Lily Cole’s ‘not impossible’ shop only sells products with knowable stories – the supermodel knows who made them, where they came from and how the components were produced. Welcome to the future of retail, writes Lee Williams.
Down an unassuming back street in Southwark, just a stone’s throw from London Bridge, is a rather odd shop. Standing outside and looking beyond its bright blue facade, you can see brightly-co- loured trainers hanging in the window, a bulky object that might be a game of Giant Jenga and what appears to be a wall of ceramic tiles at the back. The frontage poses more questions than it answers: Is this a bric-a-brac shop for eccentrics? A trendy boutique doing a sideline in bathroom fittings?
On entering the shop, a few things become clearer… kind of. The ceramic tiles are not tiles at all but wireless ceramic speakers. The Giant Jenga is in fact a stool made out of bread (yes, bread) and the trainers are, it seems, just trainers. Other objects begin to catch the eye. There is a rainbow-coloured balaclava and a hat with little pointy ears called ‘The Earviator’, accompanied by a helpful tag telling you it was hand-knitted by Shirley, who says: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
At this point you might begin to look around nervously and wonder if there was anything more than just a shot of vanilla in that latte you had earlier. What the hell is this place? Fortunately the answer is written on the wall: “This is Not Impossible. Products that promote transparency and thoughtfulness in manufacturing.”
It is also a means of financial support for impossible.com, the social giving network set up by supermodel and entrepreneur, Lily Cole. “Not Impossible is the first business model we are exploring to support impossible.com,” says Cole. “By promoting companies which are making things in a thoughtful way and by telling their stories, we hope to create more consumer understanding and economic support for this way of doing business.”
“Pushing for greater transparency in supply chains is a big task, one we cannot do alone or quickly, but we would like to begin that journey and celebrate the people we think are working hard towards that vision.”
Every product in the Not Impossible shop has a story behind it, a story which can be traced all the way from raw material to finished product. “All the products we sell in the shop are completely sustainable and traceable in the way they’ve been made,” explains shop manager, Meg Lobb. “We know who made them, where they were made, what the components are, how the components were produced, everything.”
She isn’t kidding. For example, the brightly-patterned trainers, designed by Cole herself, are made from wild rubber harvested by native tribes in the Amazon rainforest. Cole has visited the tribes and witnessed first-hand their sustainable methods of harvesting. Knitwear products like the Earviator are made in collabo- ration with a company called The North Circular. The yarn is produced on small farms around the UK, is organically dyed and then sent, along with patterns, to a team of knitters around the country – mostly grannies – who hand knit each item before sending it back to London. Knowing every person behind each part of the process ensures that they all get paid fairly. And also means you get a personalised message from Shirley with your Earviator!
The Not Impossible shop opened in April after Cole’s partner, Kwame Ferreira, moved the London branch of his innovation agency, Kwamecorp, into its new home on the South Bank. The building came with a retail space downstairs and the Not Impossible shop was born. One of the original goals was to provide a revenue stream to support impossible.com, which Cole had set up in 2013 with the support of Wikipedia co-founder, Jimmy Wales. Impossible.com sees members post wishes which are answered by others for no payment other than a thank you. A thank you can actually be used as a form of currency across the impossible.com network though, to buy things such as products from the Not Impossible shop. Examples of things offered on impossible. com are free arachnophobia treatments, free Reiki sessions and a free monthly sleep consultancy.
Even Sir Paul McCartney has given something on the site, contributing two free tickets to his recent sell-out concert at London’s O2 Arena.
How well the shop can support the social network depends, of course, on how well the products sell. In the short time since it has been open, Not Impossible is flourishing, according to Lobb. The wild rubber trainers are the top sellers and many customers are drawn inside by the enigmatic shop front. “Having a physical space is amazing because the products are so tactile,” says Lobb. “I spend a lot of time in the shop explaining to people how things have been made.”
Not Impossible is already in talks to open a second shop in London and is planning to expand the range of products available online. The space above the shop is now being used to hold workshops for the wider impossible.com community. The first of these took place in May, teaching live animation and film editing techniques. Others planned for the future include a knitting workshop with the Not Impossible knitters and creating household products from bread with Yair Neuman, designer of the bread stool.
With just one small outlet and another in the pipeline, world domination seems a while away but Cole and Lobb both believe they are tapping into a growing desire amongst consumers for greater transparency in the products they buy. “If you look at the food movement in the last few years,” says Lobb, “you see people becoming more concerned about the provenance of what they eat. I think this is the next natural progression to that – moving onto things like their household products and what they’re wearing.
“Pushing for greater transparency in supply chains is a big task,” adds Cole, “one we cannot do alone or quickly, but we would like to begin that journey and celebrate the people we think are working hard towards that vision.”
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