Tayo Abimbola and Petticoat Lane Market
"I’m a businesswoman. I’m an African fabrics woman. That’s just who I am."
I met Tayo and her sister Abz in February 2018 at Franceskka Fabrics, an African fabric shop in Spitalfields, East London. Outside, it was a grey February day, but inside I was dazzled by rows and rows of brightly patterned material, folded neatly and stacked side by side. We were there to talk about the East End Trades Guild, an alliance of neighbourhood businesses fighting for fair rent and rates in a rapidly changing part of the capital.
February 22, 2018
I’m Tayo and we’re in our lovely shop, which is Franceskka Fabrics. My mum was the initial founder and she had the shop for many years. We started off in Hackney. But with the rent increase and a few other problems we – luckily, I should say – ended up here. But we’ve ended up in the same predicament.
We started a trade guild one day when a lovely lady called Krissie Nicolson came in and she hit it off with my mum – so we ended up getting roped into it as well! But it ended up being really good. We see it as we’re stronger in number, because a lot of the things that we have been complaining about, other people have the same issues too and through the guild we can relate to them.
What we do here is sell African fabrics – a few European ones but mostly African, ranging from £1 to £50 per metre. We do head ties, these lovely African fabrics that are all embroidered by hand, they are all made in Nigeria on manual looms. We have a lot of customers because we’re on a market street. We have a lot of African women, especially brides, who come in to get a modern twist on what it is they want. They want African, but European, and we provide that.
Petticoat Lane and Wentworth Street Market have been here for years, but it’s changed a lot. Now we have a lot of African women who sell around the same price-point that we sell, but they are also from other tribes as well, so we can cater for all different tribes within Africa. They are kind of small, boutiquey, quirky shops. It’s colourful, it’s bright and it brings a lot to the street.
I would say in about the last nine years, the market has changed dramatically.
I would say it’s gone downhill – yes, it’s gone really downhill, in the sense that there’s not many people that are coming to the market, and they might not know the market exists. There aren’t any adverts letting people know what’s going on in this small community in the heart of London. So it’s an isolated market. It used to be booming. They would come and take pictures of the shopfront, but it’s no longer like that.
We’re kind of a dying breed. That’s how I feel. It’s so sad!
The main problem that we are facing is the rent going up. Even though there is not as much business, the rent is going sky high. We have been working with the guild for quite a while now to resolve the problems, to speak to other people and to see the issues that they are facing. And a lot of the issues are rent – and the fact that the rent is no longer affordable. Unfortunately, if the rents are unaffordable, then these ladies are going to have to leave. Likewise, a lot of shops will close.
It’s happening now. A lot of these women, they are educated, but this is what they know, which is that their mums have done it, their grandmas have done it – and that’s what they do. It’s like me and my sister, we would come here after school and help my mum for a number of years. It’s just something we’re used to, where we know the fabrics – I can look at the fabrics and know, that’s what it is. It’s a little bit of our heritage in a way.
There are a lot of people leaving, a lot of shops empty. A lot of shops are just closing down. It’s just dead.
You walk along, a shop is open and there are no other shops. A lot of food stalls are coming into the area and it’s changing everything.
I don’t think we had many options. With the guild, we find it’s brought us a lot of help that we might not have found somewhere else. They might not do the same things we do but they can give us so much advice and we have common ground. Just speaking, they might have something I need or I might have something they need – it’s been a great support unit. It’s just great.
On the 13th we are going to hold the mayor of Hackney and the mayor of Tower Hamlets accountable for matters that have been raised to them and their approach. We want affordable rent and if it’s possible, for them to provide affordable spaces for small businesses in London. It would be such a shame if a lot of these businesses are pushed out of the boroughs. I don’t know where we would go. It’s quite a daunting feeling. After you’ve done something for years and years and years, what do you do next? And what I do, selling African fabrics, it’s not everywhere in London. There is nowhere – I don’t know any other marketplaces for selling African fabrics in London. So I don’t know what I’d do, to be honest.
January 5, 2021
It’s the beginning of the second lockdown and Tayo is figuring out whether to keep her three children at home. In her hallway she keeps a photograph of herself in her shop, to remind her who she really is when times get tough.
