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.
It’s 11.45am on a Tuesday in March and I’ve just come back to Portobello after moving some things into a Brentford storage unit.
Heavy work, so you’d think a full English carb fest was on my mind. Not so, here’s why…
…So, we get to the door of the Electric Diner on Portobello Road, only to be greeted by our regular (Antonio Banderas looking) waiter. I may have appeared a bit rude as I zipped past him fully aware of the clock ticking away on our 50% local discount deal as it fast approached 12.00. I rushed past into the ready and waiting waitress. “Will you still honour the discount as it’s not yet 12 O’ clock”? I said in a half couldn’t care less way, without revealing the fact that her answer was a remote control to push an invisible button to send me away or make me stay, just like a puppet”. ” If you order before 12.00 it’ll be fine”. She said. You’ve never seen a person sit down so quickly.
It was about 11:52 when my guest: sweet Juliet ordered her poached eggs on toast with avocado and a bit a lemon on the side, accompanied by a pot of mint tea to kill the chill. Note below, the avocado’s succulence. Continue reading →
“To bring high street chains in to the area would be commercial suicide”
Our burgeoning blog has been full of reports of high levels of gentrification anxiety in North Kensington recently. London in 2015 has seen a new strain of hypergentrification take hold, one in which the victims are expected to stand impotent and mute watching their communities being transformed in to something different in which their needs are not met, but those of other, wealthier, groups are. Fears abound that North Kensington is going the same way as Brixton.
In this climate, The Westway Trust published its proposals for the mile of land stretching under the brutal A40 which dominates and darkens the area from Acklam Road down to the riding stables at Latimer Road.
Westway Trust are custodians of the mile, entrusted with making it work for the benefit of the local population. But the community group Westway23 has accused them of an “abuse of power” and an intention to betray the area by accelerating the gentrification process.
We wanted to put W23’s concerns to the Trust and give them a chance to give their point of view. We also wanted to explore the context in which the changes will be made and look at the limits imposed on local people by global forces.
We sat down with Phil Dibsdale, Senior Development Consultant of Westway Trust, who is heading the Trust’s programme of changes. Phil explains that he is born and bred in the area and remembers watching from his bedroom window as the Westway was erected.
Phil was joined by Martin Oxley, Head of PR and Communications. Our questions were plucked from our articles on the Westway23 protests, as well as some that arose in conversation:
Q1. Will you build ‘tired, top-down developments that could be anywhere in the world’?
WT: ‘We hope not. We hope to avoid that. Of course, we have to abide by building regulations and standards to ensure safety. We also have to work with TFL, who have a vested interest in what we do. But we’ll ensure that what we build has lots of uses, including on the Acklam site, which is currently underused.’
Angel Lewis @ Urban Dandy: ‘With Acklam, I grew up with it being a hub of hip hop, parties and graffiti; bands came up there who went on to be big. I went to the US for a few years, and when I came back, it was fenced off’…
Q2. What became of Acklam Hall and the playground? Are the fears expressed of a repeat of this history justified?
WT: ‘The playground was closed for health and safety reasons.
Acklam village is not commercially viable, Monday to Friday. It only has a license until 9pm and no sound proofing. The skate park, which is very successful, creates noise that bounces off the motorway and the timber structures. It has a negative impact on its neighbours.
We want to see live music at Acklam. Our current plans for Acklam are to have four bays:
One will be used for market storage,
A second will be a shop unit,
The third, which will be one and a half units, will be for community and cultural events, a white cube where you can do anything,
The fourth will be similar to what is already there.
We want to protect our tenants in the shopping arcade. They will move across to Acklam while we refurbish the arcade. Then they can choose whether to stay there or return to the arcade. With the new arcade design, all the shops will have an outward-facing front. Currently, business is poor because very few people explore inside the arcade’.
Urban Dandy: Will rents increase?
WT: ‘Rents will resume at current levels, but we will introduce a profit sharing system to help Westway Trust recoup its outlay.
In the past, things have happened organically, but it needs to be organised with a business plan. There have been a lot of white elephants over the years.
But this is not about taking a capitalistic approach. All the money is reinvested in the community. Of our 120 tenants, only one, Sainsbury’s, is a big high street chain, and it brings in a lot of money’.
Urban Dandy: But isn’t a Waitrose going up right opposite Sainsbury’s?
WT: ‘The council controls that building’.
UD: What they were saying on the Westway23 protest was: “What’s happening within the language is what was happening when Acklam Hall was closed. Words like ‘regeneration’ should be a warning to the community.” That’s the most specific thing I have heard: it’s the same language again and they lost those two venues previously, so are the fears expressed legitimate?
WT: ‘Obviously I wasn’t around then, so I can’t comment on what was said back in those days but obviously what replaced those things wasn’t properly built buildings they were for temporary uses and made without a strong business plan. That won’t happen this time’.
