Sign of the Times is a treasure chest of fashion and objets trouves, housed beneath a dome of silver foil. Priscilla and Prudence were looking after the Kensington Market shop on the day we visited. Those are not their real names, but everyone at Sign of The Times likes playing 'let's pretend' games.
We dipped into the rails of clothing at random and came up with the following: cord hipsters from San Francisco, Murray & Vern stretch rubber tops, giant furry 'yeti' trousers, an original Ossie Clark dress, a T-shirt with the word 'Fab' on the front, flares printed with hippie motifs, a long, full Joie skirt with splodges of dye and a heavy fake fur hem. Next to the clothing were original Seventies posters and postcards, an old Blue Peter annual, Marc Bolan badges, club fanzines and . . . well, everything except the kitchen sink.
Sign of the Times sells an eclectic mix of the old and the new to London's club, music and fashion worlds, but it is more than that. It breaks new talents that other shops will not touch.
'Anyone can walk in here and sell us their clothes,' says Fiona Cartledge, who founded the shop. 'We'll give them free advice - where to get fabric and where to find machinists. We'll sell one- offs, pieces from college fashion shows.' So a character called Jimmie Jumble, who specialises in kitsch fashion, brings in whatever he has dreamt up of late. And Ms Cartledge sells it, alongside Alistair Ward's deconstructed tailoring, Sacred's feather and sheepskin waistcoats, and Kevan Jon's rough ecru denim.
She organises parties, too, where designers talk to DJs who talk to musicians who talk to promotors. And everyone, from Kylie Minogue to Nora Lydon (wife of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten), comes into the shop at some time.
Ms Cartledge is clearly a retailer of genius. Her young, fashion-obsessed customers love her. 'My mentality comes from working in Camden and Portobello markets for years,' she says. 'I like everything all jumbled up together.' In the early Eighties, she was one of that tribe of Londoners who worked (and socialised) at the two celebrated street markets. The difference was that she spent every Saturday night at underground clubs and warehouse parties, dancing until 6am, building up an extraordinary circle of friends and contacts.
When the house music scene exploded in the late Eighties, Ms Cartledge was making her own clothes. Her jackets, made from carpets with the features of Jesus on the back, were best-sellers. But these days she plays talent-spotter rather than designer. 'In Britain, we still haven't recognised the importance of street culture to our way of life,' she says. 'Young British designers, inspired by the street, desperately lack confidence. We try to give them a platform and, we hope, a future.'
Of the 250 designers sold by Sign of the Times over the years, only a handful may survive. But that is not the point. She gives them the chance to try something original which the high street would not dare to touch. As a result she pulls in the kind of customers who will set the next street trend. Now she is seeking financial backing to provide more solid foundations. If she finds it, Sign of the Times and British fashion will be the winners.
Sign of the Times at Kensington Market and Hyper Hyper, Kensington High Street, London W8.
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