Insider’s London: Vibrant Africa on Calvert Avenue
(Note to reader: A month after the publication of this article, the shop featured closed its doors. While we’re sad to see individual places like this losing out to the costs of London living, we do want to wish Samson Soboye the very best with his future endeavours.)
Like much of East London, Calvert Avenue – one of London’s best kept shopping secrets – has undergone a great deal of change. Gentrification, rippling outwards in the wake of the Shoreditch scene, has brought with it excited customers and shoppers, thronging to the area each weekend as it becomes a tourist attraction to rival some of the city’s age-old historic landmarks.
Until relatively recently, Calvert Avenue hid behind a collaged facade of timber, chipboard and plywood, and it’s only in the last 10 years that entrepreneurial and art-minded individuals have began to move in to make use of the retail spaces that were being left to waste away.
One such individual is Samson Soboye, a former fashion student who set up shop as long ago as 2002, back when “Hackney was a no-man’s land… the only way in was by bus.” Trading under the name Soboye, and originally focusing on soft furnishings (some of which have been featured publications such as Vogue, the Independent, and House & Garden), the brand eventually expanded into fashion and design, initially to celebrate the African nations competing in the Olympics.
“Hackney was a no-man’s land… the only way in was by bus”
The positivity in the press and the warmth of the reviews encouraged the designer, and Soboye has taken further cue from there. One look around his Calvert Avenue shop and you’ll see that the lines are plentiful, bulging with colourful patterns and contemporary tailored silhouettes. 13 years on from his East London beginnings, Soboye is now, “the go-to brand for African inspired clothing.”
Soboye began his journey into fashion during a four-year degree at Central St Martins, finding himself styling “on music videos, look-books and fashion shows” from the get go. This prompted a work placement at Vogue, which subsequently developed into a job with the prestigious magazine. “I got a lot of out of it during the time I was there,” he tells SideStory today. “Day one, I hit the ground running on a shoot with Mario Testino and Kate Moss… it was a really good experience for me.” Being thrown in at the deep end helped to reinforce his abilities and made him realise that he had, “the courage and ability now to just do it on my own. I didn’t look back.”
“Day one, I hit the ground running on a shoot with Mario Testino and Kate Moss”
For five years, Soboye continued on a similar tack, freelancing where he could and building on these auspicious beginnings. However, it was only upon moving into a new flat that the soft furnishings side of his business suggested itself. “I was making bits and pieces from home as a hobby, and I started making cushions for myself”, he recalls, uncovering a hitherto unknown natural talent that took him by surprise. Friends would regularly turn up declaring their love for his new work. “Wow! I love that!” they would exclaim. “Where can I get one?”
Unsurprisingly, word on the quality of Soboye’s soft furnishings spread, and more requests came pouring in. His cushions began featuring in fashion shoots, and subsequent opportunities to style the sets themselves arose.
Today, he combines this styling and his soft furnishing studio with a burgeoning design career and a determination to share his knowledge and craftsmanship. He teaches classes at London College of Fashion, the University Of Epsom, the University of East London, and he’ll be starting at the University of Winchester in the new year, advising on fashion imaging, mood boards and portfolio presentation.
“Sobeye offers a cohesive curated collection – a truly high-end Africa-inspired collection”
According to Soboye, the multifaceted nature of his work keeps his creative projects engaging and his understanding of his industry keen, and this serves him well when he’s working on new designs and collections. He keeps a finger on the pulse and a weather eye open to the ever-changing moods of fashion, and he uses the knowledge he gains to educate a budding new generation of stylists and designers.
Back on Calvert Avenue, the distinct fabrics, colours and designs that illuminate the Soboye storefront keep the eye distracted. However, the designer is keen to impress on us that there’s more to the brand than colourful lines, underling the bespoke nature of his enterprise. “We work from the angle that customer is king,” he explains, “so if they want a piece of our design, we will tailor it towards them, customised from our existing brands and samples.”
Whether you’re visiting as a regular customer, clothed in bespoke Soboye togs, or a window shopper attracted by his vivid designs, his store is a great place to visit, representing “designers from 15 different African countries, including Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Burundi, South Africa, and more”. You get the sense that this is what sets Soboye apart from the other shops in the area. His is a cohesive, curated collection, offering a truly high end Africa-inspired experience.
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Visit the Soboye website
13 Calvert Ave, London E2 7JP