Q3.How aware is WT of the social cleansing going on locally? Do WT’s plans include anything that will offset it and help unify the community?
WT: ‘There are limits to what Westway Trust can do. We maximise the number of opportunities we can give to local people. We are creating 200 jobs, we’re keeping local businesses going and we have an apprenticeship programme.
The area was actually originally built for the gentry, with those big Victorian houses but then became a poor area. There is a recognition that demographics are changing in the area again. Demographics are always changing and we have to serve everyone in the community’.
Q4. How will local people be involved, aside from attending consultations?
WT: ‘Westway23 were invited to meet with us but didn’t turn up. They can be involved, but we will listen to the ideas generated by the consultations’.
Urban Dandy: You mention invites to the community to take part in the planning process; are you taking steps to attend and become part of the community’s groups and events?
WT: ‘Our Head of Culture and Partnerships is Lynda Rosenior-Patten and she is very active attending events, meeting people and organisations in the community. We have lots of partnerships with local groups and we use as many channels as we can to gage opinion.
If we were private developers, we’d have started the building already. But we have a democratic governance structure which means that community groups are represented. Westway23 were encouraged to sign up’.
Q5. Which groups are your priorities?
WT: ‘Our priorities are the people most in need and supplementary schools. The original area of the Trust was to benefit Kensington and Chelsea as a whole, but I think everyone can see that it is the North of the Borough that receives all of the benefit.’
Q6. Why didn’t you consult the community before drawing up the original plans?
WT: ‘From 2011 onwards we held consultations to establish the tone and parameters of the changes. There has been a lot of consultation and we then chose to put something out there, rather than just a blank sheet of paper. It was the culmination of four years of consultations’.
Urban Dandy: It can seem quite cold, as a resident, to receive a document with artists’ impressions of the plans. It’s easy to feel indifferent about it.
WT: ‘If people are just angry or against us, they can’t have that influence they want. We have spoken to hundreds of people and our Cultural Manager is talking to people with heritage in the local area.
Dialogue has to come both ways.’
Q7. What kind of feedback have you received?
WT: ‘A huge range. From the traders’ survey, we saw that people are desperate for change. Although not all of them filled out the survey’.
Angel Lewis @ Urban Dandy: There is a perceived division between the trust and the local community; if that division is bridged it may feel more like one organisation. Myself, looking at your brochure, I don’t feel included in this, it appears done, dusted and complete.
WT: Well you’ve got to be in it to win it, you’ve got to have your say and this is your chance to have your say.
Tom @ Urban Dandy: I went to a public meeting with the Kensington Aldridge Academy and they wouldn’t answer any questions in a straight forward way, and people were getting angry – they felt that they were being given spin instead of answers, what has been coming back to you from the public?
‘There’s been a huge range of feedback from people saying “why haven’t you done this already?” particularly the traders and local business owners, to people saying “don’t do anything, absolutely leave it alone”.
Over the last nine months with seven months’ of consultations going on, most people have recognised there is a need for improvements and that the market needs to be supported. But they are mostly concerned with keeping the character of the area. It’s difficult, it’s evolved over 100 years so when you try to build something with that character from scratch it’s not easy, but if we can build something with the look and feel of Portobello then it should evolve and people will grow to taking it on board.
The last seven months’ of feedback has proved to us that there’s consensus for change locally’.
Q8. Will flats for the rich and retail units for the middle class be built?
WT: ‘It depends what you mean by rich. There will be 12 flats built to be sold at market rate. This is for financial reasons, Westway Trust raises money for its community projects this way.
As for the shops, they will all be really small. To bring high street chains in to the area would be commercial suicide. People can go to Westfield to get all that stuff’.
12 affordable units is not going to change the tide of affordability and won’t make a great amount of difference to the area. They will look like what is already here. If it were the development on a large scale, like 250 units, then it would.
Q9. How do you feel your ability to fulfil your original mandate is being affected by gentrification and capitalism?
WT: ‘Westway Trust has to represent the whole community democratically. We have programmes to target those most in need. The public realm should make everyone feel safe and welcome.
But there are limits. Health and safety regulations have sterilised children’s play areas and brought about a lot of banality. There’s less sense of adventure’.
Urban Dandy: And gentrification?
WT: I don’t feel constrained by it, it’s one of those waves you can’t stop unless you have government intervention. Gentrification makes my job more of a challenge, and I recognise that for local people it is a real threat’.
Q10. The idea of a ‘village’ is not popular with Westway23 and it does seem a bit tired – any comment?
WT: We found some references to the area as a ‘village’ in documents written 20 or 30 years ago. It was only ever a working title for consultation purposes and it definitely won’t remain’.
And our time was up, we had to vacate the room for more meetings. A conversation that could have run all day ended, but as we packed up we had time for one more question to Mr Dibsdale: ‘Do you still live in the area?’
His reply: ‘I don’t. I can’t afford it to be honest’.