Edit: this article and video were created several months ago, pre-lockdown.
I’ve often wondered if I’m the most colourful person in the city, but who are the other contenders and where could I track them down? Stationing myself on Brick Lane to spy on who purchases rainbow bagels proved unfruitful. Those who eat colourfully don’t necessarily dress it. But geographically, I wasn’t far off. East London is where a kaleidoscope of chromatic characters meet every month for the Old Spitalfields Market Colourwalk.
It’s not your typical networking event.
“Can I take your picture?” A lady approaches a table of four colourwalkers drinking tea waiting for their fellow comrades. Before she gets an answer, one of them interrupts her: “Wow, you look fabulous, where did you get that top?” Someone else pipes up: “I love the sleeves!” “I want it,” says someone else.
It’s the start of a typical conversation at a colourwalk. Not a foul word about style is spoken, only encouragement about how fabulous everyone looks, followed by tales of where they’ve found their latest bargain.
"I’m already getting tips on how to up my accessory game"
“Let me show you these.” A cheerfully dressed Sue Harding dips into her bag and pulls out a dozen velvet flowers. “They’re great for putting on a hat.” She points to her headgear, a combination of a turban and headband that co-ordinates in perfect union with her jewellery. I’m already getting tips on how to up my accessory game.
"I've had some funny looks but more often or not people tell me that I’ve made their day"
“Sue always dresses like that,” Susie Johns — a serial knitter — tells me as she beavers away at what’s clearly going to be a woolly wonder. She’s been coming to the walks from the early days, but says she’s not as colourful as the others: “There are levels of quirkiness and I’m on the less quirky side, though I did make my dress using grey fabric and dyed it purple.”
Though the colourwalk is a Spitalfields institution it’s not only market visitors who witness the finery of these colourful folk. The journey to and from the gathering is part of the joy for Susie. “One of the things you notice when you’re all dressed up is how drab everyone else on the tube is. I’ve had some funny looks but more often or not people tell me that I’ve made their day.”
"My dress is made from two I bought from Deptford Market for 50p each"
Susie’s handmade dress is typical of the colourwalk community. It’s rare you’ll find high-street outfits here, more often or not they’ll be a vintage component, a garment made by an indie designer or some form of artistry by the wearer themselves. In the case of Vivien she’s wearing a DIY creation that would win the transformation round on The Great British Sewing Bee.
“My dress is made from two I bought from Deptford Market for 50p each,”, Vivien tells me, “One’s Indian and one Chinese. I have to go there every week. I went away for a fortnight and had withdrawal symptoms.
“Sometimes when I’m driving to work, I phone in and say the traffic is bad just so I can have a cheeky look.”
"I always present a vision of what I think is beautiful"
But just how did all these fabulous folk find their way to the colourwalk and what keeps bringing them back? Cue the inimitable Florent Bidois who's been organising the monthly extravaganza since December 2016. As well as running the group’s Facebook page, the artist and fashion designer takes a lead role in inspiring the tribe. “I always present a vision of what I think is beautiful. The colourwalk sets me a challenge.
“As a male dressing in this world, it gives me an opportunity to experiment with shapes and colours.”
The inimitable Sue Kreitzman
Local celebrity artist and New Yorker Sue Kreitzman has a ritual of visiting Old Spitalfields Market every Thursday and her presence at the colourwalks is a part of the attraction. She arrives wearing one of her signature kimonos, eccentric collars and wheeling a trolley that she likes to fill with market discoveries. I’ve been an admirer of Sue, one of the pioneers of the ‘Advanced Style,’ movement of fashionable people over 60, for sometime and I’m not the only one.
People flock to her continuously and every time I look around she’s joyfully chatting away to someone, usually admiring them as much as they’re transfixed on her.
"These guys are the most colourful I’ve seen"
I turn my attention to Natalie who’s sitting peacefully in the corner with a gigantic tray of crayons. Her own look is effortlessly vintage and she tells me that she attends the walks because she enjoys sketching the community. “I was a design manager in the fashion industry for 20 years and these guys are the most colourful I’ve ever seen. I love drawing them unaware — everyone that comes here makes new friends and I like capturing their interactions.”
"You don’t see many colourful people in Turkey"
In fact friendship is what brings Turkish fashion student Cansu, one of the younger colourwalkers, to the events. She’s dressed head-to-toe in her own creations and describes her fellow attendees as her ‘society’.
“You don’t see many colourful people in Turkey it was definitely hard to find ‘my people’ there,” she says.
“But I’ve now found a new family who made me want to stay in London.”
"I’ve been wearing colour since the 1960s"
There’s a real sense of ‘British eccentricity,’ on display summed up by actor Victoria. “The thing about the Brits is they actually love colour but they don’t like drawing attention to themselves. We seem to hide under greys, blues and blacks. I can’t understand it. I’ve been wearing colour since the 1960s.
“Today I’m wearing a top I bought from Walworth Road, Elephant and Castle.”
"I spent £5 on my outfit today"
Jewellery designer Maria Fernanda. who's set up a table to sell her handmade wares to fellow colourwalkers is another one of the group who agrees that looking fabulous can be done on a budget: “I spent £5 on my outfit today”.
She’s made herself a furry yellow shrug covered in pompoms styled with her own idiosyncratic accessories made from recycled finds including bungee cords and doll’s heads. You imagine her house would look something like the House of Dreams in East Dulwich.
"Beige doesn’t suit me"
I check in with some of the other colourwalkers. Jilliana, a radio host, travels up to attend the events from Brighton while artist Ella, who regularly paints the colourwalkers, is visiting from Hastings.
Carole tells me about her passion for fashion and photography which she took up in her 70s: “I’m always colourful, beige doesn’t suit me.”
I’m also intrigued by consultant Rakesh who’s dressed like a Maharaja, a far cry from the alter ego on his business card where he’s dressed like a conventional suit.
Joelle, a self-confessed creative, has gone further than simply wearing colourful clothes, her face is adorned with face paint which she tells me happened organically: “I don’t think too much. I just create looks that are usually very colourful and have flowers, I love flowers.
“When I was younger I used to feel different, I never fitted in but when I’m with the colourwalkers, I feel like me.”
Finally it’s time for the line-up. An essential part of every colourwalk, we assemble for a group photograph. I take a place on the floor ensuring my own vibrant outfit is on full show. I’ve opted for a rainbow dress with customised bag and sandals, pimped up using my craft stash and a glue gun; the simplest way to turn something from dreary to dramatic.
"I’m not the limit; you can be more colourful than me"
Just as everyone begins to disperse, there’s a grand entrance by Kala Kala — possibly is the most colourful person in London, though he’s not convinced, “I don’t see myself as colourful. People often say to me, I want to be as colourful as you and I say to them ‘why’? I’m not the limit; you can be more colourful than me!”
I ask Kala Kala if he thinks the capital needs more colour. “I’m amazed by the way London is; our buildings, our parks, transport, museums and food: it’s already colourful, you just have to open your eyes and see it.”
Feeling inspired? Dust down your most colourful getup and join the clan who usually meet on the third Thursday of the month. Florent says reassuringly: “We’re very welcoming, we love creativity, in fact we crave it. If a new person is attending l make them feel at ease by introducing them to regulars and I guarantee you’ll make friends with fellow colourful souls in no time.”
Find out more on the Colourwalk Facebook page.
All images © Kathy Illingworth