Making Bonds with the Earl of East London

There’s a special kind of earnestness to Paul Firmin that immediately captivates. I catch him mid-afternoon on a chilly London Friday, attempting to find a quiet spot for our chat in their beautiful Bonds Hackney store — and it really is beautiful. A lovely light-filled space, splashed with earthy neutrals, and an almost too perfect curation of merchandise. 

It’s easy to see that every little detail in Bonds Hackney has been thoughtfully considered; from the Earl of East London candles on display, to the contemporary selection of ceramics and fragrances. Beyond the achingly cool aesthetic however, there’s something even more special underneath the surface. Because at Bonds Hackney, the connections are just as important as the merchandise. Bonds Hackney is all about re-creating the human dialogue between craftsman and customer that has somewhat been lost in the internet age. Paul Firmin and Niko Dafkos firmly believe in bringing people back to the hight street by forming bonds between brands and people; and we hope that you’ll be inspired to make some bonds too. 

How did Earl of East London start? 
Earl of East London was founded by myself and my partner Niko. We wanted to do a market stall for ages and one day we bumped into a neighbour who was trading in Netil Market and he helped us get one. Without any planning, we booked a market stall. That one off stall became a weekly thing, and a few months later we got our first shipping container of curated items. We were both really interested in scents, and so we trialled a few scents and Earl of East London was born. 
We launched in July and by September we were in Selfridges, soon we had 25 stockists, and it all happened organically. The name itself was actually a nickname that my friends used to call me. They called me the ‘Earl of East London’ because I kept telling everyone to go to East London! I kept bombarding them with photos of where to go in Hackney, all the new cool places and my favourite spots.
What kind of places were you recommending as the Earl of East London? 
Unfortunately, a lot of those places aren’t around anymore. There was a mezcal bar in Hackney Road, Netil Market, and Hackney Downs Market to name a few. Places like that still exist of course, but have changed over time.
What makes Bonds Hackney unique from other hybrid spaces in London?
We opened Bonds Hackney almost two years ago, and one of our biggest sources of inspiration were the lifestyle stores of LA. I really believe in the future of the high street, because it’s going back to what it used to be. It’s all about specialist butchers, cobblers, and craftspeople — not just faceless department stores.
We wanted to do a multi-concept lifestyle store that was flexible; and so we put everything on casters so that we could transform the space into a studio and show people how our craft is done.  We’ve done scented supper clubs, clay workshops, and even yoga! We also sublet to our friend Ana Kerin of Kana London  - she needed a big studio and we had the space! 
Why the name Bonds Hackney? 
The whole buying concept is that we buy brands that we have a personal connection to, that’s why it’s called Bonds. Before we started our business, we used to walk around in London Fields and there was a really old building that we dreamt about turning into a coffee shop. The building has a sign that said ‘bonds’,  so we thought how nice it would be for people to be able to come for a workshop, bond with the maker, and have a coffee! We make bonds with local businesses, and we hope that customers make bonds with them too. 
Who are the Less Ordinary people and places in London that you think deserve a shout?
We used to live right behind the Bonds Hackney store. We were probably the first customers to go to E5 Bakehouse. It’s where Niko and I go for a morning coffee before work. Now it’s on the tourist track, but we still go there quite often. We also stock Lily’s jams from London Borough of Jam. We always make an effort to go there personally to pick up an order and also to have a coffee with Lily. It’s a unique place, and she is a special person. 
When Market Cafe first opened on Broadway Market, we used to go there every single weekend, but now we don’t have any more spare time. I love Bistrotheque, and I really miss Waltham Way Cafe. That whole area in general is really nice.
Bonds Kings Cross
What’s the biggest difference between your Kings Cross and Hackney locations? 
King’s Cross is a little bit less personal, but we’re trying to be disruptive and take that personal neighbourhood vibe to the shopping district. We’re from a backstreet in Hackney, where everyone comes through the door because of word of mouth. They want to know us and the stories of the product. In King’s Cross, a lot of the customers that come through don’t know us, and so we always try and speak to everyone and share our story. 
This shopping district reminds me of the markets in Hackney. Now it’s just us and we don’t have neighbours, but in Coal Drops Yard, there’s a community vibe. It feels very different, but we’re trying to hold onto what we’ve achieved in Hackney. 

Is there any place in particular on your wish-list that you want to check out, but haven’t had the chance to yet? 
It’s not really a new opening, but I really want to go to Benk and Bo. We’ve literally never been, and I think what they’re doing is incredible. I really want to check out Jolene too.
Are there any Less Ordinary places/boutiques abroad that have really resonated with you? 
We have always been inspired by Lisbon, and our favourite ceramics brand, Quartier, is based in in Lisbon. We know the makers and creatives there; including Romain who handcrafts all Quartier’s ceramics. We stayed in a place called The Lisboans, an old building that was renovated into 20 apartments and with a lovely restaurant underneath. We booked it blindly, but now we stay there every time and the people who run it are very nice. In fact, they went to one of our workshops. 
We also really love Los Angeles, and we actually stock a perfume brand from there.
We really wanted to bring that concept of a California lifestyle store to the UK. The stores are very different  from us but we share the same ethos. We really love Alchemy Works in the arts district. Their aesthetic and how invested they are about the product, I believe that’s the future.
Image by Andy Donohue
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Interview by Hannah Tan-Gillies 

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