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Noble Rot

Noble Rot


Words Matthew Ross

Photography Kirk Truman


51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, May 1706: On a site that was lately fields of cress and winter rocket, Mr Jos Walker takes the very first lease on four handsome storeys of London stock townhouse. For seven pounds, nine shillings and sixpence a year, his tenant will be a certain Mr Chisledon.

51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, October 2015: The Rugby School Estate grants the lease of the same handsome townhouse to Messrs Andrew and Keeling, vinters and restaurateurs. Noble Rot hits Bloomsbury.

One bleary morning eighteen months later, Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling sit in the window of their wine bar and restaurant Noble Rot and tell me over plentiful coffee how it all happened. “The magazine started out with me and him writing a couple of pieces and thinking: hang on, where do we get some images from?”

It’s a well-reported story. Keeling, the A&R man who signed the undiscovered Coldplay, and Andrew, buyer for Kensington wine merchant Roberson, launched Noble Rot magazine in 2013 backed by a motley crew of Kickstarter donors, from expert winos to Popbitch. Now fully fledged, the magazine is blessed with golden contributors, with Marina O’Loughlin, Giles Coren, Francis Ford Coppola and former Beastie Boy Mike D in the latest issue alone. But it’s not been easy: contacts don’t hang like apples on the tree of knowledge.

I wonder whether Mark and Dan see Noble Rot as the Drew Barrymore of wine magazines. “We grew up in public, if that’s what you mean”, Mark replies. “But we genuinely love the fact that we’ve come from a humble beginning, and we cut our teeth along the way. I don’t think you learn anything unless you make mistakes. Remember when Guy Pierce was going out with Mrs Mangel’s granddaughter in Neighbours? Now look at him.”

“I thought he was better in Neighbours, actually,” says Dan. For him, Noble Rot’s Ramsay Street days are its mark of honesty. “When I worked in music, the Arctic Monkeys had this demo tape. Most record companies would posh that up and get it out, which a lot of the time would strip the essence of the band. But not them. They got a lot of traction with their demo. A lot of music lovers just got it because it seemed a lot more real.”

Above our heads hang framed back-issues of Noble Rot. On one cover, a bulldog chews a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. It’s an issue that pitched English sparkling wine against Champagne in a garrulous blind tasting (the bulldog won), interviewed Mark Ronson and rhapsodised over star Loire valley domaines. That’s Noble Rot’s ethos to a T. Mark explains why. “We want to be entertaining as well as to write about wine in an intelligent way. The product that’s created in this world can be incredible, but then you get some toffee-nosed twat in the corner who wants to ‘educate’ you about it. F*@k off! We never want to hijack the conversation in that way.”

It was never the plan to open a wine bar and restaurant either. But with a growing reputation, Andrew and Keeling started to suspect that if they threw their own doors open, people might come. Dan recalls the days they spent walking London’s streets searching for Noble Rot’s temporal home. “All the places we loved were in old buildings with lots of character. We knew about Lamb’s Conduit Street, but we didn’t know it. And when we saw this place at number 51, we thought it was amazing. We sent the owner some copies of the magazine in an Uber, and three weeks after getting the keys we opened the doors.”

The shared spirit of enterprise that permeates Lamb’s Conduit Street has made it the ideal terroir. “We love the combination here of old and contemporary Bloomsbury”, Mark reflects. “Lamb’s Conduit Street is this closely knit mercantile community, where food, drink and fashion all complement each other. We’re part of that community, and we really believe there is potential for it to be even better. We’re also a destination for people who are interested in what we’re doing and want to come back time and again.”

Best mates, first dates, great loves; Noble Rot is the place whenever a bottle of wine needs to be shared by an open fire. Built as a Georgian home, first let to our mysterious man Chisledon, scraps of its eighteenth-century wood panelling and an original wine cellar still remain. It’s also a serious destination for its magnificent Franco-British menu, devised with the tutelage of The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris. Lincolnshire Smoked Eel, Yorkshire Rhubarb and Soda Bread. Braised Rye Bay Turbot, Watercress and Alsace Bacon. Pistachio Cake, Blood Orange and Mascarpone. Each a perfectly tuned triad.

Is Noble Rot the place an embodiment of Noble Rot the magazine, with its spine of anarchism? Mark prefers the word disruptive to anarchic. “We’re classicists. We love the classic wines of the world, the great domaines of the world; we love the great cuisines and the great craft and art that goes into those wonderful dishes. But neither of us are posh lads. We’ve just never been prepared to leave all the good stuff to the blue bloods. We want to get stuck in and stake our claim. We want to have our own take on it, and our own opportunity to enjoy it, to talk about it and share it with people in the way that we want to.”

