Hanging out with hipsters in London

Hanging out with hipsters in London

"Take a vinyasa, people. Exhale and lower to chaturanga, inhale for upward facing dog and go back to downward facing dog. Don't hold your breath. B-R-E-A-T-H-E."

Marcus - bearded, tattooed and a diminutive Adam Levine doppelganger - is ventilating a prescription for poses in our Rocket Yoga class in his gravelly Russell Brand-ish voice.

Above us, on top of the dim, red-hued cavernous studio with its arched ceiling, a train is rumbling noisily by; the reverberations tickling our sweaty yoga-matted bare feet.

He saunters over to his iPod, where his Buddha Bar-echoed playlist is wafting from the speakers, and turns the volume up ever so slightly. He's like groovy yogi meets swank spinmeister - a 21st-century hippie with an affection for house music.

And he actually is. One ill-timed stage dive as a hard-partying international DJ landed him on the yoga mat after a therapist friend suggested he try it for rehab.

The denizens of the London neighbourhood of Shoreditch either have similarly kooky stories like Marcus' or look like him. As I bundle up and walk out of the railway arch onto its buzzy high street lined with restaurants, bars and coffee shops, more men in artfully manicured beards pass me.

I'm convinced East London has the highest concentration of beards in all of London - half reside in the Bangladeshi quarter of Whitechapel and hang out at the main street's curry houses in their kurta; the other half are the hipsters who have moved into the once-shady Shoreditch, Hackney and Dalston, and hang out at the indie cafes that have spread across the neighbourhood like a rash.

If you're not acquainted with the concept of hipsterism, here's an abridged history lesson: The word "hipster" was first coined in the 1940s to describe white connoisseurs of the black jazz scene who rejected social norms. It re-emerged in the 1990s as a characterisation for a sub-culture of a young, creative class in Brooklyn's Williamsburg and London's Shoreditch, forced out of urban centres into these gritty suburbs and post-industrial areas, taking their cool along.

In character, he or she is supposed to be the ultra-liberal independent thinker who eschews anything conventional and capitalistic, and despises politicians, bankers and the religiously conservative.

In style, he or she is a mishmash of anything-goes - punk meets vintage meets hillbilly on a fixie bike.

In taste, he or she is either an unapologetic cheeseburger-chomping, comfort- food devourer, or a gluten-ditching, organic-loving vegetarian who can't deal with processed food.

The word has crept into the Singaporean lexicon only recently, used rather liberally and lazily as a catch-all term for indie coffee shops, boutiques and bookstores that have sprung up in unexpected neighbourhoods like Tiong Bahru, Jalan Besar and Everton Park.

In its original intent, hipsters were classed as cool because they were the innovators, leaders rather than followers.

But there is a glaring dose of irony when you think about how uniform hipsters look, when their culture is defined by originality, creativity and trend-bucking.

There are even guides you can find online on how to look like a hipster (in London terms, it would be beards, flat caps and shoes without socks).

Hipster has become something of a bad word, just like how metrosexual and fashionista fell out of fashion the moment they became overused handles.

That's because the moment the original hipsters came onto the mainstream radar, the wannabes began trailing, copying and flaunting.

I'm writing this in my favourite coffee shop in Shoreditch called Look Mum No Hands! with bicycles hanging over my head. The cafe serves a mean latte with two mechanics who can fix your bike while you drink coffee and feed on its free Wi-Fi.

Here's my confession: I may deride the commercial hipsters for all their fakery the way I bemoan the over-gentrification of Tiong Bahru, but the truth is, I like the same things they do.

I live near enough to Shoreditch and Hackney to cycle there for single-origin coffee and a place to squat for hours without shame to do my work; for handmade cupcakes and artisanal breads at the pop-up weekend markets; for poetry slam nights and the occasional game of ping pong.

If not for these pseudo hipsters, I may never enjoy any of these things right in my backyard. Young, urban professionals without the obscene pay cheques of bankers may have been lured here for the same reasons.

I went to a house party recently in Shoreditch. The hosts, Tim and Sophia, live in a loft in what was once an industrial building that still retains its old-fangled iron gate and blackened red-brick exterior.

There was no loud, thumping music, only a soft lounge playlist providing adequate background accent in the tastefully furnished, Nordic-styled living room. No bottles of beer, but wine and prosecco along with roasted birds and other nibbles.

Among the dozen guests were an architect, a doctor, a product designer, a cafe owner and a photographer. Certainly more yuppie than hipster. Tim, Sophia and me are as guilty as the next sockless guy of driving up the price of everything in Shoreditch and causing the demise of yet another over-gentrified suburb.

Shoreditch's cool tribe of starving artists have moved on to colonise another derelict block in another rough neighbourhood and the tech start-ups, unable to afford the ballooning rents, are following suit.

Meanwhile, the remaining hipsters are still trying hard to keep the area spirited. In a few days, Britain's first cereal cafe will open in Brick Lane in Shoreditch offering more than 100 varieties of the morning staple from around the world.

You'll be able to customise your grain bowl with 20 different toppings and 13 kinds of milk.

Whether this latest incarnation of coolness will be the best thing since its breakfast rival, the sliced bread, is uncertain. What's almost certain is that hipsterism as we know it now is on its last legs.

Earlier this year, the fashion world was briefly abuzz with a new term, "normcore", whose style icons are Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Jobs. Normal is the new cool, declares the fashion rags suddenly.

It's the antithesis of the hipster and everything he represents. Perhaps the hipsters of Williamsburg, Shoreditch and Tiong Bahru will unoil their hair and start putting on some socks.

I'll have to go try some of those cereals.

dawntan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 7, 2014.
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