Portobello Market’s youngest trader is launching The Market Cartel, an online shop run by the stallholders themselves.
The internet has been oft blamed for the destruction of smaller boutique stores and markets, which, coupled with the recession, never stood a fighting chance. And whilst some remain, one woman in particular is combining the best elements of two worlds; vintage and online. Meet Dani Smith; model, NYC import and vintage market goddess.
I first met Dani in Portobello market whilst filming interviews, and at first I had trouble believing she was a trader. At only 26, Dani is the youngest seller on the market by a long shot, and one who doesn’t quite fit the bill (albeit only aesthetically; this girl can make a hard sell with the best of them). Standing tall at 5’11”, she towered above me in heels, a tall blue-eyed vintage goddess dressed head to toe in sartorial records of the past, most notably a pink mohair jacket that had survived the recent attack of a friend’s baby trying to consume it. She possesses the air of an old soul, with an appearance and presence strikingly similar to Blake Lively. All in all, when Dani’s in the room, its hard to look anywhere else.
Smith has worked with Damien Hurst and Rankin on their collaboration Myths, Monsters and Legends, with Rankin himself describing Dani to Dazed and Confused as “a collaborator in every sense. She really inhabited the character and the project as a whole, and she steered its course as much as Damien and I did”. High praise from such a visionary fashion photographer, and an industry leader to say the least. But what would possess a girl with the modelling career that she has to get up at the crack of dawn every Friday and sell vintage clothes at Portobello? Its both fascinating and slightly unbelievable at the same time. I met up with Dani at her incredibly charming, smoky, dark-lit studio in Latimer Road, situated rather unbelievably in the arch of the train bridge above her. Its the HQ of her newly launched website, The Market Cartel (a sort of Portobello Market meets Asos site) where the clothes are stored, the editorials are shot, and a fair amount of wine is consumed.
Like most models, Dani started young. After her first visit to Paris as a budding young model aged just 16, the Californian-born fell in love with Europe. “I was born in California but raised in New York, which I think is every British person’s dream! For five years I would do Paris for three months, London for three months, Milan for three months, New York for three months. As a young model you just do the rounds. The first place I landed when I came to Europe was Paris, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh!’ Its my favourite city. Everything’s amazing, and that was my first experience of wanting to live in Europe. Its just so rich in culture and fashion and food, and I love that you can drive from England to Paris in five hours. If you drive for five hours in America, you don’t really end up anywhere.”
Its a hectic life for a girl of only sixteen, but it’s one Smith loved. Although she’s had her high fashion experiences, the money work has always been important for Dani, a through-and-through entrepreneur. “I did a bit of catwalk when I was younger but I’ve always been more into the money thing, you know, Californian girl is great for catalogue. Its money! There’s a lot of girls out there who’s face or name you wouldn’t know, but they make a LOT of money! Not saying I’m one of them…”
Despite her love of Paris and the fashionable opportunities it presented, it was London that became Dani’s new home. It would be hard not to question why a young model, already living in New York, would trade the Big Apple for London, but it was eventually the multi-faceted aspect of the city and the lure of history that proved too tempting to resist. “I love that it’s a big city like New York, but you can live so many different lives in London. If I didn’t want to leave West London or if i didn’t want to leave East London I wouldn’t have to! You kind of decide what sort of person you want to be, and then you stay in that area. Because I’m American the history is just something I love – America’s not very old!”
And despite her affinity for Portobello’s vintage, it was East London’s Hackney where Dani settled, and still lives today. In fact the notion of ever leaving is met with incredulity, as though I’d suggested moving to Antartica rather than just West London, as is my question as to which is her favourite – East or West? “You can’t ask that!” she laughs, covering her face with her hands. “I had this conversation the other day and I was like ‘I would never move West!’. I’m not a hater, I’m West all the time, I get the best of both worlds. I never get sick of East because I’m always working West and I never get sick of West because I live East, so its quite perfect. I get the best of both worlds! I probably spend more time West but I love going home East. I live in Clapton Pond and I’ll never move from that area, its genius there – it’s my home.”
Yes, for the foreseeable future, it seems Dani is well and truly set on the East being her home. For a young and exciting model such as herself, it’s not hard to see why. But nobody makes the near daily trip to Portobello for shits and giggles; this girl is driven, and intensely passionate about the world-famous market. “I really found myself on Portobello. Vintage in America is great – vintage in New York, however, is overpriced. There are of course markets in New York, but it’s not like in the UK or Europe, there’s just such a market culture here that you don’t have in America. In London you’re there every day as a profession. The market is a home for every trader on there, even if I have a shit day on the market, if I don’t make any money, it’s still really fun. A lot of people have it as something they look forward to and it’s their social day, a lot of people have to have the market, it’s a comfortable place because so often it’s generational. Even if I stopped selling, which would NEVER happen, I’d still go every friday.”