“Irreverent is a good word too”, Dan adds. “Irreverent of the status quo of the wine trade, which is and has been a very stale thing for decades. From 1800 to 2017, has it changed that much? Wine is a great thing. It encompasses so much – history, art, geology, physics, travel – that you can bring into your own life. But you don’t have to be pretentious, status-driven or affected with it. That’s the fundamental point really. Just don’t be a twat about it.”

After so successful a start, Andrew and Keeling could be tempted by quick wins.  But wisdom trumps temptation. “What’s next?” Mark reflects. “Lunch at two o’clock! For now, we’re still cracking on with this place and when we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, we’ll kick on from there.” Something bigger? “Not necessarily”, Dan replies, “because bigger isn’t always better… but something.” Something that’s not being a twat? Mark is adamant: “There will be no twatification about it.”

Cathal McAteer

Cathal McAteer


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“I fell in love with clothes, the idea and process of making the best clothes that I could…”

Folk is a word that can refer both to a sense of tradition and to the ordinary people who sustain it. Making your way along Lambs Conduit Street, it’s also a word you’ll see adorning two shop-fronts: one at No 49, and another at No 53. Here, on one of Bloomsbury’s premier streets for both independent shops and bigger high-street names, Scotsman Cathal McAteer, founder of Folk Clothing, has established a brand that is now a name for refined style and quality.

Folk offers elegance enriched by subtle details to its products for both men and women. In essence, it’s about style without the drama. Detail is key to the brand: from the stitching and buttons to the fabrics themselves, there are no shortcuts or half-measures.

“We don’t try to be mainstream. We’re niche – it’s all about the small things” says Cathal. “We don’t go to the button shop. We take care of every single detail ourselves: we never compromise. The thing we come back to quite a lot is to have more than you show. We like things to be instantly recognisable, without a label or a brand on them. Everything is in the details – and in the hidden details, the textures and fabrics too. Some people might say we care way too much, or waste too much time doing these things, but we think this finishes pieces off in a way that makes us satisfied with the garment. It just happens to be how I like to do things, you know?”

Cathal founded Folk in 2002, and has since navigated between streetwear and the architect-designer aesthetic, helping create a scene for well-made casual clothing with a modern British edge. Cathal grew up in Glasgow, where he started out working in shops from an early age. “I’ve been working in fashion since I was about 17. I’m not from a design background, I started out working in shops and then later on ended up working as a buyer,” he explains. “My friend told me I should call it Folk, so I did. Sometime later he wanted to call his brand Folk, but I was already too far gone!” he laughs. “I basically always knew it was going to happen. It was a natural progression from what I was doing before. I’d been in Japan with a friend of mine, and these guys had asked me when I was going to start my own brand. Some people offered to pay for their orders in advance, which helped me get things started. For about five years I’ve always had another business that helped to fund Folk. The profits went into the brand, until we began working with a selling agency further down the line. It kind of started organically, and from there it went on to become what it is now. I fell in love with clothes, the idea and process of making the best clothes that I could, and making them as accessible as possible to consumers.”

Beginning as a menswear line, Folk has since gone on to expand into footwear, accessories, furniture and womenswear. Bloomsbury has long been the backdrop for the brand, with the first store having opened on Lambs Conduit Street more than a decade ago and its head office based just round the corner on Emerald Street. “I guess I’ve always been a bit of a hippy at heart,” says Cathal. ”Our customer is really into clothes. They recognise quality and craft in products – they posses a real vanity for covering up vanity.” Looking back, he admits “the first few collections were truly shit. But as time went on we found our way. A friend of mine asked to meet me for a pint on Lambs Conduit Street way back. He told me if I was ever going to have a shop, I should have it here.” It turned out to be a wise decision. “Back then, there was nothing here compared to what there is today. To me, it’s a great position in London – it’s set perfectly in the middle of town. I’ve worked all over, but this is as perfect as it gets.” In the future, Cathal intends to evolve Folk and keep it embedded here in London, mentioning the possibility of a potential third store on Lambs Conduit Street in the near future. Whatever lies ahead for the brand, Folk’s roots will remain right here in Bloomsbury where it all started.

 

Maggie Owen

Maggie Owen


Words Chloe Moss

Portraits Kirk Truman


“It was around 4pm on a December evening, when people hadn’t quite closed their curtains, and it just sparkled – Lamb’s Conduit Street just sparkled”

I might be influenced by my lifelong magpie tendencies, but I believe many a great tale starts with a necklace. I know some of my most notable experiences are defined in my memory by whatever (usually gaudy) sparkle I had decking out my neck and hands at the time. We’re not talking Titanic here, but rather more compelling jewellery that one would be less inclined to throw off a boat: jewellery that will captivate, that will be treasured, that will be a talking point on every occasion it gets an outing. We’re talking about the sort of jewellery that you’d only expect to find by stumbling upon a treasure trove.

