I grew up just outside Cardiff.
Seeing the city grow tremendously in regards to retail outlets, eateries and bars over the past ten years, it’s hard to imagine the once quaint Welsh capitol back in 2005. With multi million pound developments, such as the Millennium Stadium, a 70,000 capacity sports arena, sitting right on the river and sprawling Americanized shopping malls invading the city centre, Cardiff has very much grown up over the past decade.
However, amongst the corporate invasion that Cardiff has endured over the last ten years, the city’s essence has remained. Youth culture is paramount, with two Universities and a consistently strong music scene at its heart. However, I am not interested in the city for it’s music scene, although it does count for something. No, I’m interested in fashion, more specifically, retail. Cardiff, despite being inundated with youth (fashionable youth at that) is significantly lacking in regards to independent stores, offering up good quality brands, within a unique retail space.
My introduction to ‘streetwear’ was Drooghi. The tiny, 2 story independent, stocked brands such as; aNYthing, Triumvir, Levi’s Vintage, The Hundreds, SSUR, Nike & Adidas Originals. Here’s where I did a lot of my learning. Drooghi was a space that opened its doors in ’97 to a public that was blissfully unaware of the niche product being offered up. I spoke to Neil Morris; co-founder of Drooghi, to get a better understanding of what Cardiff is, from a retailer’s perspective. Neil explained that back in the late nineties, the fashion game was very different. In a pre-Internet era, in which a lot less people knew about a lot less brands, it was less hectic when it came to buying and selling such a niche product. Neil explained, “It was such a niche product we were offering, that’s what you’ve got to understand. I just don’t think the market [in South Wales] was there, I simply don’t think there were enough customers.”
“We began in ’96, we shot a zine, got some brands on board; Duffer, YMC, 6876. We shot the product for the zine, and then sold it to our mates. We thought it was that easy, so we opened Drooghi off the back of that.”
I continued to probe Neil for secrets; I wanted the answers to the niggling questions that had been bouncing around my head for months. Why hasn’t anybody else opened a decent independent in Cardiff since Drooghi closed down in 2007? The answer, it seemed, was little to do with the product. From what I could understand, extortionately high rent and rates determined by the landlords of the city was the main hindrance for people looking to open a new independent, in any sector. We agreed that with the Internet being so prevalent in the viewing and purchasing of product, a store is very much a statement of intent. Your store is now, very much an embodiment of the image or lifestyle you’re selling. It needs to embody your brand and physically represent how you want your brand to be perceived.
So why hasn’t anybody done it? Why hasn’t anybody opened a store like this? Well, the recession hit, and as Neil explained to me, it was a very sudden hold up in people spending their hard earned cash on niche brands, well any brands for that matter. However, I don’t think we can blame the recession alone for the lack of independent stores popping up around Cardiff. I got in touch with Cardiff born and bred Puma hype man, Matthew Thomas, an acquaintance of mine from way back, to get his opinion on Cardiff’s current lack of high quality independent retailers.
“There is the factor of local people leaving the city which decreases the chances of locally knowledgeable people helping develop it. On the flip side, you have people moving to make a future in Cardiff [students/young professionals] who can capitalize on its opportunities. So as ever, there are two sides and it’s hard to pinpoint full accurate reasons.” Matt explained. “I agree there is a lack of independents, other than Catapult, which is musically focused and City Surf which tailors to the city’s skate community. Drone Boy is the only one that springs to mind. Be it temporary or permanent, it’s good to see a local label doing such a thing.Outside of that, I really struggle to see anywhere that offers a diverse mix of brands that are on point, which can develop the offering for the city’s youth culture. Surely it’s just a matter of time right?”
So perhaps the reason Cardiff, a city so full of culture and youth, hasn’t got a staple independent’ or a ‘go-to’ store within the city, is simply down to not giving it a shot. Since the closing of Drooghi almost 6 years ago, Cardiff hasn’t had a store that has attempted to raise the bar in regards to a retail space, which offers both an experience and high quality lifestyle brands. As Neil and I touched on during our conversation, it’s the experience being sold that has become considerably more prevalent now, everywhere. With E-commerce gathering pace every day the consumer is becoming savvier with shopping away from the high street. We both agreed that brick and mortar space must offer something unattainable via a screen.
However, despite the Internet detracting sales from traditional retail, it has allowed the consumer to become more knowledgeable of (once) niche products and brands within the marketplace. Owner of Cardiff based brand ‘Drone Boy’ and its flagship store ‘Low Coal’, David Shaw explains “Yeah we lack good independents but I don’t believe the people [of Cardiff] need education in street wear, that’s fully accessible online. The city needs the gap between real space or platforms and innovators of the city to be lessened”.
With all the above taken into consideration, with balanced views from Neil, Matt and David, I believe cities outside of London, cities not recognized for their ‘scene’ still have scope for high quality independents to thrive. With a highly knowledgeable consumer, thanks to the Internet, I believe there is now enough demand for the product, to open high quality retail spaces in smaller cities throughout the UK (Cardiff included), with a little help from the landlords, of course.