In 2020, we decided to close the shop. The rent became too high and the landlord was planning on increasing the rent. And we wouldn't have been able to afford it.
We had to make the decision, do we stay or do we go?
During that time I became mentally unwell with the pressure of the rents and the stress. I was hospitalised, so we had to weigh it up what made more sense. Was it to stay in a property that we could no longer afford and me continue to get unwell? Or do we just it give it up. And it took a long time to come to the decision that we should give it up.
It’s fine – I’m well and my sister is well. It’s kind of worked out well, it’s just unfortunate that a lot of the women are still in this situation where the rent is incredibly high and they are there with no help and no assistance at all. There were over 16 women there and about eight shops have closed down and there are eight women left on the street.
Literally overnight, we had to pack our stuff and get out of there. I’ve gone back to college and I’m with my children, I look after my children, I do a food production course. And that… it’s not what I want to do, but I can’t be at home doing absolutely nothing, it’s not who I am as a person. I’m a businesswoman. I’m an African fabrics woman. That’s who I am, that's who I have been for many years. But just not to be bored and idle, and for my mental health, I have to really keep an eye on that.
But my older sister is still in the market. She is employed by one of the bigger shops, called Empire Fabrics. So she is still there, she is still very much a part of it. It’s like, I’m an African fabric woman and that’s what my sister is as well. For her to transition, it was too difficult. So it was very fortunate that she was able to get employed by another African shop. She is still living the dream.
That shop is doing very well because they trade internationally, they trade to Nigerian customers and Australian customers and people around the world. They sell online and they sell via Whatsapp. At Franceskka Fabrics we were selling on Whatsapp but as the pandemic started at the beginning of last year we had just started to do this, but it was a bit too late for us.
I would love to go back into fabrics. It’s just who I am as a person. My mother in law sells African fabrics, my mother sells African fabrics, so I’m in the middle. It’s kind of like – that’s who I am as a person, that is my heart. I wish financially I was stable enough to continue. It doesn’t have to be in Liverpool Street, I’d love it to be in Liverpool Street, but the rent and the rate, I just couldn’t afford it, but if it was somewhere else in England I would love to sell African fabrics.
Liverpool Street is absolutely different. When my mother started it was booming but now it’s a ghost town.
My sister walks to work every day, and she’s on the phone to me and she says, “Tayo, this place is a ghost town. It’s absolutely nothing like when we were here.”
The street market that was there initially, it’s still there, but it’s gone down and it’s gone down in the sense that the traders are not there anymore, good traders with a mixture of things that people want to buy. It’s no longer there. People don’t come, they’re not thriving like they’re used to.
I think it’s down to a lot of gentrification as well, the area is changing so much. How do I put this? There’s a lot of snooty people! I don’t know how to put it in any other way! They don’t get the culture, they don’t appreciate the culture of the African traders that are there. Because they are new, they don’t understand that this has been around for many years. The new residents that are moving in around the area, they don’t understand the culture of the area.
Only nine per cent of the residents in the market area are black people, so they don’t count for a lot of the residents in the area, so we weren’t basing our trade on the people that live there, we were basing it on the people coming in. But it doesn’t help that the people who do live there don’t understand the area.
My mother started that shop in the back of her car. She used to sell to family and friends initially and my father gave her a loan, it was £5,000, and she started off in Kingsland High Street. From Kingsland High Street she realised there was more business in Liverpool Street because she had earned enough money to move to bigger premises. That was 30 years ago, in 1989, she started and five years later she moved to Liverpool Street.
They didn’t have many African women but there were already Jewish traders that were there. My mum was one of three African women that started off, initially from the Jewish families. My mother-in-law was buying from the shops that were there before I was born.
I know all of them, I know them as Aunty, I go into their shops, I would greet them every single morning and I would say, “Hello Aunty, how are you?” We have had a few deaths on the street too, because of Corona, so we have lost some traders. We have had some deaths. I think there were about 16 traders. At the peak of everything there would have been about 25, all African women.
