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Drop in on eight bright minds shaping the capital’s culture.
THERE’S A SCENE in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” when the golden-ticket winners gasp while gazing upon Wonka’s fantastical edible garden. Running through it, of course, is a chocolate river. It’s a surreal cinematic image that, seen from a certain vantage point, evokes a very real feeling — that of standing on a central London bridge looking out over the River Thames, which is admittedly browner than we would like it to be. Behold our off-kilter nirvana. The sepia-toned hue of the stream is just one of many things Londoners relish complaining about. Others? Dark winters, exorbitant rents, crazy traffic, and the hot, packed Tube. But on a good day, this city is the backdrop to our own Wonka adventure: a technicolor fantasia of art, culture, fashion, music, and food. And many of the world’s brightest minds are drawn here because there’s a corner of London that feels like a golden-ticket adventure made just for them. Here are a few of those bright and creative minds in their custom corners.
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Mid-interview, the BAFTA-nominated, Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. pulls over on the roadside to people-watch. It’s a reminder that observing real life is a key skill for a storyteller, particularly one who is known for finding beauty in the ordinary. “I like to dabble in the middle,” he says, “to focus on what people might consider boring but do it in a way that feels enhanced and somewhat magical.” Davies has brought this signature, somewhat surreal perspective to a portfolio of work that includes everything from documenting the dance floors of underground clubs to creating fashion films for Kenzo, Gucci, and rising Black British menswear star Bianca Saunders to directing music videos for the likes of Blood Orange and Kae Tempest. Recently, he’s been collaborating on a BBC project with the legendary documentarian Adam Curtis.“ My career has been based around community,” he says. “Being a part of different ecosystems that are all of service to one another has been very crucial to how I’ve been able to create work and collaborate — and exist.”
Molly Goddard and her husband, Joel Jeffery, have a lot on their plates at the moment, specifically: caring for their seven-month-old daughter and serving as guardians of the on-the-rise premium pajama brand Desmond & Dempsey. Both “projects” began after Goddard, who was born in Australia, and Jeffery, who lived in the U.K., met in Canada during ski season. They fell in love and eventually Jeffery convinced Goddard to move to London. “But I’m from Queensland. It’s Australia’s summer state, where it’s warm all year. So I was used to wearing very little: eating dinner in a bikini, wearing stringy little PJs,” she laughs. When she arrived in London, she searched for alternatives but only found silk two-pieces she couldn’t afford or very cheaply made options. So the couple created Desmond & Dempsey. Their intrinsic synergy, shared curiosity, and a sense of adventure runs through every aspect of the brand. One design is called Deia, named after the idyllic Mallorcan hideaway where Jeffery proposed; a collection named “Home on the Ranch” was inspired by an obsession with the cowboy aesthetic they developed during lockdown. “We wanted to create something that makes relaxing feel like a special occasion,” explains Goddard. “That you’re dressed in something that makes you want to pause with your nearest and dearest.”
“We’re all born creative; some of us just stop too early on,” declares designer Faye Toogood, from House of Toogood’s headquarters in the heart of London’s Shoreditch neighborhood. Toogood, a self-proclaimed “tinkerer,” creates furniture, sculpture, fine art, interior design, and gender-neutral fashion with a global reputation — her Roly-Poly and Puffy lounge chairs, released in 2018 and 2020, respectively, are among the most Instagrammed pieces of furniture on the market. “I spend a lot of time working against labels,” she confirms. “I find them really irritating.” Toogood initially studied art history at the University of Bristol before spending almost a decade as a stylist and editor at World of Interiors magazine. Then, she launched her own studio. Her work, she says, is a conduit for the clash of her “playful, childlike naivete” and her natural British sardonicism. “Generally, my feeling is: Does the world need more clothes? Does the world need more furniture? Probably not. So, if I’m going to make more stuff, it has to offer something different and completely unique — and challenging.”
Chef Jeremy Chan of London’s Ikoyi restaurant sums up his personal state in a simple phrase: “I’m exhausted,” he declares. “This year has been really intense.” Along with carefully curating dining experiences and dishes that have earned him two Michelin stars, Chan relocated the restaurant, launched a new experimental menu, and published the cookbook “Ikoyi,” which archives the restaurant’s original recipes and the global influences behind them. Chan grew up in Hong Kong, eating Cantonese cuisine with spicy, salty flavors. As a young adult he moved to Spain, where he visited food markets to expand his culinary repertoire and observed how food brought locals together. At Ikoyi, he balances these influences with a personal penchant for the deep, meaty flavors of Nordic cuisine and the West African heritage of his business partner, Iré Hassan-Odukale, the latter of which inspired the restaurant’s original menu. No matter the origins of his dishes, Chan puts a fine point on local and artisan-made ingredients. “I’m not trying to take over anyone’s dish or make it better,” the chef humbly concludes. “I’m just giving my interpretation.”
