How Manchester Became A Global Hotspot For Fashion And Creativity

chanel fashion show in paris
How Manchester Became A Global Hotspot For FashionChristopher Thomond / Guardian / Eyevine

Rain. Football. Emmeline Pankhurst. The Gallaghers. And now, more surprisingly, Chanel. These are the cultural signifiers of the city I was born and raised in. Until last December, you might have associated Manchester’s identity with its 19th-century industrial history or as the place where Bez and Shaun Ryder danced it out at the Haçienda. But Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show changed all that when it marched models, including Manchester’s own super Karen Elson, down the Northern Quarter’s cobbled Thomas Street. It was raining – obviously – as they stepped out in tweed and knitwear with Haçienda-suffragette-footy twists, to a soundtrack of Manc icons such as New Order; Factory Records’ designer Peter Saville even created the show’s branding.

The show shone a global spotlight on the city’s relevance as a cultural capital. But our (male-focused) past glories aren’t what makes Manchester so special – it’s all about what’s happening right now. There is often a blinkered, London-centric outlook that maintains creativity can’t possibly exist outside the M25. But how wrong that is. I launched a magazine, Galchester, to disprove the notion and give space to the sidelined women leading the charge. Often ignored, always underestimated, the country’s second-largest city is manifesting an explosion of talent.

a mural in manchester featuring a woman in a red dress
Alamy Stock Photo

Just look at the constantly opening creative spaces, such as Co-op Live, the new, £365-million music arena launching next month, which will host Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts tour in May, or cultural hub Aviva Studios, a 13-acre regeneration project in the heart of St John’s. This huge, spiky building is where Factory International hosts high-tech theatre by performers including Danny Boyle; exhibitions such as Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dot inflatables; and the renowned Manchester International Festival, a world-class arts biennial with none of the snobbery.

Both venues were namechecked by Soho House as reasons for choosing the city for its latest opening – the members’ club’s first location up north. ‘These new venues continue to make Manchester an important destination for culture and the arts,’ says UK membership and communications director Velma Simmons. Around the corner from Aviva, in the old Granada TV studios, the new outpost (opening soon) will have the requisite seductive mood lighting, vintage furniture and picante cocktails, plus pieces by artists with ties to the city, including the Turner Prize-winning painter Lubaina Himid. ‘There’s clearly a thriving creative community here,’ adds Simmons, who predicts an ‘exciting future ahead with a growing food and drink scene’. In reality, though, that future has already arrived.

Moments from the new House is Fenix, the buzziest restaurant opening of 2023, from the team behind cult Chinese-fusion hit Tattu. Don’t let its themed decor put you off: from the stone arches to its full-sized olive tree, this Mykonos maze is more playful glamour than Trafford Centre-tacky. Its elevated Greek menu earns its hype, too, with a plethora of tastebud-tingling tartares and showstopping sharing dishes; I still think about the robata-grilled sea-bass, stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and spinach and artistically arranged to resemble a mythical sea creature.

a bridge in manchester featuring brightly lit buildings and water under the bridge
Getty Images

As creative as Fenix’s presentation (my dessert was served on a smashed plate) is the city’s art scene. There are the well-known museums I was first introduced to on school trips: Manchester Art Gallery, currently showing ‘Unpicking Couture’, an exhibition featuring restored garments by Dior and Schiaparelli, and The Whitworth gallery, my favourite of the two – not least because it stocks my magazine and other indie publications. But the most inspiring home-grown art is found in the less polished Salford outskirts, on the other side of town. In former mills, Paradise Works and Islington Mill Arts Club are home to numerous local artists, and host exhibitions from collectives including Short Supply, which I follow to keep tabs on talented art graduates.

Also in these industrial fringes are the city’s most hardcore nights out. Kristen Stewart was spotted partying at nearby Salford Lads’ Club before the Chanel show, but Hidden and The White Hotel – in the manufacturing no-man’s land close to Paradise Works – are for the ultimate hedonistic all-nighters. Seeing the sunrise is a Manchester must, given our rave heritage and the fact we literally invented the weekend (in 1843; look it up). For those needing to be eased into a BNO, newly revived club-pub the Derby Brewery Arms offers the best of both worlds. Just a 10-minute walk back into civilisation, this traditional boozer turns into a smoky, red rave room, with DJ nights hosted by the most exciting collectives, from Bent (@benthedonism) to Bloom (@bloommcr).

