Upstairs, the highly successful Alphabet Cafe, which has become the hub of Soho's Beak Street, is giving birth to its first offspring, Bar. And on the levels in-between, behind the huge plate-glass windows that look out onto the dark and grungy Kensington Market opposite, hundreds of cardboard boxes are being opened.
Next week, this dusty building site will open its doors as Europe's first outreach of American chain Urban Outfitters. Visitors to New York, LA or San Francisco may be familiar with the store that the Wall Street Journal described as "Gap's evil twin".
In America, it is a lively, energetic, studenty affair: a somewhat edited- down and sanitised version of Kensington Market, with an eclectic mix of new and second-hand clothes for both sexes, books, jewellery, shoes, and lots of other stuff - pieces of furniture, candles, fridge magnets, beaded curtains, glasses, cocktail shakers and ashtrays - the sort of place that is heaven for students setting up home. The idea is that the store is a place in which to hang out, meet people, listen to music and - ideally - not leave empty-handed.
The 30 shops across America are considered very European. The team behind the first Urban Outfitters outside America and Canada have been at pains to make it slicker, cleaner, brighter and very "London". Paul Stamper, the store's creative director - who asks me not to use his name or title because at Urban they are all one big happy family - has been working on the British venture since April last year. There is not a single American accent to be heard around the team of twenty and thirtysomethings who seem to be running the outfit.
"The philosophy is very different to other retailers," he says, having spent months in America soaking up the Urban concept. The shop is a one- stop shop for 18 to 25 year-olds with labels sourced from the UK. Many have been scouted from Camden and Portobello Markets, including Nadine Powell, who had to be given lessons in how to sell her collection of T- shirts with rubberised prints before the head buyer at Urban Outfitters could purchase them from her.
Alongside more established names, such as G-Star and Evisu denims, there are names that have never been sold away from the atmosphere of a street market before. Also included are some of the labels that have been quietly making a name for themselves away from the fashion establishment, such as Souled Out of Portobello Green, whose founder, Frank Akinsete, started out by bringing stock back from American thrift stores and who is now selling his collection of hippy-dippy clothing at Souled Out.
Conscious Earthwear is another label run by a young entrepreneur, Sarah Ratty, whose clothes are a mix of eco-friendly recycling and utility sportswear. There are even collections here by designers who are still at college. Claire O'Connor, half of design duo Alternate Current, a label specialising in an updated mod look, is in her final year at Central Saint Martin's.
This is a store that prides itself on being anti-establishment. On a mezzanine level between the menswear basement and the womenswear ground floor will be the Ministry of Sound DJ, on hand to play your choice from an extensive indie-label CD list.
It is a corporate record label-free zone. You can even have your 10 favourite tracks burnt on to a personalised CD while you wait. And, as you wait, you can lounge about on a selection of vintage furniture from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. If you find yourself getting too comfortable, you can always buy it and take it home with you.
"Corporate is a dirty word," says the nameless, titleless creative man. Urban Outfitters is the clothing equivalent of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream. It was founded in 1970 by a Philadelphia hippy, Dick Hayne, who has described his business philosophy as a "corporate counter-culture".
Originally, it was called the Free People's Store, and was situated near the University of Pennsylvania. It evolved into Urban Outfitters in 1976.
The hippy ethos is still part of the store's rough and ready appeal in America. Needless to say, Hayne, now just entering his fifties, is an elusive character, preferring to remain the anonymous hippy-made-good in the background. He can afford to. In 1994, sales were $84.5m and have been growing steadily ever since.
"There's nothing clever or pretentious about it," says Mr Creative, just a keen understanding of the target market. The New York Times has defined the Urban customer as the Yubbie (Young Urban Bourgeois Bohemian). And the best way to know your market is to talk to them and listen to their ideas and obsessions.
So, Urban always has a group of eager "Yubbies" on hand to keep the stores' buyers abreast of the times: they employ them. "Our staff are our customer," they say. And everyone, from sales assistant to stock-room stacker, is encouraged to come forward with ideas and finds, be it a friend at art college or a new drink.
While the New York Yubbie goes to NYU and hangs out in the East Village, the London equivalent frequents the bars of Shoreditch and Hoxton Square, scouring Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets for second-hand clothes. They are not so much into clubbing as cruising bars.
The British Yubbie is a more sophisticated, cynical and discerning animal than its American peer. This week, Indian saris and Bollywood imagery are "in". By the time the shop opens on 3 June, that might have been replaced by something completely different.
Keeping up is all part of the Urban culture.
Denim dress with blue print, pounds 75, by Born Free; red inflatable beanbag, pounds 45; shag-pile carpet, pounds 24; cocktail shaker, pounds 13.90; cocktail glass, pounds 9; all from Urban Outfitters, open from 3 June at 36-38 Kensington HighStreet, London W8, enquiries 0171 761 1001. Photographs: Jon Mortimer. Stylist: Holly Wood. Hair/Make-up: Beverly Brooke. Model: Emily Scott at Select. Photographer's assistant: Mark Moon
White sleeveless hooded top, pounds 46, by Grab and Mac; denim skirt, pounds 55, by Dave and Jo; both from Urban Outfitters
Pink sleevless t-shirt with diamante detail, pounds 35, by Lorna Greene; turquoise sari pedal pushers, pounds 55, by Souled Out; beaded curtain, pounds 18; all from Urban Outfitters
Cream cotton shell top, pounds 57, navy nylon drawstring skirt, pounds 70, both by Dylan; army-green waistcoat, pounds 95, by Conscious Earthwear; bag, pounds 20, by Manhattan Porterage; robot, pounds 20; all from Urban Outfitters. Leather- leaf flip flops, pounds 63, from Camper, 39 Floral Street, London WC2, enquiries 0171-379 8678Reuse content