Meet Frank Whitford, the creative force behind the Plain Bear label, and a fixture of Greenwich Market’s rag trade. A trained sculptor, Frank designs distinctive t-shirts, hoodies, caps, beanies and other pieces of clothing.
‘It’s a very social market’, enthuses Frank Whitford of Greenwich Market’s Plain Bear clothing. ‘You can have a conversation [with traders]; you’re not forced to buy anything … it’s ‘enjoy your day’, basically’. This welcoming attitude, married to quality designs and materials, is the reason Plain Bear’s simple, stylish streetwear is an increasingly common sight around Greenwich and London.
Frank, a trained sculptor who’d always wanted his own business, brings a true artist’s eye to his designs. Hailing from Somerset, he first sold his designs on weekends at Bristol’s St Nicholas Market. Founded in 1743, St Nick’s is the Greenwich Market of Bristol – a near-300-year institution renowned for quality handicrafts and incredible food.
It was at St Nick’s that Plain Bear’s mix of simple, memorable designs and quality clothing first caught the public eye. Then, when love brought Frank to London in 2013, Greenwich Market’s clothing trade gained a gem.
Following a trial run during the 2012 Olympics, Frank started a regular stall in 2013. Since then, he hasn’t looked back, gaining a devoted clientele and opening stalls in Spitalfields and King’s Cross, and even a shop in Sheffield. But the heartbeat of his business, the place he most loves to trade, is Greenwich Market.
Plain Bear’s early operations were a lot more rough and ready than they are today. Frank built his first silk-screen presses by hand. Now, following help from the Princes’ Trust Business Enterprise Scheme and ten successful years of trading, he uses professionally built screens, presses and other equipment.
Plain Bear designs are now printed with crisp definition on high-quality t-shirts, hoodies, beanies and more. Of all Frank’s creations, it’s the Plain Bear beanie that shows up most frequently on the high streets of Greenwich and London. True to the label’s ethos, the design is minimalist – no more than square ‘Plain Bear’ label stitched onto each hat’s turn up, contrasting boldly with burgundy, navy, khaki and other materials.
Frank was part of an influx of new traders that flooded Greenwich Market around 2013. These ten or so ‘young Turks’ – including former ‘Meet the Maker’ Tom Burns of Liz Loves Liz – formed a tight bond. It was common for them to socialise long after trading shut for the day, even enjoying ‘lock ins’ at the Market’s on-site boozer, the Coach and Horses.
While Covid put paid to that, and some of the class of 2013 have moved on, this camaraderie remains very much in place. Some weekends Frank brings in misprints and seconds for his fellow traders. ‘They descend like vultures’, and many can be seen wearing Plain Bear around the market.
As love for Frank’s distinctive, uncluttered creations grew, so did the Plain Bear staff. Now Jess and Eliza help Frank out, manning the stalls he’s too busy to get to. Return custom is another sign he’s doing something right – some regulars come back every year.
Next time you’re at Greenwich Market, make sure do as the regulars do and check out Plain Bear’s flattering, stylish range of wearables.
By Hugh McNaughtan