The Cross. 141 Portland Road, Holland Park, London W11 4LR
The Cross is one of my very favourite shops, anywhere. In fact, it was one of the shops that inspired me to write this blog. I once lived on an exceptionally pretty street called Portland Road in Notting Hill, London, where terrace houses are painted in a rainbow of pastels. A small, pedestrianised square called Clarendon Cross divides the road into upper and lower halves; it’s full of shops and flanked by a restaurant/wine bar with outdoor tables and a fairy-lit tree. I was lucky enough to live in a flat, above a shop, overlooking this gorgeous spot – a little slice of retail flair in the centre of London. We used to joke that we didn’t need a TV; watching the beautiful people come and go, floating around the neighbourhood, was mesmerizing enough.
Clarendon Cross has a long, storied history. Over the years, Portland Road and surroundings have been transformed from rather insalubrious origins. Home to “potteries and piggeries” in the early 19th century, the charming boutiques of the present day (picturesque enough to feature in a Woody Allen film…and many ads) once housed a builder’s yard, a dairy and a pawn shop. Though its inhabitants have changed, the square’s independent shopkeepers have retained a strong sense of community. Many businesses have traded here for decades. Up to the mid-nineties, residents could still buy their papers from a local newsagent, the linchpin of the area, whose grandson in fact now runs a pet care shop on the same site. When I moved in, fourteen years ago, the clerks at Clarendon Cross’s tiny post office still recognised and knew the names of many residents.
Cath Kidston, doyenne of ‘modern vintage’ British homeware and accessories, opened her very first shop next to that post office. Sadly, the Royal Mail soon closed its doors due to centralisation; so too, eventually, did Kidston. After rapid global expansion, she replaced this original outlet with a new location on busier Portobello Road, but quite a few independent businesses that helped form the charm and character of the neighbourhood still remain. Clarendon Cross is the longtime home of Julie’s Restaurant, a cavernous set of dining and drinking rooms decorated in an eccentric, somewhat haphazard style (think colonial elegance, taxidermy and Victoriana). Julie’s has attracted an interesting, refined crowd, celebrities among them, since the early 60s and it is still the heart of the square; a meeting place for shop-owners, local residents and folk from further afield, looking for somewhere a bit different to have a drink and a bite to eat. Myriad Antiques, a secret known to all savvy interior designers, has been selling a captivating collection of objects, furniture and garden accessories for over forty years – you must go and visit, particularly if you like the aesthetic of Petersham Nurseries. It has a similar vibe. Yet another venerable shopping institution on the square is bijou kitchenware boutique, Summerill and Bishop; opened over twenty years ago by two stylish friends who share a love of cooking. One more worthy stop is just around the corner — Harper & Tom’s flowers, whose natural style of hand-tied bouquets has been endlessly copied. For me, the shiniest jewel among all these independent gems is eponymously-named, “The Cross”.
The Cross became part of the community almost two decades ago, when Sam Robinson had an inspired idea. A citizen of the square already, she was working as a shop girl around the corner at Myriad Antiques. Fresh out of Central Saint Martins art college, a textile designer by training, she also made her own brand of handbags – in knitted lurex, she tells me, customized with silk flowers and crystals – sold at places like Paul Smith and Graham and Green. She and her bag-business partner had gone their separate ways and Sam had leftover stock to sell. She also knew many friends and fellow art school grads who made, as Sam describes, “really incredible things” she wanted people to see – the jewellery of Pippa Small; hand-felted coats by fashion designer Sonja Nuttall (now at Donna Karan); and velvet devoré scarves by Neisha Crosland (who went on to create her own line of wallpaper, textiles and rugs for Osborne & Little, John Lewis and The Rug Company, among others). Sam joined forces with her friend Sarah O’Keefe to gather up all these lovely bits and pieces and try to sell them. This was no big business plan for global retail domination: “We just borrowed stuff from everyone we knew and we sold it. We had a big ledger book and at the end of the week we used to look through it and pay for everything that had sold.” Sam knew, from her experience at Myriad, that there was a strong local market for items that were perhaps expensive but unique, of high quality and a bit hard-to-find. ‘Concept’ or lifestyle stores weren’t yet a thing and British retailers, emerging from a recession, were reluctant to take risks stocking artisan, untried designers. She and Sarah decided to take over an empty space on the corner of Clarendon Cross and Portland Road, just temporarily, until all these various special pieces they’d collected, sold out. What was initially a three-month lease was extended and what would today be called a ‘pop-up’ shop quickly became an established fixture on the map. Almost 20 years on, The Cross is a landmark – not only a ‘destination shop’ on the Notting Hill circuit but etched into the little black books of fashion and design devotees around the world.
