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Earl of East London

Shop owners, London

Arriving at Niko Dafkos and Paul Firmin’s shop in East London’s Netil Market, we’re greeted by the grassy scent of greenhouses and campfires, before the owners themselves. “We’re just mixing a new batch of candle wax – won’t be a sec!”

This is the Earl of East London. Starting out in 2014 as a market stall specialising in vintage curiosities, the brand has since grown to a permanent store selling all manner of lifestyle goods – including their latest venture, a homemade soy candle range. Partners in both business and in life, Paul and Niko have clearly been influenced by their recent travels around California, adopting a somewhat laid-back approach to the business and it’s direction.

We settled down with the creative couple over a pickleback to learn more about the ever-changing Earl.

  • Joseph Perry

    Words

  • Theo Bridge

    Pictures

  • 24 Aug 2015

    Published

  • 7 min read

    Length

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Tell us how Earl of East London (EOEL) started.

PAUL: It actually started as a total joke. My friends at work used to call me The Earl and claimed I was always trying to persuade them to move to East London. When I left that job, I set up a Tumblr and started reviewing new restaurants and openings in the area. It happened around the same time I met Niko and it quickly became ‘our thing’. We met a few interesting people and got a few freebies out of it but we soon realised that writing just wasn’t for us.

I’d always said I wanted to launch a market stall and Niko had spoken with his friends about it too. One day we just thought, let’s actually do it! We had collected loads of vintage and ceramics from a recent house move but had nowhere to store it, so it gave us a reason to keep buying.

We set up shop in East London’s Netil Market in 2014 and started working closely with a few interesting brands. From day one, Earl of East London has grown totally organically, starting life as a blog, then a market stall, to the permanent store we’re in now. I guess if we had to determine what it is, it’s a lifestyle brand but it’s also our creative outlet and hobby.

Is it important for you to feel part of a wider community?

P: Definitely. What I’ve always liked about Hackney in particular is it’s creative community. When I first moved here, I spent most of my time partying and drinking – that was my Hackney. But now it’s nice to be a part of the community in a different way. It’s nice to be one of the makers.


How do you use social media to promote yourselves and your brand?

P: Social platforms like Instagram have been so important for us. Over Christmas we went to Ojai in California purely to go and visit a shop we found on Instagram. We planned our whole trip around it!

We were back in California earlier this year also, to run the shop at The Unique CAMP, a 4-day creative conference in the San Bernardino Mountains. One day last summer, Teressa Foglia, a speaker at the 2014 event came past the market stall. She linked us up with Sonja Rasula, the founder of CAMP via Instagram. We met up with Sonja when we were travelling last year and clicked with her instantly. This year she invited us to participate. That would never have happened had it not been for social media.


What is it about Instagram in particular that allows you to forge connections with people?

NIKO: I guess you can tell instantly if you share the same aesthetics, values and passions. Although it may appear very transparent when posting an image, what each of us responds to is also very specific. Those people who like or comment on your post are more likely to share similar interests and therefore easier to connect with.

Tell us a bit about your past and how you arrived in London.

P: I’m originally from the North East of England. I came here from Newcastle, but grew up in Darlington. I always knew I was going to move here, even though we had no connection to the city. In the first few years of secondary school I used to buy 10p packets of Space Raider crisps with my lunch money, and save the rest of it for train fares. I’d secretly take myself off to Leeds or York or Newcastle, just to get away for the day.

N: I’m from Düsseldorf, Germany but moved here in 2010 to do my Masters degree. I’d always wanted to move somewhere where people spoke English but in my head it was always the USA. When I first visited London with my school, I expected it to be super grey and boring – but it wasn’t, and I loved it.


Why do you think you both felt a desire to leave your hometowns?

N: I think it’s part of the coming out process, the very early stages of it. You can’t always be cool with who you are, where you are. In your hometown you’re a different person and you’ve established that with your family and friends without really knowing how they will respond to any change.


How do you feel when you return home?

N: I fall into old patterns. I sleep in my old bedroom and sit at the same seat on the sofa. Whenever I bump into an old school friend on the street, we have the same dialogue we would have had 10 years ago. All my expressions and my behaviour reverts back. It’s annoying but I can’t help it.


Why did you choose to make your home in Stratford?

P: I feel like this neighbourhood is going to keep changing for the next 20 years. If we really want to be part of turning it into something, we can be.

N: It feels very European to me. When it gets warmer everyone hangs out on their balconies drinking, like you could be in Barcelona.

You can’t always be cool with who you are, where you are. In your hometown you’re a different person and you’ve established that with your family and friends without really knowing how they will respond to any change.

‐ Niko Dafkos, Earl of East London

What is it about the neighbourhood you particularly like?

N: Old Stratford is really cool. Most people are unaware of the town’s history before the London 2012 Olympics. My favourite part is the Stratford Centre, a second shopping centre much smaller than Westfield. Every evening, when all the shops shut, the mall turns into an indoor skate park, filled with kids dancing and rollerblading. You’d think it would get a bit dodgy and intimidating but not at all. Everyone’s so welcoming. You get tourists hanging around, watching and taking pictures. It’s really nice. I think VICE did a video on it actually.

Tell us about the gay communities in London. Do you associate yourselves with any of these communities?

P: Not massively. Well, not at all really. I’ve never been into gay bars. I’ve never really liked them. I’ve never felt the need for any kind of segregation, and I certainly don’t see a need for it now.

N: For me, gay bars were another part of the coming out process. When I came out, I felt like I needed them. I needed gay bars to go and be gay in. Now that I’m totally comfortable with my sexuality, I can be gay – my kind of gay – wherever I want. And although you and I may no longer need them, I think there are enough young boys and girls who do.

P: These days, it’s rare that I consciously think about being gay. I’m just a guy and it’s one part of my personality. The things I want to look at and engage with are more well-rounded, and not defined by my sexuality. I don’t feel like I belong to one specific gay community. I have some friends who like men and some friends who like women and that’s…

N: That’s the way it should be.

 

I’ve never been into gay bars. I’ve never really liked them. I’ve never felt the need for any kind of segregation, and I certainly don’t see a need for it now.

‐ Paul Firmin, Earl of East London

Do you think that attitudes towards gay people are changing in the UK?

P: Yes. I was chatting to another market resident the other day and we both agreed that men were very different a generation ago. Nowadays, men are so much more open – being metrosexual or a gay man is widely accepted, in London and the UK at least. There’s definitely been a massive change in society.

N: I also think the attitudes of gay people themselves are changing. We want to be represented but it has to be so understated that you wouldn’t even realise it. It’s like talking about being gay without saying the word.


What are your aspirations for the future?

P: From a work perspective, I just want this amazing journey to continue.

N: As long as we meet exciting people, do exciting projects, travel and have fun with it, we’re doing everything right. There’s no pressure on it so it can be all of those things.

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