This takes us to the Green Quarter, one of seven northern neighbourhoods undergoing a slick regeneration as part of the £4 billion Victoria North project. It’s here you’ll find another of the city’s culinary gems: chef’s choice and 2023 Michelin Guide-starring The Spärrows, tucked under a railway arch. Though it’s almost four years old, it remains tricky to book a table at which to eat its Austrian-inspired, game-changing spätzle thick threads of pasta bathing in your choice of rich sauce. Look out for its newly opened sister bar Suzume around the corner, along with the highlight of 2024’s culinary calendar: Skof, by three-Michelin-starred former L’Enclume chef Tom Barnes, which opens soon. Based in the contemporary Noma district, it will be fine dining without any pretentiousness – strictly no tablecloths or dress code – and a £50 lunch menu.

hoarfrost on our lips exhibition hoarfrost on our lips' group exhibition curated by will marshall the picture features yellow fabrics with black letterings and drawings
John-Paul Brown and Catriona Robertson

Many of the city’s best bars are close by, in the Chanel-approved Northern Quarter. My latest love is Stray, serving uncomplicated yet finely executed cocktails, such as the tomato vine margarita a twist I never knew I needed. A drink there primes you nicely for the live-music institutions next door, Band on the Wall and Night & Day – the ‘I was there’ joint that has hosted indie legends such as the Arctic Monkeys. By day, this area is also a quirky shopping hub.

As a teen, it’s where I rebelled with vintage clothes – in Pop Boutique’s original store – and with my thrilling-at-the-time belly-button piercing from Afflecks market, the famously maze-like emo haven. Now, however, it’s more than just a place to annoy my mum, offering everything from small-batch artisanal ceramics at Form Lifestyle Store to designer emporium Hervia, for JW Anderson and Rick Owens. I also always pop into the café at the expertly curated Chapter One Books for a brew.

Nearby Ancoats, the former textile district known for its sprawling red-brick warehouses, canal-side streets and epic dining scene, is where the city’s cooler, creative spirit can be found. Erst steals the show from Michelin-starred Mana with its understated magic: swooned over by critics including Jay Rayner, it’s all punchy small plates, natural wines and signature flatbreads with a glorious twist. Soaked in beef fat and chilli, they’ll have you filling up on ‘just one more for the table’.

The best Guinness in town is at the Edinburgh Castle, and next door is The Norah Store, a slow-fashion spot for discovering new independent favourites like Kitri and Arthur Apparel. The gothic Cow Hollow, a boutique hotel with just 16 rooms, is the place to stay: think exposed brick, metal staircases and weather-beaten doors from the original textile factory. Conveniently, it’s a short walk from the perfect end of a night at Peste bar, by the team behind The White Hotel club, which is also great for records, books and art by day.

entrance to the salford lads club
Salford Lads Club

Not every must-visit is outside the city centre, though. Close to Piccadilly Station, where you’ll grab that first gulp of glorious Mancunian air (honestly, it really is fresher up here – as is the tap water), is Higher Ground, deemed one of the best restaurants in the UK just a few months after opening. A favourite of legendary chef Rick Stein, it serves British produce with Scandi flair from the team behind Ancoats success story Flawd, a wine-shop with-refined-nibbles on the marina. The Pitchfork Cheddar tart genuinely sent me loopy, and the Colchester-sourced oysters are some of the best you’ll ever have.

Also central, the Stock Exchange Hotel might have hosted stars for the Chanel show, but the upcoming Treehouse (opening this spring) will be much less stuffy. Next door to Soho House and not far from the city’s mainstream shopping district, its 224 bedrooms feel like cosy tree-top cabins, with wooden interiors, patchwork quilts and plenty of greenery. Rooted in sustainability, it even has a bee farm producing the hotel’s own honey. Expect a lively rooftop bar and restaurant run by famed Manc DJs and hospitality duo The Unabombers.

My last unmissable inner-city visit is Home Gallery, in the Castlefield area: the arts complex showcases top fringe shows, boundary-smashing performance art and the best independent films. Currently, ‘Open Exhibition’ (on until April 28) shines a light on Greater Manchester’s creative talent with 480 artworks by locals, chosen by neighbour Castlefield Gallery – another gem for its focus on playful, emerging artists.

entrance to the salford lads club
Salford Lads Club

There are countless up-and-coming districts cropping up further afield, too, just a short metro or train ride from the centre. Once-grimy Stockport is now home to slow-food, ‘no menu’ hit Where The Light Gets In, and its sister bakery Yellowhammer. Urmston, somewhere I once only ventured to see the dentist, now has Michelin Guide-approved, affordable fine dining at Örme. Then there’s Chorlton, the hipster heartland full of young professionals and vegan supermarkets, where you can buy multistorey houses with gardens for the price of a one-bed flat in London.

It really is as good as it sounds. In fact, just one visit to Manchester inspired Chanel’s creative director Virginie Viard to stage the brand’s fashion spectacle in the city. Just don’t forget your umbrella – that’s the only stereotype that rings true.

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