Think goth, punk, Lolita, or steampunk, and Takeshita Street in Tokyo's alternative melting pot of Harajuku likely comes to mind. However, dark-hearted lovers of the alt scene have another bustling hive of gothic subculture in London's Camden Town - the birthplace of punk and the UK's rebellious heart. While Harajuku blows the lid off with its loud and Lolita, and cute and "kawaii" visual kei style, Camden Town in the artistic east of London is its edgier, wayward sibling with a dark and delightfully dingy flair - the result of a time of turbulent teenage turmoil and an ungovernable population of punks who thrust themselves into the anti-establishment punk rock scene headfirst to fulfill their thirst for freedom and disdain for the government.
Championed by society's nonconformists, Camden's punk vibe is still alive today in the form of a booming music and arts culture, and an insane alternative scene that has gothic, punk, steampunk, and rave fiends around the globe all foaming at the mouth. And with its rich range of outlandish market stores and shop buildings adorned by unconventionally stunning art and decor, merely strolling through the streets is enough of a reason to explore Camden Town - even without buying anything (which is impossible).
Along with its interesting tales of past and glorious alt culture, gothic hearts and free spirits can get a sense of how incredible this London hotspot is by discovering its bold history, bolshie music, eccentric art, flavor-packed food, lawless fashion, and insatiable shopping. Whether a day trip or a full weekend is on the cards, Camden Town should be a focal point on any London itinerary, and it's easy to see why.
The Birth Of Punk
The swinging 60s saw a huge shift in Camden Town when it was born again from the cultural revolution. In the past, this former industrial London pocket was home to an abundance of low-cost music venues and cheap pubs, attracting young people to let down their hair and spend their free time however they saw fit. Many a person felt this dive district was ungoverned and unpoliced, which appealed to at-heart rebels and society's misfits at the time looking for a place to let their chained-up desires run loose.
It didn't take long for said anarchists to start going wild, producing rock, punk, and psychedelia, which were quickly birthed and grew into an entire subculture - and the legendary Roundhouse was the womb from which much of Camden's energetic alternative scene spawned. It was a swarming nucleus where culture, politics, and music drew in a renegade youth in need of liberation from the government's clutches and society's strict hammer, who gathered and indulged their fantasies amongst others in London's sea of dissatisfied and likeminded revolutionists.
Originally built as a locomotive shed, the Roundhouse was once a gin distillery before it became the one and only energized cauldron in London where punks could rebel against the restrictive rules of society, and enjoy a wicked music genre that represents exactly that. Many of the UK’s most iconic rock bands and musicians started out here, with the likes of the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, and the debuts of many more world-famous, edgy punk rock artists taking center stage and doing their part in launching a full-blown music genre, feisty fashion scene, and loud lifestyle subculture suited to the hearts of angsty youths and defiant headbangers.
Additionally, the roots of other punk and Britpop artists run deep through the Roundhouse, including Blondie, Madness, Elvis Costello, Amy Winehouse, Van Morrison, and The Ramones. Ultimately it would seem that no rockstar or popstar on the planet were unaware of Camden in its heyday - even global icon Prince once owned a boutique here in the 90s. And with the ex-industrial town's market place just a stone's throw from the esteemed live music venue, Camden Market became the perfect place for bands to sell their T-shirts, and for punk-loving vendors to sell fashionable creations and clothing to other hardcore punk fans, which led to the town's prominent market full of alt treasures being shaped into what it is today.
What started as a disobedient societal subdivision and raving music party matured into a full-on culture of anarchy and way of life in this small and notorious, but globally-famed town that still houses echoes and accents of its chaotic and anarchist past right now. It was an ideal place crawling with like-minded people for punk to simmer and develop, and as such, Camden became the base of London's punk rockers, and the birthplace of punk - not just as a music and fashion style, but also a lifestyle - that went on to infect the rest of the world. It is known as one of humankind's most revolutionary fashion and music movements born right here in Camden and is still a major part of the town's soul today.
Camden Lock Market
Long before Camden Market became one of the world's most famous markets, the town was an industrial hub for goods from all over the British empire. Ideally situated, it had Kings Cross train station next door and Regent’s canal right alongside, which allowed it to see a period of industrial success. The borough was also home to many a distillery, and in the 19th Century, Camden was in fact renowned for producing some of the finest gin in the world. However, come 1974 when it was on the brink of demolition during punk's early days, Camden saw its first traders set up stalls and consequently bring more prosperity and activity to the area.
After decades of success, Camden Market today boasts what appears to be a warren of British teahouses and quaint cafés, and thousands of irresistible stalls and shops, which seems unbelievable when compared to the mere 16 of them that first began selling antiques, crafts, and jewelry back in the day. In the modern-day, Camden Lock Market is home to bundles upon bundles of epic food stalls, along with sensational stores overflowing with fashion and accessories, jewelry, unusual trinkets and souvenirs, ethnic delectables, and amazing artwork. Naturally, a vast amount of the market stalls are gothic in nature, which means alt-fashion enthusiasts absolutely must include Camden Lock Market in their London sojourn.
The Stables Market
The Stables Market is yet another one of Camden Town's most famed and loved attractions and is a buzzing beehive of impressionable stalls. In the past, however, it was a web of artisan saddlers and horse stables, and even incorporated a horse hospital where sick, injured, or tired equines - that were used to pull train parts and goods along Regent’s Canal and to the storage yards - could go to rest and recuperate.
