Christmas and New Year is the time when I return home to my roots in South Africa to recharge my batteries ready for the year ahead. But alas, with South Africa going on to the UK’s red list in late November, this year it was not meant to be.
And so for the first time in my life – thanks to Jamie Oliver’s TV programme, ‘Jamie: Together at Christmas’ – I roasted a turkey (the size of which could have fed 12, when we were only 3), made my own stuffing, gravy and vegetables, and steamed a delicious M&S Christmas pudding with custard and brandy butter. When I watched HRH Queen Elizabeth’s speech, it felt correct to be doing it on a TV in the fading winter light, as opposed to watching it on my telephone on a sweltering hot day on the beach. Nostalgically, it made me realise that I have now lived more of my life in England than in South Africa!
When I first arrived in England, every weekend I visited the antique markets and (as I fondly called them) ‘tat’ shops at Portobello Road, Camden Passage, Camden Town, Alfie’s market, Kempton Racecourse, the Ally Pally antiques fair which took place four times a year and the more upmarket stalls in Greys Antiques Market off Bond Street. I had never experienced anything like it – specialist shops and stalls with knowledgeable people in charge who were true experts in their fields.
But over the years, some antique markets disappeared. Communities of dealers were destroyed as high street chains expanded at any cost, fashion retailers moved into homewares and landlords demanded higher rents, gentrifying areas of London at alarming speed.
Companies like IKEA began to influence British style in the home. Who remembers the IKEA advert, ‘Chuck out the Chintz’ which aired on TV in the nineties? The campaign launched at an important juncture in British history, coming to represent the wider cultural sea change that gained momentum with Tony Blair’s election victory in 1997.
The ad, aimed at women, encouraged them to reject the past and embrace the new: “We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way / in choices and status, in jobs and in pay,” sung the jingle, “but that flowery trimmage is spoiling our image / so chuck out that chintz today!” Driving the IKEA sensibility was the idea that advances in gender equality were at odds with the chintzy curtains and upholstery that had dominated households.
“Antiques dealers bemoaned the demise of their communities and the interest in antiques seemed to wane.”
Meanwhile, antiques dealers bemoaned the demise of their communities and the interest in antiques seemed to wane. Younger homeowners could now have ‘hotel’ style homes with sleek white rooms, bleached plain floorboards and cool, plain furniture – all for a reasonable cost. Kitchens changed too, and it seemed to be out with old willow patterns and in with white plates, stainless steel pots and built-in ovens with appliances behind doors. Dealers could be heard saying that young people were just not interested in antiques any longer. They faced the prospect of an increasingly aging customer base.
Fast-forward twenty or so years, however, and things have changed. A two-year-long pandemic has reinvigorated the market, and more and more people are now opting to buy second-hand. It’s not difficult to see how we got here. The growing interest in antiques is part of a broader boom in the furniture and homeware categories, driven by housebound customers looking to refresh homes that have become multifunctional spaces after nearly two years of working from home. DFS’s online sales grew 77% in the first half of 2020, and Dunelm reported an increase of almost 60% when its UK retail locations reopened after the first lockdown.
In the antiques space, Covid pushed professional dealers out of the auction houses and on to classified listing sites like Facebook Marketplace and eBay – making the process of buying second-hand far more accessible. One Sunday evening at the start of lockdown, I overheard my 20-year-old son following an auction taking place on Instagram Live. Totallyoriginalmerchandise.com – an acronym for Tom, a 20-year-old from Dorset who deals in tribal art – has held 60 live auctions via Instagram since the outset of the pandemic. Drew Pritchard (of Salvage Hunters fame) also began auctioning on Instagram Live, allowing dealers to display and sell their recent finds whilst their stores, markets and fairs were closed.
Perhaps most notably, lockdowns gave customers the luxury of time. As any antiques enthusiast will tell you, finding good-quality, beautiful pieces can take weeks of searching. With the pandemic came the spare hours needed to trawl through the internet for the perfect mid-century sideboard or vintage armchair.
“Finding good-quality, beautiful pieces can take weeks of searching. With the pandemic came the spare hours needed to trawl through the internet for the perfect mid-century sideboard or vintage armchair.”
Gretchen Anderson, aged about 90, owns the Lacquer Chest, which she took over from her mother-in-law in 1959. The Lacquer Chest is one of the last remaining antique shops on Kensington Church Street, and has a thriving business on Instagram which complements the store. They only have 8,000 followers on Instagram, but it drives sales, and links the old world of Kensington Church Street and the new birth of young collectors.
The newfound enthusiasm for vintage and antiques can be felt keenly on social media. Countless influencers have created side projects buying, selling and discussing vintages wares. Macy Eleni lives in LA and has racked up a significant following on TikTok explaining how she thrifts for clothes, furniture and homewares. On Twitter, Nathan Ma’s Furniture For All account – started as a way to keep him occupied during lockdown – has more than 7,000 followers, aggregating the best antique furniture listings from across the web. ‘Flipping’ (the act of buying, restoring and upcycling furniture) has also grown in popularity.
“While antique dealers will always love meeting face to face, embracing online channels will be critical to reach tomorrow’s buyers”
New retail models are also gaining traction. Vinterior – which has created an online marketplace for curated vintage furniture – was founded in 2016 and has recently secured £8m in backing from Active Partners. While antique dealers will always love meeting face to face, embracing online channels will be critical to reach tomorrow’s buyers.
This new generation of furniture enthusiasts is young and eco-conscious, made up of first-time homeowners happy to wait for the ‘perfect piece’ and young renters looking to save money on second-hand items. When the markets opened this summer, it was a pleasure to see a Portobello Road filled with people again – young and old, searching for good-quality items that will not only last but have a history. The name of the stall in Greys Antique Market where I bought my second-hand watch seems more appropriate than ever: Second Time Round.