Meet Phil Bickley, owner of Tonic, the classic menswear shop on Portobello Road. Phil sat down with Urban Dandy just after his shop’s twentieth birthday as retail opened up again. He explained how Tonic started and became a Portobello mainstay, what inspires the shop, the impact of Covid on retail, and how some major currents in British history and culture have shaped his personal story…
What is Tonic about?
Tonic is about quality, understated clothing for quality, understated people. It is socially and environmentally responsible, anti-mass production, clothes with value, established names and up and coming new brands.
What explains your longevity?
We were 20 years old in November. We offer classic labels and designs and value for money.
Three months closed in the first lockdown, then another month, and on – how do you cope?
Now that’s a question!
Two days before lockdown we photographed every item in the shop, bit rough and ready. Then in the first one to two weeks of lockdown, I was editing and adding stock then I started to put down my thoughts on retail and Tonic and its place in the community.
I sent these thoughts out in the next few weeks as emails to my customer database and through social media. The response from customers was emotional, it touched me the response we received, and the support. It helped me understand how much the shop means to our customers…retail is much more than the transaction.
Tonic isn’t just about selling stuff, it is a place, an attitude, a place people like to come and hang out, talk about the world, society, community, politics, music, football and sometimes clothes. Now and again they like to buy….
I started to come in once, then twice a week, sending out online orders and delivering orders that were close enough by hand. It was good to see people. The neighbourhood was very quiet, people appreciated me delivering by hand, sometimes I’d take two sizes of something that had been ordered so the customer could try both and decide which was better, this went down well.
We were able to access some of the government support. I’m not a fan of any Tory government, never will be, but their initial response on the financial side was good, it was decisive, considered and timely. Everything else though has been terrible!
And, in my own experience, I know there’s many with not such a good experience in lockdown.
What is the future of fashion retail and the high street?
Retail will never be the same again. The pandemic has accelerated what was already happening, people shopping from home and high streets dying. For retail businesses to survive, in my opinion, they need to be open and honest. Look after people, be nice. Sell good quality at honest prices, be true to a vision, whatever that might be.
How did you end up down here, establishing yourself on Portobello?
In 1989 I went to Hillsborough, going to footy and clothing was my thing in my later teens, I was in the Leppings Lane end with a group of friends, unfortunately, three of them didn’t make it home. At 18 years old it was tough to deal with something like that. In the 80s there wasn’t much support in how to deal with something like that. Later that year I decided to leave, maybe it was running away, I’m not really sure to be honest, I think you were expected to deal with things differently then.
Anyway, I was working in the Post Room of the Girobank in Bootle, Liverpool, and they gave me the opportunity to go and work in the London office as junior junior office assistant. It was my ticket to a new life. I moved to London not knowing anyone but gradually found my feet, found friends, worked in Greece, found rave culture, which was probably the natural next step to an ex-football going fashion lover…
Then after working in clothes shops in Soho I decided to go back into education, I managed to talk my way in to doing a fashion degree at London College of Fashion. Then I went on to work for Paul Smith in London and Nottingham. Then I had a buying role at The Moss Brothers Group, and from there I went on to roles buying for the Hugo Boss UK stores, then developing own-label ranges for the Cecil Gee stores. That is where I came up with the concept of Tonic. 20 years later, here I am.
With you being so directly affected by the atrocity at Hillsborough, there’s an obvious parallel with the Grenfell atrocity. What are your thoughts on how the community can interact with the ongoing injustice?
I grew up in Liverpool and my dad was a fireman. There would be fires in flats all the time and they were put out, they didn’t spread. Estates were built in conjunction with the fire brigade. What happened at Grenfell Tower was so different from this and it would be a disgrace if the families are made to wait as long as the Hillsborough families did for justice.
I see the similarities, the fact that minorities and marginalised communities are demonised, the misdirection from the media. With Hillsborough, it was The Sun demonising people from Liverpool, but the reality was that there were fans from all sorts of places at Hillsborough that day.
I just really hope they don’t have to wait so long but I’m concerned for them as it seems the same tactics of delay and demonisation are being used against the Grenfell families and local community.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles @urbandandyldn