Maggie Owen London is that treasure trove. Nestled amongst the fellow businesses and homes of Rugby Street, the accessories shop sells work by an array of carefully curated costume jewellery designers. Not only that, but it stocks books similarly lovingly chosen, championing British poetry in a marriage that celebrates the literary and artistic history of Bloomsbury. And it all started with one necklace.

That necklace was the work of designer Philippe Ferrandis, a piece Maggie found in 2001 whilst visiting a boutique in the south of France. Ferrandis’ designs focus on costume jewellery, standout pieces using intricate design and high quality materials. The sculptural quality of his work made Maggie an instant fan, and a subsequent return trip just a few months later saw her investing in another Ferrandis original. Maggie was enamoured with the uniqueness of his designs, which appealed to her as both statement pieces and works of great artistry, and it was her enthusiasm that began their close working relationship of 20 years and counting.

Ferrandis’ work spurred a further interest in sourcing costume jewellery, and a visit to a Bloomsbury-based client one December was the starting point for a standalone shop. Having found her way to Lamb’s Conduit Street on a bright winter’s day, a shop front located on nearby Rugby Street caught Maggie’s eye. Rugby Street is a unique find even within the already unique Bloomsbury, a tiny street off the beaten track, which Maggie struggled to find on her second visit. Although the property was derelict at the time – perhaps that added to its charm – Maggie moved in six months later and launched Maggie Owen London. She’s still there today, 10 years on.

It is easy to see why Maggie chose Rugby Street as her permanent home. The small street runs off Lamb’s Conduit Street, a stone’s throw from Russell Square, the British Museum, the Foundling Museum and countless Bloomsbury landmarks. It captures everything people love about the area: the literary history – Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s wedding night residence is just across the street – and the melting pot community feel of the area. As Maggie puts it: “We are in the middle of a complete social mix”. She clearly cherishes the community spirit, telling me that “it’s rather lovely being in with other independent traders who have been long established”. When I visit the shop, plans are very much underway for the street party that Sunday in celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday. Maggie is an active member of this community; her Instagram account is full of photos of her fellow local businesses and archival images of the area that she has sourced and shared in an effort to continue the legacy of Bloomsbury and to celebrate its history. Given her involvement, it’s no surprise that she is fondly referred to by many as the “Queen of Lamb’s Conduit”; such is her presence within the village-like community.

“You wonder why, over time, so many creative people gravitated to this area. From the original Bloomsbury Group, back to Charles Dickens, and even earlier, Thomas Coram. All of these guys, Handel even – Messiah was performed just down the road – or Jacob Epstein’s studio on Lamb’s Conduit Street. All of these people who came to live and work here.”

Part of the reason people continue to visit, live, and work in Bloomsbury is because that history is still palpable in the streets and buildings, and independent businesses with unique personalities are a huge part of that. As Maggie writes on her website: “Bloomsbury is still at the forefront of artistic and cultural innovation – it’s as vibrant, dynamic and creative as it has ever been”. Although the area has seen some necessary improvements over the years, it has maintained its individuality. She observes that “the area has probably become a bit grander, a bit smarter, but it hasn’t become sterile as has happened to large swathes of London. We haven’t become anesthetized. It still has its rough edges”.

The designers and accessories that Maggie sells in the shop have all passed under her discerning eye. Much like that first Ferrandis necklace, all of the jewellery “has to fulfil a criteria which is ‘do I like it?’ and I’ll go with that gut instinct. I think once you start analysing and over-analysing you get horribly lost”. When you enter the shop you are struck by how colourful it is, with collections sitting in colour co-ordinated displays to create a rainbow effect in the brightly lit space. The shop is narrow and packed full of treasures, from gem-encrusted bug pendants to Missoni-esque Italian teddy bears, to the special edition poetry books from Faber & Faber, with equally colourful covers, celebrating some of our best-loved poets. Maggie believes she works with “with some of the best in the world”, a statement that is difficult to refute when you step inside and are greeted by the vast collection of eye-catching jewels. As we chat, a mix of regulars and newcomers peruse the shelves and are welcomed with open arms and discerning eye, with Maggie on hand to discuss everything costume jewellery.

Maggie has cultivated a space both for fans of costume jewellery or followers of specific designers and for passers-by stumbling upon a new discovery. Aside from branching out into the online marketplace five years ago there are no plans for physical expansion on the cards. Maggie is “very happy with what I have here. I think that kind of organic growth is fine but I have no ambition to conquer the world. If I was starting out in my 20s I might have a different outlook, but I prefer to be in control of what I do and I think that if you do expand you have to sacrifice that – it does become diluted and it does become somebody else’s vision.” Luckily for those of us who have discovered Maggie Owen London, then, it looks set to remain the jewel in Bloomsbury’s crown.