The magic of stepping into the Cross is hard to convey in words or even pictures. It gives women of a certain type (I’m one) a rush of excitement even to contemplate a shopping trip. A big part of the experience is purely the look and feel of the place, from its whimsical front windows — hand-painted by artist Helen O’Keefe, mum of Sarah (who moved on in 2009, travelled to India and launched travelwear company, Hibiscus; now based in Somerset and about to begin an exciting new venture) — to a giant, floral wall mural above the stairs: exquisite pastel blossoms climbing towards the ceiling, set off against shimmering gold. Sometimes people ask Sam when she’ll paint over it. “Never!” she vows; it’s a one-off collaboration between Dosa, a brand sold at The Cross since the early days, and de Gournay, highly specialist artisan creators of silk wallpapers, fine fabrics, furniture and chinoiserie.
The atmosphere at The Cross is feminine, escapist and bohemian, with Sam’s keen eye for textiles playing a role; it’s a kaleidoscope of colour, fabric, texture and pattern. There’s something to catch the eye at every turn. Floorboards are painted simple white to set off colourful scarves while bold, bright rugs line the banisters. Little trinkets, purses, lotions, cards, gloves, gift books, candles, and clothing are piled high or hung with pretty hangers on old-fashioned coat hooks. A big round glass table (a vintage piece, whose base is a giant white hand) is surrounded by huge baskets full of lovely things to give as gifts, to adorn the home and to wear.
A sky-lit nook at the back of the shop is full to the brim with kids’ stuff – neon pink shelves overflowing with clever, quirky toys and clothing – there are tutus galore, pirate baby booties and hats knitted by Sam’s friend Ros Badger, whose cute jumpers adorned with tattoo-like designs kicked off The Cross’s kids collection. If you want a truly precious baby gift, Shirley McLauchlan hand-embroiders Scottish woollen blankets, cushions and even Christmas stockings with keepsake messages, while English Weather produces one-of-a-kind patchwork cot blankets from a network of cashmere knitters, along with sweet, soft animals; as does Jane Wheeler, whose sparkling bolero jackets, with sequins sewn into their cashmere threads, are also sold here…
Downstairs is a vault-like white and bright space that looks like the enormous wardrobe and jewellery-box of a bohemian goddess. It is full of things to enthrall and delight: the rings of jeweller Brooke Gregson; Lena Skadegard’s labradorite and moonstone necklaces; and peppered with pieces that provide a dose of rock n’ roll cool, like metallic bags and boleros by Bolam Style and the witty jumpers of Bella Freud. Kitted out with glossy chic caves as fitting rooms, the basement floor is a beautiful feast of shoes, bags, semi-precious stones, silks, cotton and cashmere; all chosen for their particular appeal to the ‘Cross’ customer.
It’s the fun of sharing her passion for the special things she sells that keeps Sam on the shop floor as often as possible. She and her team of ‘Cross’ girls can tell you why they love the products of every designer, maker and artist they stock, with sincere appreciation. When I’m in, Sam talks me through a few of her own current faves. French designer Nathalie Lètè makes all sorts of things for the home, with signature folksy, dreamy and child-like illustrations. The Cross sells framed screen prints, rugs, and large floor cushions by Lètè, featuring crazy big flowers and tufts of wool: “Wonderful – like someone who’s been taking acid!” says Sam. She is also proud to stock local artist Sam McEwen’s limited edition screen prints featuring splashy, abstract neon and metallic hearts and flowers. A mainstay over the years has been Dosa, a line of fashion and homeware by now famous LA-based Korean-American designer, Christina Kim. Her relationship with Kim is long-standing: “We went to meet Christina to see her houseware…because when we started Elle Decoration had done a piece on them and showed a lovely basket. I called the number that was listed in the back pages of the magazine and actually got hold of Christina on the phone. I said, ‘Hello, I’d like to buy your basket for my shop?’” It is Dosa that inspired Sam to sell clothing in the first place. Today, as well as a few homewares, Sam’s clients still flock in to see each new season of Dosa’s timeless, simply constructed co-ordinates like camisoles, cropped trousers, cardigans and tunic dresses; made from luxurious silks, they feature handmade elements and traditional crafting techniques.
