Is Brexit Good For High-End Shoppers?
A refurbished Louis Vuitton, a Cartier celebration, and the opening of designer boutiques keep London alluring
? Leon Neal / Getty
For a country – not to mention a city – on the verge of a nervous breakdown, luxury retailers in London seem to be holding together pretty well. Political leaders may be polarised and combative, Main Street stores are experiencing uncertainty, but at the high end, the UK is still seen as an attraction.
This month of October has not just been about the dramatic demands and mighty refusals of European politics. The same period has seen the moneyed, global crowd filling the city for the Frieze Art Fair and a cluster of ancillary events.
London's New Bond Street is filled with high-end luxury retailers and a constant stream of international customers
? Keith Mayhew / SOPA Images
While Brexit is supposedly about to drive international collectors and big-money buyers to France, Italy, or other retail havens, central London streets are filled with new openings or the refurbishment of big brand stores.
“We had to do it – it was ten years old!” proclaimed Michael Burke, Chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, referring to the London Vuitton store, whose voluminous and art-filled interior on New Bond Street has undergone a bold renovation.
The dazzling new Louis Vuitton store on New Bond Street in London
? Stephane Muratet
Around that golden Central London area, new stores are popping up, and not just those with big names and a long history. Gabriela Hearst has opened a London store across the road from Claridge’s hotel; while Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have found a home for The Row on Carlos Place, just by the Connaught hotel. Significantly, both those designer labels are based in America, proving perhaps that London is appreciated as a shopping haven whether in or out of Europe.
Gabriela Hearst's boutique opposite Claridge's hotel in London's Mayfair district
? Chris Cunningham
Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s Image and Heritage Director, sat in front of the roaring flames at the Chiltern Firehouse, where the historic French jewellery company held a general celebration. He explained why his company believes that, in or out, London will survive as a high-end shopping destination.
“When I arrived in London this time, I said, ‘Everything looks the same.’ It’s hard to imagine what the future will be and how it can be different,” said Rainero, who is based in Paris. He explained that much on display, from a line-up of traditional telephones to London bus salt-and-pepper shakers was meant as a parody of ‘Old England’ and quirky British character.
It is one thing to invite a stylish young audience to listen to songsters Grace Carter and Rita Ora, but what about those shopping in New Bond Street at the historic Cartier store, which was rejuvenated and re-launched nearly a year ago?
The newly opened Cartier store at 40-41, Old Bond Street has dedicated its entire first floor to customer service. It sits a few doors down to Cartier’s 175-177 New Bond Street store which re-opened last year.
? Kalory Ltd for Cartier
“Wealth is growing at a high level, so there is no big change about that – nothing has changed among the big collectors,” the executive said. “Americans still buy, the Asians still buy. So do Middle Eastern and Russian clients.“
Rainero explained, as have others involved in the luxury industry, that business is linked not so much to politics, but to the price of oil.
“As far as Russia is concerned, sometimes they have trouble for political reasons about access to accounts; the US is more linked to the Stock Exchange; and in Asia, there are many different factors.”
Whatever the future may bring, Laurent Feniou, the Managing Director of Cartier UK, prepared a roster of events that underlined the fact that now, to part with money, clients don’t just want a product – no matter how magnificent or mainstream – they expect an experience, and that is what Cartier delivered.
The Louis Vuitton event showed the art of entertainment – with the accent on ‘art’. Could any other store in London’s high-end arena offer so much creativity as the Campana Brothers’ four ‘Cocoon’ chairs, suspended from the ceiling and swinging over the vast open area that has been opened up to give a monumental space to accessories.
So many contemporary artists have their work on display, from Josh Sperling’s three-dimensional orange spiral, ‘Bingo, Bongo, Bango’, filling the space at the stairwell to the upper floor’s jewels and clothing, to Jim Lambie’s top-floor staircase to the VIP apartment, made with coloured vinyl staircase.
How could Peter Marino, LV’s long-serving architect, face off the draconian demands of the local town-planners to preserve New Bond Street’s historic style?
Architect Peter Marino, who designs the Louis Vuitton boutiques, at the Annabel's after-party for the re-opening of the Louis Vuitton New Bond Street Maison in London
? Dave Benett /Getty Images for Louis Vuitton
“We wanted to open it all up, and luckily we had two buildings brought together, otherwise they would never have let us do it,” explained Michael Burke, who claimed – either literally or ironically – that the ten-year-old store had been looking “too bling”.
At the client dinner held at ritzy Annabel’s, followed by a much larger gathering entertained by Kylie Minogue, Peter Marino explained the work that had gone into sculpting a larger space out of the existing two separate buildings.
The renovated ‘maison’, as French companies like to define their megastores, is presented more as an art gallery that happens to sell an impressive volume of clothes and accessories, rather than a retail area whose focus is strictly on potential sales. The evening was joyful, but the focus was on the monumental new store that looks like a palace for the 21st century.
The interior of the newly refurbished Louis Vuitton store on Bond Street in London
? Stephane Muratet
Still within the golden shopping district, The Row has opened a boutique that is discreet, but striking, expressing the spirit of its founders, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are based in New York. Choosing 15 Carlos Place in Mayfair as a new home is quite a statement, since it puts the duo with one toe of its streamlined shoes in London’s art world; and the other a chic leap to hyper-fashionable Mount Street, home to classy shops including Balenciaga, Celine, Lanvin, and Oscar de la Renta.
The interior of The Row in London's Mayfair, designed by 'starchitect' Sir Norman Foster
Having an interest in modern design and products with clean lines, the twins chose the arty side. With Norman Foster as architect and exhibits of funky sculpture by John Chamberlain, the store works a careful balance between generous space and colourful objects. They might be vivid handbags or pieces of furniture making a splash. Think: bright bags in buttercup yellow, turquoise, and shocking pink; a fiery orange screen leading to the downstairs men’s department; and the kind of chair that seems too stylish to sit on.
The entrance to The Row on Carlos Place, in London's art-and-shopping Mayfair district
All that is in contrast to the spare clothes, draped in a modern way and many in black or its lighter partner – beige. The carefully designed outfits are best described as ‘curated’ for a particularly stylish woman.
Suzy inside The Row, which is filled with contemporary artworks, including this sculpture by John Chamberlain
Modernity with the attraction of handcraft is expressed in the spacious interior (a former art gallery) and the Arts and Crafts stairway. Just like the UK, faced with its momentous choice, The Row is looking two ways. But making its two-way vision tempting.