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Boxfresh to Boxpark: London Calling meets Pop-Up Entrepreneur Roger Wade

23 October 2012 Tom Hunter

"I think we should encourage the rebuilding of our high streets, the rebuilding of our urban centres, because they’re the heart and soul of the community." Roger Wade, creator of Boxpark Shoreditch

Are Pop-Up malls like Shoreditch's Boxpark the future of shopping. London Calling talks to Boxpark owner, entrepreneur and creator of the original Boxfresh brand Roger Wade to find out.

London Calling: How did Boxpark happen? Where did the idea for Boxpark come from?

Roger Wade: I started up in a market stall with the street wear brand, Boxfresh, and that was basically because I was unemployable. I was working in advertising, kept on getting the sack, the only thing I knew was clothing. I’m great believer that you should follow your dreams no matter what happens in life and I guess I’m in a fortunate position that I am following my dreams.

I was really into clothing and I built up a reasonable sized business in Boxfresh and followed my love of street wear for the next 20 years. Then I got to an age where I looked a bit silly in street wear, and I decided it was time to sell; it was at this time I was starting to have a real interest in architecture. Before selling we did a pop up mall with Boxfresh, out of a container in Hong Kong.

wanted to explore this pop up mall idea but then I sold Boxfresh and became a brand consultant, so I just sat on the idea. Then one day I started seeing some container pop-up store ideas, the most notable ones were Puma City and Illy Café. Of course, there have been housing developments out of containers for the past 10 years, Container City, in Holland, for example, there’s a major container student accommodation.

So one day I had this eureka moment to build a whole mall out of containers and create, at the time, what would be the world’s first pop-up mall. So in December of last year I finished Boxpark; we opened fully let and we’re nine months of trading in and have built the world’s first pop up mall. We’re looking to build more Boxparks throughout the world; the next one is in Amsterdam and we’re sort of learning our business as we go.

LC: Any word on the next one happening in Amsterdam?

RW: Well we’ve learnt a few things from here for example, we’ve learnt that we’re very weather dependant; when it’s simply not good weather, it’s difficult to trade. We don’t feel big enough - we feel the need for more variety, more women’s wear, more things like bike shops but we just don’t have the space to get them all in at the same time and we also feel that entertainment is the core of any retail proposition. If you’re not entertaining customers, you won’t exist. The days of just putting up shops and trying to sell are over. If that happens people will just buy online, so we want to create an environment where people can really hangout.

I think the environment we’ve created here is the bit that we love the most - it’s almost like parklife culture on top of the containers, and it’s open to everyone, everyone can use it as a social space. But we want to explore that even further where we’re actually inspired not by the new, but by the old. Our next development in Amsterdam is inspired by Italian piazzas. We’re effectively rebuilding an Italian piazza in a former ship building yard hanger in Amsterdam and at the heart of that is going to be entertainment; what we’re about to do is revolutionary.

We’re only going to open at the weekends and the idea is that people can just hang out during the day on a Saturday and in the evening there will hopefully be a free event and that will go through the night. So we’ll maybe trade from 10am on a Saturday until 8pm - the shops will close, the shutters will come down, there’ll be a free event and then by 6am people we’ll clear out and the shops will reopen at 10am.

LC: How has the local community influenced Boxpark here in Shoreditch?

RW: It’s weird because people look at it now and say ‘my god that’s such a simple idea, why wasn’t it done before?’ I pay a lot of credit to people like Puma City, they were one of the pioneers of coming up with a store made out of containers and we just took it to another degree. But there’s actually a really practical reason why, and in this case we’ve taken over a piece of land that’s been in need of regenerating for 40 years and the local community will decide whether they want something here in the future. Our weakness is our biggest strength. We have a lot of pop-up stores that are here on one year leases which allow us to constantly evolve. That is what we’re actively doing now, we’re putting our hands up and saying ‘we need more women’s brands, we need more lifestyle, we’d like to have a florist there, we want to have a bike shop there’, but we just don’t have the room at the moment, but we’ll get the room.

LC: Were you always aiming for a mix of the more well known brands and smaller startup ones for Boxpark?

RW: I’ve spent my whole working career working in a sector that I call independent brands. In independent brands there are big brands like Nike and the small brands like One Piece; they all support the same industry, which is independent. Every high street is the same high street with a Zara, a Gap, a JD Sports, a Mango, and I want to create a home for independent brands. People have got to realise that that’s going to include some bigger brands and it’s going to include some smaller brands. But all of those guys have supported independence.

LC: It’s interesting that you talk about that homogenisation of the high street and a lot of people would recognise that because the perception is that the space for the smaller brands would be online. But as far as culture goes you have to manifest that in the real world.

RW: I am good friends with Nick Robinson from Asos and I think the people in the online business really believe that the future of online is a melting pot between the physical world and the online world; there is no better example than Apple. The real growth of Apple can be directly translated back to when they created Apple stores. Apple realised that nothing replaces that touch and feel. So I feel there has been no better time to have a physical presence than now, but you’ve got to have a truly multi-channel environment in which you can have physical retail, you can have online and you can have mobile. So it’s not one thing - people get that wrong; they thought that video would kill the cinema industry, but it didn’t, it actually enhanced the cinema industry, as online enhances physical retail, it just changed what it’s about.