The way Sam is perfectly attuned to her clients is the cornerstone of the shop’s success. It’s an eclectic aesthetic; one that, as Sam says “doesn’t adhere to fashion rules,” but pieces are still carefully selected to suit her customers. Sam knows what they want, what their money can afford and how they expect something special in return – a more individual, creative, highly-crafted approach to fashion. Clothes from the Cross are not cheap. But neither are they disposable or merely ‘trendy’. Sam confides that, “For me, the greatest compliment is when someone comes in and says, ‘You know that amazing coat I bought five years ago? I still wear it and get the most lovely comments when I do.’” A sense of longevity and ageless style is important, because The Cross’s clients span generations. Sam explains that since her most loyal customers have been coming in for decades, the toddlers they once dropped off at nursery have grown up to become patrons: “What’s interesting is that I’m now 20 years older and not wearing what I wore back then, and neither are my clients – but a lot of them now have teenaged daughters, and I employ young staff; the girl that buys with me is in her twenties, so it’s very good – you must have a balance. I have to constantly ensure that I’m relevant.”
A diverse range of budgets are catered for, too. One thing I’ve always liked about The Cross is that even if I couldn’t afford to buy their pricier things, I could leave with something lovely and within my means – a scarf, a votive candle holder, charm bracelet or a pair of cheerful “Liwan” flip-flops, a Cross shop summertime staple. This is deliberate, Sam says: “You need to have as much fun spending a fiver as a person spending five hundred pounds. That was one of my original mission statements. We used to sell this soap that we found on holiday in France, blocks with initials that you could use to spell things. I would tell the girls, ‘It’s going to take you as long to sell this soap and wrap it up nicely in cellophane as it is for someone to go downstairs and take a long time deciding on a dress for five-hundred pounds — but you want them both to have the same retail experience.” At The Cross, staff aspire to inspire all their customers. Sam would like everyone to be given the same level of attention. “You wouldn’t want a customer to feel like the staff are not interested unless you’re going to buy. It’s great that people still go to shops and go ‘gasp’ and get inspired by something, even if you can’t buy it. . .retail therapy – I can relate to that.”
Sam not only cares about her customers, but about the provenance of her products and the relationships she has built over time with the people who supply them. The banking crisis in 2008 fiercely impacted the entire supply chain for independent shops like hers. “That nearly finished us off,” she says, with frankness. “The whole thing ground to a halt. The retailers couldn’t pay the agents who then couldn’t pay the suppliers and designers who then couldn’t pay the factories. So really what everyone had to do was be a lot more honest and open, because we were all in the shit. There’s a level of trust that was established.” Sam’s shop adapted and survived because she nurtured and maintained her existing relationships and listened to her clients. She has seen “healthy” changes come about as a result; noting in recent years that people have become a lot more thoughtful and conscious about what they buy. Things have, in a sense, come full circle for The Cross. Although at times Sam has sold and championed brands like Missoni and Mulberry (“right in the beginning…they were based in Somerset and it was British, really important to support,” she notes), she admits she has become “slightly anti-big brands.” This resonates with her ethos and with the shop’s successful founding formula: “Back then, it was much easier to find people who were designing one-off pieces. Someone would bring something in to us; it was like a chain reaction. Now, when I go to trade shows, they do tend to leave me quite cold.” In response, she sources some of her own merchandise abroad: hand-stitched, embroidered Kantha quilts from India, which Sam sews into big cushions, and colourful Russian and Pakistani-made rugs where, she says, “each and every one is different.”
What The Cross and its neighbours on Clarendon Cross have to offer is a particular kind of experience you just can’t get on the high street or in the outlets of big chains: expertise, passion, a history of relationships with artists, designers and makers and thus, a sense that we as individuals are valuable participants in something bigger. On this, Sam is perfectly, persuasively succinct: “I want people to shop in shops and I want people to go to cinemas and the post office and to buy their newspaper from a local store. Why? It’s about community.” A beautiful, inspiring community – that she and her shop have been instrumental in creating.