Its true, Market Fridays are practically essential to Dani. From a recent shoot with French Connection, a behind the scenes photo popped up on her Instagram, hashtagged #missingmarketfriday. Not only this, Dani likens Portobello to her hometown of New York City. “You walk around the streets in NYC and see the craziest stuff and you’re like ‘well, it’s New York!’” she shrugs, “and I guess I always say ‘well, it’s Portobello!’ The people, the clothing, it’s a bit of a soho vibe, weirdos and chaos and drama (oh my!). It’s unique. If you go up the road to Notting Hill it’s totally different.”
What Dani doesn’t share with Portobello, and many of the stallholders, is a history with the market. In many cases stalls are handed down over generations, so where did her vintage drive come from? “Vintage has always been in me. Travelling as a model, I always went to the markets because I prefer shopping that way and I’ve always worn vintage purely because I love it. My mom (her charming accent, however inflected with Britishisms, is still very much American) is an interior designer and she would always buy vintage things for the house, so she was a big influence on that. I was in Miami shopping six years ago, just for myself in flea markets and thrift towns and charity shops. I was on the plane back with my ex boyfriend and was suddenly like ‘this is it, this is what I want to do’ and I called my mom and I was like ‘I’ve figured it out, I wanna buy and sell vintage’. Its nice that I do remember that experience because I guess it started from there.”
Dani has owned her little part of Portobello Market for over two years now, born out of necessity in a way. One can only buy so much before space becomes an issue, as fashionistas everywhere will sympathise with. “I loved collecting things and every market trader is a hoarder, but then you hit a point where you think, ‘well what’s the point of having all these things?’ So you turn it into a business and it becomes shop, shop, shop, sell, sell, sell, and make money out of it. You can do what you want and turn it into a business, and I love selling things! Everyone always says ‘don’t you just keep everything you buy?’ but I get just as much of a kick selling it as I do buying it, I love selling it for more money.”
And along with everything else she does, Dani is adding more to her heavily loaded plate with The Market Cartel. As Rankin said himself, “Dani is a grafter… I admire her ambition and her talent.” Blending editorial with vintage shopping, Smith’s brainchild aims to give the wonders of Portobello Market to the entire world through the modern phenomenon of online shopping. “I really want to reach those people who love the markets like Spitafields and Portobello, but can’t shop them because they can’t be here. I did Clerkenwell Vintage recently and I gave my card to loads of girls. They said ‘oh no, I’m from Japan’ and I said ‘well, now you can shop Clerkenwell, you can shop Portobello’, but for me its not just about selling clothes. I’m trying to create a market within the market, like a yellow pages directory of the market traders. Who’s who, where to find them, what’s their niche, all in one place. Which is really cool actually, because there’s not really anything like that.”
Whilst she predicts Japan and Australia to be a huge market for her website, her aim is to reach the entire world – not just to sell to, but to buy from. “With TMC I could go to Paris, I could go to Italy, I could go to America to collect market traders. That’s why I love the idea of The Market Cartel, because it’s endless, it doesn’t have to be restricted to London, it can be anywhere. Its that market culture; that’s the rules of TMC, you sell on the market, you can be on TMC!.”
The Market Cartel means more than just a business venture to Smith, it means giving back to the place that has become a home for her over the last two years. “Its really to create an online presence for the market sellers. A lot of market traders are older than me, I’m the one that they come to for technological stuff like computers and Instagram. I need to give them my knowledge because I need their history and their values. This is my contribution to Portobello because they’ve spent so many years on it and if I can help my friends sell online then that’s the main goal.”
My biggest concern with the plan was that, given the ease of online shopping, it could eclipse the market itself, which Dani seems totally nonplussed about. “The market is already dying! There’s so much competition with online selling, instead of hiding away from that competition and selling just on a market you need to jump up and compete. Theres no reason that you can’t be on the market and sell online. Its not THE way forward, it’s just another outlet and if anything it will boost Portobello’s footfall.”
Rather than think of The Market Cartel as a replacement, it’s an expansion of what’s already there. With such a recent launch its impossible to predict what will happen, but Smith has clear goals for the site, and for herself. “In 10 years I will be buying and selling vintage, hopefully I will be creating, styling and collaborating, because that’s where I really get my drive, from working with people. And I hope The Market Cartel does well and it’s a big website with a first dibs vibe, with shoppable markets the world over. But work hard, meet a cute boy… and that’s it really. Enjoy my life.”
As we get to work shooting some photos, she pulls out a vibrant turquoise kaftan that would feel more at home in Aladdin than West London. She twirls and poses, smiling and tilting her head with expertise, and something becomes totally clear to me – whatever happens ten years from now, it doesn’t matter. Dani is already enjoying life as much as anyone possibly can.
Visit The Market Cartel for more
– Photos and text by Thomas Marrington