Amal Khalaf is a civic curator for the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington, a member of the GCC (an art collective supporting emerging artists from the Arab world), and the director of programs at the artist-run Cubitt Gallery. It is an aptly international CV for a person who grew up between Bahrain, Singapore, the United States, and the United Kingdom, in a multilingual household. “There was always learning going on in our house — the appreciation for new languages, cultures, aesthetics,” Khalaf recalls. Her family tree comprises political dissidents and intellectuals, and her father’s friends were mostly artists. She explains her childhood as “being trained to be a little radical and learning to question everything.” As a result, Khalaf sees herself not just as a curator, but also a facilitator who understands the process of finding your voice. Under her leadership, the Serpentine Gallery recently debuted “Radio Ballads,” a project that placed artists Sonia Boyce, Helen Cammock, Rory Pilgrim, and Ilona Sagar in residence with social workers to share deeply personal stories of those working in the care sector. With the Cubitt Gallery, Khalaf helps provide studio space for artists and nurtures the curatorial talents of rising stars, such as the Black queer art duo Languid Hands. “The work I do in galleries is to help other people to produce projects,” she says, “[so they have] the opportunity to imagine and to make things that they wouldn’t usually be able to.”
If you entered Heathrow Airport via Terminal 5 late last year, you’d have seen Irene Agbontaen’s talents on display: The entire baggage hall was wrapped in Burna Boy advertisements — Burna Boy being one of the world’s biggest Afrobeats stars and Terminal 5 being the arrival terminal for British Airways flights from Nigeria and Ghana. As director of artist brand strategy at United Talent Agency, Agbontaen connects the dots between what she knows and who she meets, creating viral moments such as a collaboration between rising rap star Central Cee and buzzy French designer Jacquemus and rolling with an entourage that includes Skepta, Michaela Coel, and Maya Jama. The London native has also been at the helm of her own fashion brand, TTYA (Taller Than Your Average), for a decade, making popular styles more inclusive: maxi dresses for those over 5-foot-9 and heels up to a U.S. size 16. Additionally, her brand hosts a podcast and live conversations about diversity, inclusion, and creativity at Soho House locations around London. “Living in a cultural hub, I get to live and breathe and thrive in it,” she says. “Now, I’m creating things that feel like they just make sense.”
Most chairs are just chairs. But those chairs are not of interest to Carpenters Workshop Gallery co-founder Loïc Le Gaillard. “Chairs can be emotional; they can be created to achieve a purpose which is not functional,” he explains. “If the expression is through the form, then it becomes fascinating.” This curatorial lens characterizes the poignant works displayed at Carpenters Workshop Gallery by a smorgasbord of maverick artists and designers from around the world. That includes Vincenzo De Cotiis, an Italian architect known for his rebellious and distressed architecture and interiors; French designer and artist Michèle Lamy; experimental German duo Random International; and the late Renaissance man Virgil Abloh. It also hints at the motivation behind Gaillard and his co-founder Julien Lombrail’s newer ventures: art and design fair PAD London; Ladbroke Hall, a future space for contemporary design, dining, and music; and a magazine called The Design Edit. “We generally feel that we’ve been at the beginning of a movement. There’s an appetite, but we know it’s a niche, so we’re trying to promote this new expression,” he says. “And tell the beautiful stories we have to tell.”
Kemi Alemoru is a London-based, Manchester-born writer, editor, host, and consultant. She has interviewed Alicia Keys, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Spike Lee, and Doja Cat, among others. Alongside chasing celebrities, she writes about pop culture, art and photography, music, and dabbles in social commentary. Occasionally she also writes about fashion — as a treat.
Sophie Green is a documentary and art photographer based in London. Her photography is a spontaneous, intuitive reaction to the ordinary, celebrating the eccentricities of the human experience. Her work largely explores aspects of British culture and rarely documented communities and subcultures that are drawn together by a shared identity.
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