London’s souvenir shops are more commonly associated with poor quality kitsch than great products – step into any of the stores along Oxford Street and you’ll be met with the same uninspiring selection of Union Jack flags, Beefeater teddies and fridge magnets in the shape of Big Ben or Tower Bridge.
But just a few minutes walk away on Carnaby Street is We Built This City – an alternative souvenir shop selling prints, homeware and accessories by local artists and designers. Items range from colourful typographic prints by Rude to cityscape collages by Kristjana S Williams and hand drawn maps of the city by Jenni Sparks. The shop also hosts regular events, including jewellery making workshops and live drawing sessions where artists sketch customer portraits.
We Built This City was founded by Alice Mayor, who previously worked in PR for the Arts Council and online art and design retailer Culture Label. The idea for the shop came out of conversations she had with artists and designers, who were struggling to find time to create in between selling their work at markets, trade shows and online.
At the time, Mayor felt there was a gap in the market for a central London store selling products by London creatives. “My main aim for the business was ‘how can I create a quite commercially driven but robust platform for artists and designers, where they really do make sales and get promoted through it, and find other opportunities through it as well?’ and I knew that to do that, we needed to find a new audience for them,” she explains.
She also wanted to create a store that would offer a more exciting selection of souvenirs than those commonly found in the city – items that would reflect London’s diversity and its creative community, rather than just its buses, bridges and landmarks. “It’s not all red buses and taxis and telephone boxes … people are coming to London, like they are to any creative city, for great food, music, art and culture and they want to take a memory of that home, I think,” she adds.
After meeting with Carnaby Street to pitch her idea, Mayor was offered a retail space in October 2014 – but was given just three weeks to stock it. “I didn’t even have a business bank account or any funding at the time … I was in the middle of getting a start-up loan from the government but it takes quite a long time so in the end, I had to go to lots of friends and family and cobble together enough to get the stock I needed,” she says. As the store launched during London’s busiest shopping season, however, she quickly made the money back, allowing her to invest in yet more stock and reimburse those who had helped her out.
The pop-up proved a success and Mayor has since moved to two more sites on Carnaby Street. We Built This City will reside at number 46 for the summer and Mayor plans to stay in the area long term. As a street popular with both locals and tourists, it’s a perfect location – and being near so many restaurants, hotels, shops and creative agencies has led to large orders and commissions for featured artists. Local interior designers have made bulk orders, agencies have commissioned artists for commercial work and a nearby fashion brand has ordered hundreds of prints for its stores, says Mayor.
“The shop is the window to that world as it were, the first port of call, but actually with these projects coming through now, we’re building out a little bit of an agency. I don’t think we’ll ever go so far as to represent people solely, but we’re always going to have those kinds of opportunities come up and it makes sense to fulfil those,” she says.
We Built This City now stocks work by 250 creatives at any one time and has sold work by around 600 since opening. Mayor now has a product buyer and art buyer to help source new collections and aims to refresh 30% of stock each quarter, introducing a new wave of artists with each new collection.
“[Planning new collections is a process of] looking back, analysing what’s gone well, what hasn’t, whether we can do anything with things that have been a bit slower, and working out what events we have coming up that we need to curate around,” she explains. Recent collections include a royal-themed one for the Queen’s 90th birthday, plus limited edition ranges for seasonal events such as Hallowe’en and Christmas.
Most of the items in store are either about London or inspired by it in some way, but Mayor is keen to avoid anything cliched – preferring instead to stock products that “really sum up and champion London’s creative community.”
“The curation part is really exciting, saying ‘what is London and how can we represent that in store’? Who are the cultural icons that people equate with London? What are the local eccentricities that people define themselves by?”
Mayor hopes the store will attract people who might otherwise be put off shopping for art and design products, either because they find it intimidating, or because think they can’t afford it. She has commissioned Rugman Art and Camille Walala to create colourful window graphics, while in-store props such as plastic pigeons (now a bestseller) are used to show that the store “doesn’t take itself too seriously”. There are products to suit every budget – from tea towels and chocolates to crockery and screen prints – meaning anyone can come in and take something home with them.
“To me, a souvenir can be something as small and affordable as a magnet right through to a beautiful piece of limited edition artwork and I’m quite interested in how those two things work together. They both serve each other in a way – the mugs make people feel comfortable enough to look at the art who aren’t regular art buyers, and the art helps elevate the artist-designed mugs,” she adds.
Mayor is now working on an online store, which is due to launch later this year. “The most important thing is that we establish ourselves as a physical entity first and foremost, but the online will complement that. Having worked in online, I really understand what a different beast it is. It’s a different skill set, a different marketing strategy, so I really wanted to get [the shop] as good as it can be and then do the same for the online,” she adds. She also plans to extend the shop’s range of events. “I really want to offer more than just a transaction. When people come into the shop, I’m really keen for them to experience the art not just from buying it but from seeing artists at work.”
Launching a physical store is a daunting challenge – especially for something with no experience of running a store – but Mayor’s risk has paid off: “When I first set up the company, everyone said, ‘you mustn’t do physical – it’s too much risk and infrastructure’. I understood their point but my gut feeling was that a souvenir is something that you can take away from a city when you’re there … something you can feel and touch and buy [in a store] then take it home with you,” she adds.
Location has been key to the shop’s success, and for anyone thinking of setting up a store, Mayor offers the following advice: “If you’ve got your brand or your idea the key thing is to be honest about location and where that’s going to work,” she says. “I spent a long time going around London, standing in different streets and watching the types of people who were going in certain stores and what they were buying. If you pick the wrong place, you’ll have put all that time and energy in and then you’ll think it’s still a great idea, it was just the wrong street – and that’s the worst mistake you could make.”