LONDON & LUXURY PERSPECTIVE
I love London. I love its energy and diversity, especially over the last decade. Over the last six years, however, a rapid change of the retail luxury streetscape has occurred that is worth exploring.
I don’t intend to go too deeply into the democratisation of luxury brands and how that has come about (as I believe most of the people reading this will be aware, to some extent, of such changes), except to highlight the following:
As the globalization of luxury brands continues, as more and more houses come under the control of the all-powerful few, even London’s famous New Bond Street has started to take on a Regent Street/oxford Street feel. What is bespoke becomes obvious; what is small and individual becomes less so.
Thousands of tourists line up to enter the massive Victoria’s Secret store. Next door is the even bigger Belstaff store which is across the road from the new huge Bally store. Throw in the beautiful Zegna, Canali, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co, Hermes, Smthyson and a wonderful Lora Piano store (LVMH), and every other brand capable of paying the staggering rents on this street and what do you have?
A luxury shopping mall worthy of Dubai? Once, luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. Their luxury offered a history of tradition, superior quality and a pampered individualised buying experience. Today, however, luxury is also a product packaged and sold by multibillion-dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand awareness, advertising and, above all else, profit.
Where has the individuality gone? Where has the expertise and craft gone? Walking through London’s shopping streets you need to stop and look at the Victorian façades to remind yourself you are indeed in London; the identical shop windows are in Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore and Melbourne, rolled out in unison, season by season by globalised design teams.
The democratisation of luxury brands is helping to drive the global economic market. The consumer now has the ability to shop in whichever way he or she desires. Choice and availability has grown across the globe as price has fallen due to supply logistics and the opening up of new markets. Sit upstairs at the Selfridges Champagne Bar and watch the cross-pollination of shopping made visible by the bags people are holding: Selfridges, Marks & Spencer, Primark and Chanel lay in harmony alongside one and other.
In this world of expanded choice and megalithic retailers, where does a concept of luxury exist? Customers in London, as in the rest of the world, are offered perceived and real luxury now in everything from toilet-tissue to soap, food and wine to cars, clothing and footwear to coffee and service. How do we judge the luxuriousness of a product? What does it do for us beyond its perceived value?
Does it equate to the dark-suited security guard — replete with earpiece — standing in the doorway? Does it equate to the number of black Bentleys or Range Rovers parked at the front of the store? Or, very simply, is it merely the price of the merchandise? Do these symbols carry through the product to our perceived identity? Or is it the craftsmanship that pleases us emotionally? Is it our aesthetic value that is being massaged, overwhelmed, romanced?
In 2004 in quiet Dover Street, just off Piccadilly, Dover Street Markets opened. A unique space with unique merchandise and specialised staff, it delivers something different, something being lost elsewhere by any number of factors — but most significantly by the urge of global corporations to try and appeal to everyone. Discreet Luxury is a new format that has been so successful there are now stores in New York and Shanghai.
Will this change when Victoria Beckham opens in the same street later this year? Will the rows of identical black Range Rovers and identical blonde wives of football players, the Chinese tourists rolling in ‘new cash’, desperate for imported celebrity and brands — in order to create their own new history — drive up rents to the point that only global companies can exist here? In this new environment, what will our concept of luxury be? Where will it have space to exist? Will the charm of Dover Street be lost?
Most probably. Just off Bond Street is a slightly hidden gem called Clifford Street. Anderson and Sheppard, one of London’s most respected Savile Row tailors, have brought luxury to an affordable level with the opening of their Haberdashery store.
In this place there are no security guards welcoming you, just a small bell over the door and an open fireplace. The wonderful Audie (the store coordinator) greets you and shows you the most amazing collection of ready-to-wear men’s clothing in London. They’ve created, just for you it seems, an atmosphere reminiscent of a home. Comfort, privacy, unique designs with limited supply and wonderful, wonderful service.
On leaving the store Audie calls out, “don’t forget to call by if you are passing in the afternoon for a sherry.”
On the opposite corner, bespoke with blue awnings and blue tiles punctuated with warmly lit windows, is Drakes. Again we have accessible luxury clothing but presented with style and sold to you with knowledge and confidence in a townhouse-like experience.
And Mount Street. Why Mount Street? Because you feel special as you walk down the street. The brands are international but you feel connected to them in terms of store size and their street presence. There’s Mount Street Printers, who design and manufacture some of the best stationary in the UK, and the amazing new Celine Store located blocks away from Bond Street. There’s one of London’s oldest and most respected butchers (what can be more luxurious than a fine cut of meat?) sitting by one of the world’s true luxury brands, Maison Goyard, trunk makers.
Street after street in this area still offers the wonderful experience smaller stores and unique curated products can provide.
Nestled nearby is a beautiful quiet church courtyard and further on, in Brook Street, the iconic John Smedley knitwear store. Established in 1794 and still manufacturing in Britain, the prices, while not inexpensive, are far less so than many of the global companies on Bond Street. But John Smedley oozes comfort, discretion, knowledge and again, service, service, service. Here there is something that will never, can never, be replicated in a mall.
Reaching Oxford Street you are quickly brought back to reality. While the stores do not open until ten am, the streets are always packed with tourists wandering around gazing lovingly at the window displays. And why? The windows back home are identical, after all.
Oxford Street is still a mecca for shopping but not for luxury. While luxury products are still available at the grand dame that is Selfridges — and no one does theatre retail better than Selfridges — the experience there is not one of luxury.
Witness the queue three deep at the Gucci counter. Visit the new three-level Louis Vuitton townhouse in the middle of the ground floor. It is stunning. But can a queue waiting to use the only oval lift in the world be viewed as luxurious? Glamorous, yes. Architecturally beautiful, yes. But luxurious? Not for me.
You can buy almost anything you need on Oxford Street. But the homogenisation of the street has also made it lose its lustre; it has become a victim of its own success. The tourists who come here to experience its essential ‘Britishness’ might find there is not a lot of that left.
Head north of Oxford Street to the wonderful Marylebone area. Much of this remains under the ownership of the prestigious Portman Estate and retains much of its 18th century charm.
Here, there are many long-term tenants and new ones are selected to ensure, as it remains up to date, the integrity of the area remains. The pace here is slower. Visit Ciri Trudon, the oldest wax manufacturer in the world, where you will be individually guided through the amazing range of scented candles all encased in hand-blown glass. Try Solis Rex, a fragrance inspired by the vast wooden floors of the Grand Versailles, a place whose luxuriousness brought down a monarchy.
Keep searching and you’ll find Trunk Clothiers, a small but wonderful two-storey building with its aesthetic and merchandise beautifully edited. The Burberry Prorsum fall/winter collection featured umbrellas with sterling silver handles as a fashion item. Archer Adams, another wonderful store in Chiltern Street, has, been producing them for decades, not as a fashion item, but as useful, traditional craftsmanship.
My idea of luxury is about discovering what makes you excited. It can be as simple as a second-hand book long out of print, or a magnificent pocket square woven in Istanbul. It can be a beautiful charcoal grey cashmere jumper or a vintage scarf that is fifty years old. When you wear it, people say where did you find that, as opposed to where did you buy it? Luxury is a discovery, not a commodity.