21 March, 2013

Paris has Avenue Montaigne, Milan has Corso Como and London has Morning Lane. At least, that’s the objective of Hackney council, which has joined forces with the Manhattan Loft Corporation and architect David Adjaye to transform a series of arches just off the little-known E9 street into a thoroughfare for fashion lovers. The project could see major global labels set up shop alongside young designers and blossoming businesses. They will join Burberry, Aquascutum and Pringle, which already have outlet stores in Chatham Place, just off Morning Lane.

Funded in part by the mayor’s regeneration fund, which injected £1.5 million into the E9 area following the riots in 2011, and by Network Rail, the Hackney Fashion Hub will include more than 6,000 sq ft of retail space as well as design studios, galleries and a café. The plan is to transform a block of disused rail arches into a chic fashion destination — “an outdoor shopping area like no other in the world” — with a view to generating both wealth and jobs for residents of the area, but also to further harness Hackney’s reputation as a creative hub.

“Hackney has a population which is already in tune with fashion and creative thought,” says Harry Handelsman, CEO of the Manhattan Loft Corporation. 

Handelsman specialises in the regeneration of forgotten areas — his recent projects include The Renaissance Hotel at St Pancras — and is specifically concerned with creating something in Hackney which sits “seamlessly among the existing community”. He has rolled into the East End at precisely the right time. Not because the Morning Lane area was in danger of being forgotten by Hackney residents but rather because many — myself included — have already woken up to its charms.

Over the past few years Morning Lane has been quietly managing its own little renaissance. In fact, what once served merely as the road that joined the Hackney Wick area with the bustle of Mare Street is now well on its way to becoming a destination in its own right. Spearheaded by a variety of new businesses, this revitalisation process began with a handful of creatives who saw an opportunity. Incentivised by the lower property costs that the “less hipster” side of the borough offered, the area served as a pull for new businesses that had the guts to open off the beaten track.

Among them is the Railroad Café — a buzzing little place that offers locally sourced fresh food, organic wine and  a mean cup of coffee — and the cosy but achingly cool Brew for Two tea shop. They join Bar Kino, an increasingly popular nightspot with beanie-wearing boys and girls (I saw a few lying on the pavement last weekend), and Meades the florist, arguably one of the best in the area.

 “It was barren here when we arrived,” says Eylem Binboga, a fashion graduate from the Royal College of Art who runs Brew for Two, “but it’s changing quickly”.

The designer and entrepreneur credits the tourist attraction across the street with a proportion of her café’s success. Since its expansion last year, Chatham Place’s pint-sized designer outlet village has served as a major pull for Asian visitors to the capital who come to E9 on shopping pilgrimages. After splashing their cash in store, the next stop for many of them is Brew For Two and the slightly further away Rail road.

It is little surprise then that Binboga is on board with the proposed changes. As both a fashion enthusiast and local businesswoman the venture does seem to have her interests somewhere in its heart. “What they are planning is a fantastic opportunity,” she says. “The area is becoming a creative hub — I think that’s fabulous.” Her words will come as some comfort to those who oppose the project on the grounds that three-figure-priced clothes and £4 cups of coffee will only serve to further alienate a community that has already suffered enough. For Hackney’s sake, I hope she’s right.