LC: You mention Apple and they’re so specific about their flagship stores, right the way down to the patenting their stairs. Could you ever see a brand like them coming into this space?

RW: Someone once asked me who would be top of my brand list and it would be Apple. I would love to work with Apple because I think that they’ve effectively been a game changer; they’ve changed everyone’s lives and I’d love to do something product specific. It’s just an iPhone and that’s why you’re going there, to find out everything about the iPhone, all about the new apps; it’s more than an experiential experience. They focus on their individual products and I believe in that; I believe in specialisation.

LC: And what about the ethical factor here at Boxpark? As it’s an important part of the idea; I guess your low-tech set up with a low carbon footprint?

RW: Yeah, in terms of sustainability the reality is that in five years time, 90% of Boxpark can be used in another development; it can literally be picked up and used in a modular way. When it comes to sustainability its probably one the most sustainable construction methods because it’s modular - it doesn’t get put up and torn down, it gets put up and moved on.

From a sustainability perspective it’s great; from an urban regeneration perspective I think it’s even more important, because it is about looking at our space within urban areas. There’s a great debate at the moment about shopping centres versus high streets and I think we should encourage the rebuilding of our high streets, the rebuilding of our urban centres, because they’re the heart and soul of the community. When you take the shopping outside, you take the heart and soul and you’re left with nothing. I think it’s a really important lesson that we learn that.

I was lucky enough to be given a tour by the MP in Ipswich recently and he realised that we’re losing our heart and soul, and we talked extensively about trying to get people to come back to Ipswich, there needs to be a reason to come back.

LC: So you’re playing flagship role showing people what they might do even if they don’t have your Boxpark concept?

RW: We’re unusual, we get talked about a lot. The reality is that we’re not perfect; we’re far from perfect and we’re already learning a lot of things from here. There are lots of things we’ve done here that shows recreating a high street is a possibility. We’ve created a high street that didn’t exist for 40 years, and maybe there are some lessons from that. I hope to think there’s a lesson that anything you create, if you have a uniform approach, you can be special and think about what the customer wants.

The way I think of it is that if Westfield is going in that direction, then I’m going in the opposite direction, because I will never compete with them. They’re too big and I don’t want to compete with them. Everything they stand for, I don’t disagree with, I think wonderful, but I’m happy to go a different way.

LC: What did you think of the Olympics in London, especially with regard to all conversation around regeneration and legacy?

RW: I think it was absolutely priceless. You get your haters out there who talk about the money spent, but what I would say is ‘What price do you put on belief?’ and I think people believe in themselves. For the first time people are starting to believe in themselves in Britain since, I think, the World Cup in 1966. British people seemed almost ashamed to be British. And now for the first time in ages, everyone is really proud to be British and being a truly multi-cultural society. And there’s a lot to be proud about Britain. And the Olympics showed exactly how proud we were as a nation, and it’s great too that, for once, we actually did well!

So what’s the legacy? I don’t think you can even add it up. I think it’s the most amazing thing to happen to Britain, and it’s brought together a lot of things. It’s the idea of being a uniformed state, this concept of England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland... we’re all British. The idea of being white, black, Indian... we’re all British. The idea that we thought showing the British flag was wrong or unpatriotic – we’ve knocked all those ideas down.

LC: The whole pop-up concept seems to be something that can be applied to all sorts of areas. Are you always going to focus that idea on the retail side or can you see yourself applying it to projects that might be a bit different?

RW: Yeah I think you definitely can. You can get a little bit carried away with the name ‘pop-up’. The reality is we are a pop-up mall and we might be here for five years, but in Amsterdam we might be there for 10 years, or longer. The true meaning of the word pop-up comes from when Adidas brought to Carnaby Street, years ago, limited edition products that were only available for a limited amount of time, but actually nowadays the term ‘pop-up’ is a market term for a landlord who has lots of empty space and wants to quickly fill it, that’s very different from the original pop-up term.

And, you know, let’s not get too carried away with the word ‘pop-up’. The idea here, the way we use it, is that we’re a pop-up development, some people don’t think it’s too ‘pop-up’, but trust me, there has never been a retail mall that has gone up and down in five years, and we’re going to have stores that constantly evolve and constantly change, and that’s going to be exciting for the customer.

I absolutely love what I do. I’m looking at my bank balance and what I’ve got, and I’m prepared to break even here. All this hard work, sweat and blood, and we probably won’t make a single penny out of it. But we have learnt some fantastic things here, and I’m loving that thing of breaking the mould, changing it, I’m loving that. I really am. And I love the fact that my children are proud of it, and I love the fact that people in this area love it. And yes, of course we’ve got knockers, but in general people are proud of it, and I want them to hang out and enjoy the tunes, and I want to be proud of creating something different, and I say to everyone ‘watch this space’ for Boxpark. Really, it’s just an opening shot.


Photo by Chris Brock, originally featured in The Maior Magazine

Interview by Tom Hunter, editor-in-chief for If you have a great story or event to share with us, you can contact us here

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