Nestled right in the lively center of Camden Town alongside Regent’s Canal, today's Stables Market is an entirely different and wonderful experience in itself, consisting of a wealth of diverse street food stalls and traders selling all kinds of cuisine - both local and international - and if one can think of it, it's there being sold with a generous dollop of love on top.
It also hosts a stupendous number of independent stores selling myriads of things from all corners of the planet - from fashion and jewelry to art, music, antiques, souvenirs, and so much more. And, keeping in line with Camden's alternative energy, it's somber vendors aplenty here too, meaning goth geeks may rejoice upon entry to the market.
The Best Shops For Fans Of Gothic, Punk, And Alternative Fashion
The shopping experience in Camden is like no place on planet Earth, and that is not an exaggeration. There are no mega malls or towering skyscrapers, but merely modest cobbled streets lined with rustic markets and small high street shops - most of which are independent and unique. In between sampling all the delicious street food and getting lost in the town's fun art shops and worldly souvenir stalls, the real reason for dark hearts' exploration of the birthplace of London's alternative scene is clear: goth shops galore.
This small hub seemingly plays host to an entire condensed zone of everything that tickles the fancies of even the most seasoned lovers of dark and alternative fashion - think leather, lace, buckles, straps, studs, spikes, latex, PVC, chains, corsets, boots, steampunk, rave, Victorian, punk, goth, and all things in-between. Sounds heavenly, (or hellish) doesn't it?
Camden's Main High Street
One can make a full day of gothic shopping in Camden, and each area of the town features no lack of businesses to tempt lovers of the delectable alternative style. The oh-so-Instagrammable main street with its rows of eccentric, colorful stores featuring enormous statement artwork and sculptures on the building fronts is a great place to start and is where plenty of inexpensive souvenir shops are also located.
Amidst the souvenir stalls and cute ice cream, milkshake, and Korean bubble tea cafés, there are several epic stores for goths and punk rockers, including a few alt vintage vendors, tattoo and piercing businesses, and amazing leather shops. One of the very best and most impressive stores for gothic hearts, however, is the New Rock shop - which is said to be one of the oldest New Rock stockists in the world.
- New Rock Leather & Boot Store - Set on Camden's Main Street is a legendary highlight for goth fanatics, where the walls are decorated with chunky New Rock boots of all styles.
Once the main street's vibrant shops have been raided, it's time to head to Camden Lock Market and Camden Stables Market, where the true essence of fun for gothic geeks and punk rockers begins. The market boasts hoards of stalls offering everything from art, jewelry, handmade items, and original one-of-a-kind pieces, to gothic and alternative fashion brands well-loved around the world. Plus, many of the shops are run by the designers themselves, allowing customers to meet the creators of their haul and even make custom orders.
Overall, there are far too many mind-blowing shops to list, however, some of the best gothic and alt stores in Camden's market area that truly stand out are:
- Burleska Corsets - situated in the Stables Market, this is the top shop for all one's gothic and steampunk corset needs. It's almost impossible to leave this small store without buying one of their stunning corsets or underbust or at least trying one on.
- no:wear - located in the Stables Market, this is a superb and unique designer store like no other, selling handmade tasteful punk clothing and accessories exuding a gothic, yet Haute fashion apocalyptic Burning Man aesthetic.
- Sai Sai - Chalk Farm Road (directly opposite Camden Lock Market) is home to this Camden gothic and lolita favorite, which sells many of the world's most popular alternative fashion brands such as Punk Rave, Devil Fashion, Killstar, RQ-BL and so many more - as well as items, accessories, and jewelry from smaller designers.
- Tainted Prince - Also on Chalk Farm Road is this Camden classic alt gem specializing in beautiful Victorian-style gothic fashion and accessories. It's another one of the town's much-loved favorites amongst fans of London's goth culture.
- Cyberdog - This is not just a store, but also an experience, which is as clear as day when arriving at the industrial building's entrance and being greeted by two massive robot-like humanoid statues. Cyberdog is a continuous rave inside, with the brand's jaw-dropping range of vibrant cyberpunk and rave-wear illuminated by an overhead of UV and neon lights. It's three floors of crazy fashion with a mature basement full of adult wear. Sometimes, there are even talented dancers putting on a fantastic show for shoppers.
To summarize, Camden Town's vibrant, anarchic history, alternative subculture, and characterful shopping scene is an entire world to discover and an incredible experience to savor. Taking the time to explore this beaming center of rebel culture, music, and art that birthed some of the world's biggest rock superstars leaves discerning visitors with nothing to desire, and likely two hands full of heavy shopping bags laden with eccentric items and alternative attire unavailable anywhere else. Indulging oneself in retail therapy here undoubtedly makes fascinated shoppers wish they were an octopus with eight limbs to carry their overzealous bags of plunder and swag - and that's not even a joke.
Not for the basic of folk, a day of shopping in this exceptional part of London is sure to excite, inspire, and enlighten the wardrobe, and not to mention fill tummies with some of the best street food in England's capital city. Bring more cash than willing to splash, for anyone sound of mind is unable to leave Camden without a heaped sack of outlandishly punk-gothic goodies and amazingly unique treats. Readers beware, your wallets are in for a scare.