand for unique and handmade is stronger than ever,’ Ilka tells us. ‘People enjoy the idea of going to a makers market and meeting the person who made the product.’ One would do well to argue. A single event couldn’t possibly fit the whole Urban Makers network in this year. From free origami workshops at Here East to a full ecommerce launch at Stylist Live, Ilka and Julia are busier than ever.

A network of designer-makers

What’s striking about Urban Makers is that it’s a collaborative force. It brings creators together. Urban Makers’ product, for lack of a better word, is an environment in which individual craftspeople can thrive. Designers apply for a booth or table at Urban Maker events. Once an application is accepted a one-off fee secures the space and the designer joins a diverse and vibrant creative network.

There are two dimensions to this network. The first is simply strength through numbers. One handcrafted goods stall, however beautiful its products may be, would do well to draw a crowd. A single stall is admirable; 50 is an event. From vegan candles to botanical art, Urban Makers guarantee buyers and sellers alike a large, eclectic lineup of designers united by a love of their craft.

The second dimension is a kind of professional accountability. Designers need to wear a lot of hats. Making things is just the beginning. After that comes social media, stall presentation, product photography… the list goes on and on. Elsa Gomez of Brass and Bold jewellery ran her first ever stall with Urban Makers last spring and she’s seen no reason to leave. ‘Working with Ilka and Julia is an absolute pleasure,’ she told us. ‘They have created a fantastic community of designers and makers.’

Even the application process provides a chance for budding designers to receive feedback on their work. It isn’t uncommon for Urban Makers to reject applications they admire because the product photography is weak, for example. They offer advice and encourage fresh submissions. Ilka and Julia don’t want makers selling their work short. A market is only as good as its stalls, after all.

These two elements together create a self-sustaining culture of mutual support and shared knowledge. Members of the Urban Makers Perks scheme can connect with photographers, lawyers, marketers, search engine optimisation experts, and web developers at discount rates. Outside the pressures of market selling Urban Makers also puts on free workshops and talks, where attendees can develop skills and make connections.

Ethical sells

Urban Makers’ moral core goes beyond community. Goods must be made ethically and sustainably if possible, and have an environmental conscience. Members are discouraged from using plastic wrapping, and encouraged to use biodegradable packaging. It’s not just a top-down pressure, either. Ilka has noticed an uptick in buyers caring as well. ‘If you can recycle something and use it again and again, our customers definitely take to that,’ she said.

With this in mind it’s no real surprise bigger brands are eyeing up the handmade image. It’s something to be wary of. At events like Stylist Live, where independent makers rub shoulders with international conglomerates, Ilka has noticed a change in approach from bigger brands. ‘You can definitely see it in their marketing some are hoping to make themselves look warmer and fuzzier by aligning themselves with handmade.’ Is a new age of sustainable, goodie goodie corporations upon us? Probably not, but it bodes well that global brands are looking at Urban Makers and seeing that ethical sells.

The revolution will be digitised

Some customers felt Urban Makers wasn’t selling enough, Ilka recalls. ‘People would come to out events and say, “Oh my god. We love everything here – it’s amazing. Can I find all of these designers in one place? Do you have a website?” And of course we had an events website, but we weren’t selling.’ So, after a year of development, Urban Makers launched it online store this month.

Again curated by Ilka and Julia, the site connects shoppers with makers. Think Etsy with a quality check. People browse and order, and makers take it up from there. ‘Hopefully it’s a place people will come back to again and again because they know that we have put a lot of thought into the curation.’ It’s early days, but there’s plenty of cause for optimism.

This feels like a transitionary period for Urban Makers. Once named Urban Makers East, the business has gently eased itself away from regional ties — though only in name. A browse of its makers shows the East London contingent is as strong as ever. Balancing grassroots community with the global reach of the internet is no small order, though the two go hand in hand when managed carefully.

With so much going on it’s no wonder Ilka has less time for her own handmade goods than she would like, but that’s a tradeoff she’s willing to make. This is a good kind of busy. ‘It doesn’t feel like a job as such because I enjoy doing it, and I’m building something that I love. And Julia feels the same way.’ With Christmas season in full swing and the bright open expanse of a new year on the horizon, here’s hoping Bow’s handmade flag-bearers have plenty more in store.

20 Seventh Letter stall at an Urban Makers market
20 Seventh Letter stall at an Urban Makers market
Ros Shiers stall at Urban Makers market on Roman Road, 2016
Ros Shiers stall at an Urban Makers market on Roman Road
Urban Makers Christmas Market at the Mile End Park Ecology Pavilion, 2016
Urban Makers Christmas Market at the Mile End Park Ecology Pavilion, 2016

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Frederick O'Brien

Fred is a writer and researcher with a background in sustainable development. His research has featured in The Independent, the Evening Standard, and the New York Post, among others.

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