Oliver Spencer

Oliver Spencer


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Sandra Vijandi


“Not only does it feel like the centre of Bloomsbury, but it feels like the centre of London in a way…”

Farringdon, Portobello, Lambeth: familiar names of various London districts, but also those of a wealth of garments designed by Oliver Spencer, whose clothes have earned a reputation for distinction, comfort and sheer cool. Designing and making handcrafted garments with stylish accents and practical details for modern men and women, Bloomsbury-based Spencer has produced his own individual take on relaxed British style.

Having grown up in Coventry, Oli first moved to London in the early 1990s to study art. Frustrated by the limitations of art school, he abandoned his studies and enrolled in what he describes as the University of Life, selling second-hand clothes from a stall at Portobello Market. “Lots of things happened which I would describe as being pivotal in framing where my life would go next. I learnt lots of lessons – some good and some bad,” he says. He woke up at 4.30am every day so he could get his pitch, and it was there on the market stall that his relationship with clothes really began, giving him with an enduring love of the product and a passion for shopkeeping.

Oli spent a decade creating and expanding his first venture, formalwear brand Favourbrook, during which time he designed waistcoats for the 1994 film Four Weddings And A Funeral and began to establish his place on London’s design map. Eight years later, he wanted to embark on a new venture with even greater ambitions – success on the global scene. His plan was to produce a range of clothing that combined the quality and craft of traditional tailoring with a more relaxed modern style. His philosophy: quality needn’t mean formality; casual needn’t mean careless. “I have a feeling towards clothing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing up or dressing down  – it’s involved in every step of my life in any case,” he says. “When my customers purchase something from us, I want them to feel a sense of belonging – as if they’ve bought something that’s like their best friend… something they’ve owned forever. Every season, I strive to get there. I want to create clothes that talk to people. Most of my customers like to be seen but not heard – that’s why I don’t brand my stuff.”

The Oliver Spencer label was born in 2002, and its founder’s philosophy soon found a number of adherents in the heart of Bloomsbury and beyond. Ironically, Oli’s arrival in Bloomsbury came about through friend and founder of Folk Clothing, Glaswegian fashion designer Cathal McAteer. “I already loved the shops on Lambs Conduit Street, and then my friend Cathal asked me to open a shop here,” he tells me. “Bloomsbury has come up and up. It’s become a much more residential neighbourhood, but also with many more businesses locating here. It’s a melting pot, and full of academics. You can slide into a pub here and you could end up spending your evening with a doctor or professor, but equally they might work in the film industry or law. Bloomsbury, for me, is a very educated neighbourhood. People here are interesting and very creative: you can feel it when you’re walking down the street. The architecture of the place captivates me – it’s steeped in history. The whole atmosphere of is wonderful. If you think back to its heyday, with the Bloomsbury Group and everything else, you can still really feel it here. With our shops, one – No 58 – was a bookshop, and No 62 was a picture framers. They bound books underneath one, and made frames underneath the other.”

The brand first came to Lambs Conduit Street in 2007. Oli’s store at No 62 is home to the latest collection each season, with the original surviving shop fittings making for an immaculately dressed setting. Underneath the shop, where the framer’s was once based, the Oliver Spencer team is at work making for the main office for the brand. Another prominent fixture below the shop is Oli’s studio, where the collections are designed. The numerous sketches of jackets, shirts and other garments pinned to the wall attest to the work that goes on there. Two doors along, No 58 is home to the Oliver Spencer Shoes & Accessories collection. “The brand is wholly focused on menswear. I’ve got lots going on with it,” he says.

Since launching on Lambs Conduit Street, Oliver Spencer has gone on to expand across London, with shops in Shoreditch and Soho. “Not only does it feel like the centre of Bloomsbury, but it feels like the centre of London in a way. Lambs Conduit Street, to me, is the best street in London, because of the mix of people,” says Oli. “I’d imagine it’s the way London was about 50 years ago, with lots of independent stores based along the street. You can do most things in life on this street; get drunk (or merry), do up your house, dress nice, smell nice and eat well… and that’s where we want to be.”

Oli is uncompromising in the standards he sets for production and provenance, sourcing the finest fabrics and yarns from artisanal British and Italian mills. He prides himself on producing his garments in only the best European factories and workshops, with around 40 per cent of the collection made here in London or elsewhere in England.

Despite the emphasis on British quality, Oliver Spencer’s eye is firmly fixed on the global market. Today, his clothes are stocked in many of the world’s leading department stores, from Selfridges to Liberty of London, and he has opened shops in Toronto and Paris, as well as developing a profitable international online business. With wearers of his brand including Daniel Craig, Tinie Tempah, Alex James and Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, Oli confesses that his next ambition is to become a household name.