There's a strip in Manchester known as King Street. One that has always been highly regarded but in recent years has struggled. Not enjoying the same footfall as the nearby Arndale shopping centre or famous bustling Market Street, it was no surprise that the pandemic sent much of it over the edge.
There was a similar blow following the global recession in 2008 but nothing like what's happening now. Walk down King Street today and you'll see many empty units and vacated shops with a kind of quiet sadness lingering over its cobbled, traffic-free parade.
It shouldn't be this way. King Street has all the right ingredients. Once a hub for England's banking industry during the Industrial Revolution, it left behind beautiful black and white buildings and elegant details. Because of the high-end setting, it boasts an art gallery, fine restaurants and has enjoyed hosting some decent high street names over the last 20 years. But Boots, Monsoon and Timberland went a while ago and now Phase Eight and Jigsaw have followed.
Some regard King Street as a window of what's happening on high streets elsewhere. Not just recessions or pandemics, retailers have suffered greatly under the ever-rising competition of online shopping. Never mind the crippling rents, perhaps it's just not fast enough at adapting to trends. Younger generations sweep in and they opt for cooler, lesser-known brands that offer more flexibility via apps like Klarna. And who can compete with next-day delivery or free and easy returns?
But in their place, we're seeing some interesting shifts. Perhaps a glimpse at the future of our high streets. We're seeing some creative pop-ups from more independent brands as well as artists and designers. Is it any wonder that when landlords find their lucrative units empty, they become more open to being flexible and offering space to those who were priced out long ago?
Here in King Street in Manchester, a multidisciplinary artist from Denton is causing quite a ripple. Liam Hopkins has launched Lazerian Space, a hybrid pop-up art gallery come food and drink spot. Liam, who has worked with the likes of Selfridges and John Lewis, is collaborating with local suppliers to offer freshly brewed coffees or alcoholic beverages as well as cakes and pastries – all while visitors enjoy sitting in one of Liam's colourful, space-like dining pods.
Multi-sensory and intimate, the metal pods are lined with colourful padded walls made from 6,500 plastic bottles removed from the ocean. Each has its own scent, too. Inspired by the global pandemic and how we've all been living in our own "bubbles", Liam says it's been interesting see how people respond: "They put down their mobile phones and actually talk to one another. Because each pod is so private, they can completely relax. It offers a calm space that encourages you to focus on the present. Something many of us perhaps lost pre-pandemic."
Only available to book on weekends, the menu is ever-changing and the idea is to create a fully sustainable circular economy. Customers will get a chance to contribute to an original sculpture that will be designed and created using all the plastic cups that will be continuously collected throughout the experience. They'll also have the choice of using the recyclable plastic for their drinks, to drink from space-age style pouches or to simply go for a ceramic cup. While wooden cutlery will be repurposed in the Lazerian workshop as a heat and power source – mainly for ceramic usage.
"People wander past and they're not sure what this space is," says Liam. "It's amazing to see the response. It gives us a glimpse at what's possible. There's a hunger for something different. What that might be is part of why we're doing this – we're experimenting. To see where the high street could go."
Across the street from Liam's space is The Pop-up Club, the brainchild of Tillie Peel. Essentially, it's an artisan market featuring the work of local designers and makers, and will only be around until the end of August. Even on a grey Monday afternoon in Manchester, the space was buzzing. Those who wish to sell their wares in the bright and fresh space are charged from as little as £25. And they can even offer workshops to those interested.
"Like anywhere, Manchester has suffered greatly over the last 18 months," says Liam. "I wanted to experiment with new concepts of bringing a creative experience that will appeal to a wide variety of people and be able to stimulate all the senses. There definitely seems to be an appetite for something different on the high street.
"Usually my work takes on a physical form and yes, there are actual physical pieces within the store available to use and buy, but I want to make this a memorable event – one that is out of this world."
Tickets are on sale now and you can book a pod in advance for however long you need. Walk-ins are welcome but bookings will take priority.