Home: Why kitsch is cool with The Cambridge Flea
“We're lovers of the wonky and the marginal, the quirky, the odd, the amusing and the ugly, but at the same time we're looking for hand-crafted, functional and beautiful objects that were made to last.” Alice Ryan meets Jane Hellings and Vix Ford, founders of The Cambridge Flea
A potted spruce, bought at Mill Road Winter Fair in aid of a soil erosion-combat charity, Jane Hellings’ Christmas tree is hung with baubles “from my childhood, ones my son made, unsold stock. . . We also have angels with no heads, bambis with no legs. It’s very much in the spirit of Christmas: come one, come all.” The tree is a reflection of Jane’s lifelong love of kitsch - which also fuels The Cambridge Flea, the e-shop she’s founded with friend and fellow vintage hound Vix Ford.
Selling via eBay and with a website in the pipeline, Jane and Vix source and sell homeware and ephemera from the Mid-century (sometimes earlier) through to the modern day (if design and quality are sufficiently high). From soft toys and trinkets to kitchenalia, every piece has personality. Current stock spans poodle plates, a pair of porcelain flamingos, a wall-hanging chalkware zebra head and a gloriously nostalgic collection of Christmas decorations: paper angels, glittered glass baubles, a carved wooden choir.
Says Vix: “Our stock is eclectic because our customers are eclectic. For me, it has to firstly be something I like, that's in good nick. Usually, we see something and can imagine it in its time but also see its place in the future. There’s a lot of tat out there to be honest - mining for vintage treasures is properly focused and intense. You’ll see something and it will immediately seem to have a story or bring a smile from way back; touch a memory. Then you grab it!”
“It's the Flea feeling,” agrees Jane. “We know it when we see it. We're lovers of the wonky and the marginal, the quirky, the odd, the amusing and the ugly, but at the same time we're looking for hand-crafted, functional and beautiful objects that were made to last. So imperfect tat bumps up against the perfectly crafted and the edgy jostles with the classic. I think this anomaly is the essence of our style.”
The friends met while both were home-schooling their now grown-up offspring. Alongside running The Cambridge Flea, Vix runs a children’s art club and works in a primary school, while Jane, who lives with and supports her neurodiverse son and aged mum, is also an artist (see janehellings.co.uk).
They bonded over their shared love of vintage. For Vix, it was passed down: “Although I don’t remember a lot about my Nan, things that have stayed with me are her little lucky pixie sitting on a mound of shells - I wanted it so bad; the puffiness of her paisley eiderdown; the fixtures and fittings of the tiny terrace kitchen and bathroom. . .
“Later on, in my teens, I used to love rummaging in an old junk shop after school and would spend hours creating vintage-inspired scenes in my bedroom with the opera glasses I’d bought myself, or old suitcases and, rather randomly, a vintage car grill. Clearly, I was practising for Instagram.”
Jane has “always been into vintage. Even as a child - but, of course, vintage was modern stuff then. A couple of favourite pieces were Hornsea mugs that my sister and I received as gifts when we moved from King’s Lynn to Manchester. We were told they had magical powers and could stop thunderstorms. And our egg cups: my sister's was a rabbit, mine a chicken. I still have those.
“In adolescence and into my late teens I began to develop a personal aesthetic rooted in kitsch, without having the faintest idea that kitsch was a thing. My holiday spends always went on shell encrusted boxes and big-eyed pot cats.”
Jane first put her eye for vintage gems to professional use in 2011 when, to pay her way through a print-making MA at Cambridge School of Art, she started selling Mid-century homeware on the city’s main market, trading two days a week as Retro Junky. Jane then joined forces with Vix in 2017 to open The Corner Shop Cambs at Huntingdon Antiques and Collectable Emporium, which became an e-shop in 2018.
“We both had emotionally demanding jobs, in a school and a care home respectively, and this year, in order to concentrate on the Flea, Vix decided to go part time and I quit,” explains Jane. “For this new start we fancied a new name - so we relaunched as The Cambridge Flea.”
In recent months there’s been a noticeable uplift in interest in decorative items and old-school games and pastimes - scrapbooking materials, drawing inks - says Jane. And kitsch has, she adds, never been so cool: “To the modern audience it can be enjoyed on more than one level, with a sense of irony as well as nostalgia.
“Its intention is to appeal very directly to the emotions; it is heartbreaking and heartwarming. Everything about kitsch is writ large: it is a repository for the outrageous, its colours are too loud, its proportions ugly, it is in poor taste, it is a natural home for that which is counter. It is fertile ground for the small rebellion. Who knew that a nodding dog could be an instrument of revolution?”
The surge in popularity of preloved and vintage is, adds Vix, driven both by a desire to live a lower-impact life and an increasing appreciation of nostalgia: “There seems to be a tide turning, back to when we wanted things that last, that are of great quality, that are individual, that won’t require more of our precious time and money in the near future. Buying vintage makes sense on all those levels, plus you get to tingle your memory feels: it's a cosy business.”
Read moreHomes and Gardens
More by this authorAlice Ryan