Sex, drugs and frocks and shawls: Chapel Market model tells all

Leo's Boutique market stall, Chapel Market, Islington. Picture: Melissa Page

Leo's Boutique market stall, Chapel Market, Islington. Picture: Melissa Page - Credit: Archant

From Islington to the catwalks of Milan and back to Chapel Market, Leo Whittaker has had quite the life. Niall Joyce went down to the stalls to hear all about the highs and lows.

As the saying goes, there is no place like home. For Leo Whittaker, a man whose modelling career has taken him all over the world working with famous designers, that place is Chapel Market in Islington.

Before Leo, 47, worked on campaigns for world famous brands, he grew up squatting in different locations across Islington and his mother had to scrape to make ends meet.

“My mother would pick up rotten vegan food because we didn’t have enough money to eat and on Sundays I would find junk to sell,” he explained. “That’s how I got the bug for selling stuff to the general public.”

Both of Leo’s parents were models and they introduced him to the industry when he was eight, starting him on a journey that would see him rub shoulders with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Romeo Gigli and Tupac Shakur throughout the 1990s.

He continued: “I did most of my work with big designers in Paris and Milan. My first ever show in Paris was for Jean-Paul Gaultier – he picked me out of thousands of people.

“I’ve lurked and been around some big clients but I’ve always been opinionated and tactless so I couldn’t really sustain a relationship with designers with sensitive egos.”

Most Read

Despite ruffling a few feathers, Leo found work with the likes of Men’s Vogue and DKNY. But the dark side of the fashion industry soon left him disillusioned.

“You get PR people that prey on models, both men and women – it’s a very dog-eat-dog world,” he said. “There are lots of drugs and sexual deviants.”

Despite this, Leo continued to enjoy a successful career in fashion – but following his mother’s death in 2001, his life began to spiral out of control.

He explained: “It got out of hand when my mother died. I inherited a lot of money from my grandfather on her side and ended up buying cocaine, which was a first for me.”

Three years after losing his mother Leo suffered a cocaine-induced heart attack at the age of 34.

He said: “I was told I had to give up completely or I could die from failure of the heart. I started going to meetings and did the 12-step program.”

Even though he was receiving professional help for his addiction it wasn’t until Leo set up his stall, Leo’s Boutique, in 2007 that he was able to get clean.

“It was only when I got the job in Chapel Market that I succeeded in giving up completely and I have had eight years sober,” he said.

“The market was the only structure that helped me get out of my depression but also drug use.”

Leo still works on major campaigns as a model but prefers to spend most his time selling trendy clothes for men and women from his stall on Chapel Street because of his love for the local area – he lives in nearby Newington Green Road.

“The shops, the stalls, the community, and all the people are friendly,” he said.

“I know I wouldn’t find that anywhere else in England – or the world.”