Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
How to get in on London’s “pop-up” craze for shops, eateries and events.
If someone invited you to a night out inside a subway station, you might recoil as though you’d been asked to dine in a back alley or a disused parking lot. Underground transit stations are the notoriously shadowy spaces we pass through, not linger in.
Unless that station was London’s Old Street Station.
The transit hub is the fitting gateway to the city’s gritty, eccentric East End, where tech start-ups go to disrupt the status quo and the originality of tattoos is only rivaled by the street art. The station itself is an equally vibrant (under)world — a maze of shops, exhibits, eateries and creative business ventures, all contained within bright, graphically patterned walls. A below-ground staircase even leads to a grungy beach bar–style club on top of the station.
The trick here, though, is that the collection of attractions is ever-shifting — presenting a thriving example of London’s recent “pop-up” movement, in which businesses take over vacant spaces or corners of larger enterprises only to quickly shutter or relocate. By design, a shop enjoyed during one visit may very well be gone by the next.
But “thriving” hasn’t always described Old Street Station. “[It] was one of Transport for London’s worst-performing stations [in terms of retail],” says Elizabeth Layne, head of marketing at Appear Here, the tech company that manages the space and allows entrepreneurs to easily book retail space online. “You really didn’t want to stay there very long; it was pretty gray, pretty dank. But it had this amazing audience of forward thinkers and early adopters.”
In 2014, higher-ups at Appear Here and Transport for London put heads together and hatched the idea to whitewash the station’s stores and take a curatorial and flexible approach to leasing them. They invited the types of businesses that thrived above-ground to come down below and open shop short-term (on average, lasting no longer than two weeks).
Since its reinvention, the station has hosted hundreds of stores. The majority of them are independent brands and small businesses — from pressed-juice bars and a specialty marshmallow maker, to a hip glasses shop and a dog yoga studio (as it sounds: yoga with your pooch). Because of these ever-changing pop-ups, the transport station itself is now a destination.
From trend to industry
“Something you can do this weekend that you can’t do next weekend” is how Dan Calladine, editor of the blog londonpopups.com, loosely defines a pop-up. He elaborates, “There’s always a temporary aspect, whether it’s a seasonal concept or a pub that changes chefs every month.”
This concept of one-off shops and events isn’t necessarily new for London — it’s just recently multiplying and reinventing itself across the city. A mini golf course stakes its claim for a season on top of a parking garage. A fashion brand sets up a temporary shop in a vacant store near the action of a local event. A specialty cocktail bar inhabits the courtyard of a restaurant for just one week.
The people closest to this movement trace it back to the post-recession, early-tech-craze years (circa 2011-2013) — when commerce was shifting and making room for new, unconventional ways of doing business.
“There was a lot of talk about the fact that the internet was going to kill the high street,” Layne says. “You’d read articles about shop vacancies being at their highest yet. On the flipside, we were seeing more people than ever starting their own businesses.”
Companies like Airbnb and Uber were overturning traditional industries. The rising generation of consumers craved variety. These factors created the right soil for pop-up ventures, where entrepreneurs could test their ideas without the cost or commitment of opening a brick-and-mortar operation.
Since Calladine started his blog in 2011 (after attending a five-course pop-up meal and realizing there wasn’t a single source for tracking these events online), he’s watched the once-scrappy trend become a legitimate industry. It’s developed its own infrastructure via companies that sell tickets to supper clubs, groups that provide short-term staff for events, and sites like Appear Here that advertise vacant retail space.
Social media has, of course, fueled the movement: What better way to announce events that often arise at short notice (and are soon to end) through a medium that is, by nature, in-the-moment?
From ephemeral to semi-permanent
Among the many varied expressions of London’s pop-up culture, one particular event is especially fleeting — and especially lavish while it lasts. The supper club Gingerline, begun in 2010, draws diners together for an off-the-wall
evening of food and performance in a done-up location. The clincher: Guests don’t know where they’re going until just before show time. They’re told to be stationed near the East London line at a certain time, when a text message with further instructions arrives.
“It’s a little bit like becoming a kid again and going on an adventure,” says event co-founder Kerry Adamson. “All of their responsibilities are taken away from them. All they need to do is show up and have a great time.”
In one iteration, guests entered the sumptuous world of being backstage at a Siberian circus (in reality, a haute couture costume shop). The staff dressed in proper getups. People flew high on a trapeze. Guests were dared to get involved with some of the acts.
“We’ve created submarines, casinos,” Adamson adds. “It’s kind of endless.”
For visitors to London, these events offer the most lasting kind of souvenir: an unforgettable experience. “It’s a really exciting story,” Adamson says — “something completely different to come home and tell their friends about. There are so many elements to describe as well; the food, experience, set design.” Meaningful interactions with a small group of other guests also enrich the experience in a way that rubbing elbows with the tourist masses never could.
Other concepts like Platform1 in south London’s East Dulwich neighborhood offer a less enigmatic way to participate in pop-up life. At her permanent restaurant, area local Chloe Gounder-Forbes invites new chefs to participate in pop-up rotations, where they commandeer her kitchen for anywhere from one to six months.
“It’s not like a pop-up where you’re coming to sit on a crate in a warehouse or something,” says Gounder-Forbes, who promises top-notch (if ever-changing) cuisine in a “casual fine dining” atmosphere.
The experimentation-friendly nature of the pop-up model has elevated London’s food scene, she contends: “What you have to remember is the rest of Europe has been laughing at us for many years when it comes to food and wine. Now we’re competing on their level.”
Back near Old Street Station, a venture called Boxpark — “the world’s first pop-up mall” — continues the semi-permanent concept. The edgy outdoor mall, opened in 2011, is a structure made of attached shipping containers; a hive of “box shops” that retail brands, cafes and galleries inhabit for one-, three- or 12-month periods. The concept also spawned a similar food-and-drink mall that opened in south London’s Croydon neighborhood this past fall.
By creating an urban hub that constantly attracts a fresh mix of stores and shoppers, Boxpark aims “to put creativity and fashion back where they belong: on the street,” as its site says.
While East London streets form the epicenter of pop-up life, other more traditional parts of London are getting in on the action, too. Last summer, big-name U.K. department store John Lewis hosted a pop-up rooftop garden on top of its central London store — an example that also proves it’s not just indie artisans or zany entrepreneurs who are leading the way. Cadbury hosted a “Creme Egg café,” serving dishes inspired by concoctions fans shared on social media. And IKEA invented The Dining Club, a temporary inner-city destination complete with a pop-up restaurant, a shop, workshops and even a virtual-reality kitchen.
From tradition to today
While some of these experiences feed off of mystery and exclusivity, making them hard to plan for or locate, Calladine observes that non-ticketed events are trending. All you need to do is just show up — or stumble upon them.
Yet because pop-ups are temporary, sometimes their terms of operation can be unpredictable. Calladine advises: “Always have a plan B if you’re going to a pop-up. Either something might be canceled at short notice, or it might be too busy [for you] to get served.”
Therein lies some of the allure as well. These experiences, many of them off the beaten path, are spontaneous, kooky, surprising, inventive. They make a strong counterpoint to iconic London: its historic cathedrals, deeply rooted traditions and at-times-intractable weather. And because the events are here today and on to something else soon, they promise the chance to create a truly unrepeatable experience in the here-and-now: an intersection of people, space and time that won’t ever pop up again.
Caroline Eberly Long is a London-based writer and editor who covers design, travel and the arts. She knew she favored pop-ups when she found herself sipping a cocktail in a (surprisingly lush) makeshift rooftop garden bar overlooking central London.