It’s something from back home. Women are the ones that sell clothing. They would initially sell clothing to family and friends at home and when they got enough money they would get their own premises. And they would do it with having the children there. A lot of the children there, I have seen them grow up from birth. They have a really good sense of community. At one stage the women would buy together, so if they said, four shops, everyone would put in £5,000 and they would buy a container from wherever they were buying from, China or India, so it was cheaper.
I think the culture is being lost. I’m worried with the state of affairs at the moment that a lot more of the shops will close down. Like I said years ago: it’s a dying breed.
If there was somewhere else they could go to it would be better. But there isn’t. They’re just lost. I’ve shut my shop and I have nothing to do, because I don’t know how to do anything else as well. What I did was a specialist thing. Not many people know how to do that. It could go online, but the thing about having the shop is that people come in for advice, and giving advice one-to-one is difficult to give over the internet.
I have a lot of fears and worries because I see that everything is going online. I’m worried that little bit of sentiment that used to be inside the business will disappear because people are just buying off the shelf and they are not getting the advice they may have wanted.
As a businesswoman, I’m hoping I come back and my business reopens to be honest. Because I think it’s very important for people to have that bit of culture. A lot of people came into the shop that weren’t African, but they might be marrying into an African family and they wanted a bit of advice – what do I do, how should I wear this, what do I say? We were able to give that advice.
I stuck to the Spitalfields Forum. If I work with that department it will help the women of the area a bit more. I’m still doing that. What we’re doing at the moment is we’re trying to get a neighbourhood plan put forward to help control what is happening in the area with different businesses. It’s not really helping with rates and rent but I think Krissie has done a good job of that anyway, to make sure a lot of people are aware of their rent and their rates and that the guild is there for them.
I keep doing it because women of that area don’t know what is going on. I think it’s very important that I have eyes and ears to know what’s going on and I can always let them know: “Listen, this planning decision is going to take place and if you don’t want it to happen you need to speak up.” I think it’s important that they know what is happening. I don’t want them to be left in the dark. The Spitalfields Forum is like it’s own guild but nothing can replace the East End Trades Guild, that is unique.
It’s hard work, I’m not going to lie. I let my sister know and my sister lets them know what is happening. But they are concerned with their businesses and they don’t see the longterm effect of what could happen to them. I’m just hoping things get better and that the market and the women remain, because they are a big part of the area, and it would be a shame to see them go. I’m just worried that it may not be a year or two years, but in ten years there might not be an African woman on that street anymore.
Do I identify as Nigerian? Yes I identify as Nigerian. But I identify myself as British first and foremost. Because I was born in Scotland. All my sisters were born in Scotland apart from one. My dad has been a GP in England for over 40 years. So I am British.
How do I see Britain? It’s my first home. Anything that’s going to be detrimental to Britain is not in my best interests.
If Britain is standing by itself – if it’s for the best of Britain, I’m for it. I’m not saying that Britain should not allow immigrants in. Far from it, because if my parents weren’t allowed in 40 years ago I wouldn’t be here. So I respect that Britain allowed a lot of immigrants in.
But Britain should also uplift and give recognition to other cultures in the country. I think it’s downplayed a little bit.
You know what’s crazy? We have Brick Lane which is five minutes down the road and Wentworth Street, Petticoat Lane, and it’s two different cultures, completely. But as neighbours they get on very very well.
There is a Bangladeshi shop that sells haberdashery on Brick Lane. Any time anyone came in who needed sewing needles or any kind of haberdashery we would always direct them down the road to this shop. The sense of community and as neighbours is very much so – but it’s going to go. That’s the sad thing. It’s going to go. But I’m hoping it doesn’t go – I hate being pessimistic because tomorrow something could happen and they could say, “We’re going to keep these women and we’re going to teach them better ways of doing the business.” But that doesn’t happen then they’re going to go.
The East End Trades Guild now has over 300 members and continues to do vital work, especially supporting small businesses during the pandemic. Support them by buying from them. Read more about Tayo’s involvement with the Guild in my 2018 story for the Independent. The Spitalfields Neighbourhood Planning Forum that Tayo is part of is campaigning for a reduction in rent on new developments in the area from 80 per cent to 55 per cent of market value, so that it is more affordable to small businesses. Read more about the women of Wentworth Street Market in this wonderful Spitalfields Life article.