Charles McDonald was certain he had the perfect business strategy all worked out. Proud of his heritage (his mother is Taiwanese), the plan involved designing T-shirts that would blend elements of Taiwan’s unique culture, and pitch them to customers at Taipei’s weekend markets in the parlance of Taiwanese identity and the injustice of the nation’s international isolation. He soon learned, however, that people weren’t interested.
“At first I was too idealistic. But you can’t be like this when doing business,” says McDonald, 27, a US native who came to Taiwan in 2009 to learn Mandarin and take a break from his job as an accountant. “Consumers want something that is fun and positive, not stressful.”
So like any astute entrepreneur, he responded to customer dislikes and toned down the political rhetoric, while retaining the likes: minimalist designs that riff off of Taiwan’s traditional culture and modern urban vibe. Today, the clothing he sells under his name brand IDCY earns him a steady income.
“Working at weekend markets has taught me to know what sells and what doesn’t,” he says.
McDonald, 27, is one of hundreds of independent designers who ply their trade at Taipei’s weekend creative markets. He’s set up booths at the flea market in Tianmu (天母), which sells handicrafts and second-hand goods, the Simple Market (簡單市集) at the Xinyi Public Assembly Hall (信義公民會館) and Shida’s (師大) weekend market. But McDonald consistently returns to the weekend market at Ximen’s Red House (西門紅樓) due to the demographic of shoppers it attracts and the organizational structure of its management, which nurtures vendors until they have enough revenue and products to strike out on their own and fulfill their dream of opening their own store.
Launched as a two-month project by the Taipei City Government in 2007, the market was such a hit with locals and tourists that it was made permanent in 2008, when Red House took over its management. Unlike most weekend markets, Red House focuses only on handicrafts. No food, no beverages. Additionally, vendors have to demonstrate that their products are locally designed and made before they are given a booth.
And if visitor numbers and vendor satisfaction are anything to go by, it’s been a success. Last year the market, open Saturdays and Sundays from 2pm to 10pm and located under several white tents in a square beside the historic building, attracted over 4 million people, says Maggie Fan (范瓊方), the manager of Red House.
“Five years ago, the area out front of Exit 1 [of the Ximending MRT Station] was deserted on weekends,” says Fan, referring to the exit across from the market. “Now it’s always crowded.”
From typical creative market items such as E&A Life Design’s t-shirts, which are emblazoned with fauna native to Taiwan, to the cool kitsch of Glam Rock’s bracelets made with tiny plastic skulls to JoS Design’s (簪簪自囍) Chinese-style hairpins intricately carved from fragrant sandalwood, there is something here for anyone looking to buy a gift for themselves or someone else.
And, unusually for Ximending, the crowds aren’t made up of teenyboppers and the elderly. Groups of 30-somethings wander through the crowded space with families. It’s common to see Western tourists and hear Japanese being spoken.
Fan says visitors like the market because the products are of high quality and it replicates the congested vibe of Taiwan’s many night markets. Just don’t expect that bartering will reduce the price, she says.