Is London still an independent retail city?

...how distinctive is the city's retail landscape if the high street is beginning to creep beyond the centre?

by Maxwell McBride Peterson
Coming out of the tube at Oxford Street at the best of times tests the patience and limits of personal space. At Christmas time, it can be truly crushing. Beyond the glittering lights and throngs of tourists gawking and snapping pictures, I find myself feeling beaten down by the amount of consumption going on around me. Topshop is crammed. Primark has a queue leading out the door. Urban Outfitters has a one in, one out policy with an oak tree sized bouncer at the door. That’s right, a bouncer, and all for what? What could possibly make a human madly run from rack to rack scouring for the ‘must-have’ that they didn’t know they wanted 30-seconds before?

While the ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are being satisfied with every swipe and keypad mash, what is mind-boggling to consider is the number of footsteps these stores see on a daily basis. Drapers, the fashion business weekly here in the UK, keeps a rolling report called the Weekly Footfall Retail Index. For instance, last week’s numbers are down by 0.4% on a week-on-week basis and down 7% on a year-on-year basis. Additionally their High-Street Sales Tracker reports a loss of 6.9% in total fashion for like-for-like sales figures across the high street. This sort of information is crucial to the planning and survival of any business, especially a fashion one, but one thing remained in my mind; London’s shopping is not only on the high street, so how are the independents faring?

“I have a feeling that high street brands and the grand luxury labels are taking over the scene,” says Alise Trautmane, designer and owner of NJAL’s Narciss fashion brand. In 2012
, Alise set out to launch her brand’s UK flagship boutique and showroom, after attempted deals with stockists fell flat.

“Unless you are ''the next big designer'' or one of NewGen, chances are very slim. We decided that instead of putting hours into trying to reach the stockists we would open a small boutique next to them.”

Facing typical hurdles that come with any new retail endeavour, Alise set out to establish her luxury ready-to-wear brand. She picked a cracking location on Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, already notorious for high-end fashion, and used her limited budget for buzz-generating guerilla style marketing to kick-start a loyal following. Despite all of these efforts the inevitable caught up with Alise - rent hike. Not being able to match the increase with their almost-there sales, the boutique closed and a Whistles now stands in its place.

So while London has an international appeal for brands to set up shop, in reality it is reserved for the established heavy hitters who can afford the prized retail locations. An article published by Drapers in 2013 quoted two separate property agencies who stated that 92% of available retail space on Bond and South Molton streets has been occupied by foreign retailers while the rent on Oxford Street has increased £130 per square foot from 2010 to 2011. So while rents rise and the accounts are squeezed, where are these up and coming or independent retailers going? East London.

Once the haven to vintage stores, cheap textiles and open markets on every corner, this iconic part of London is being tested. For years locals have seen the high end brand stores lay their foundations - or pop-up stalls - to try and tease these offbeat East Enders into spending their pounds. Tucked away between the cheap rents, American Apparel, Sunspel, Margaret Howell, A.P.C and Ally Capellino are beginning to call Shoreditch home. But these are not replicas of the retail experience you find on Oxford Street.

Each shop is quirky or tailored in a sense that seems neither out of place nor commonplace. By playing with the location’s history and position in the neighbourhood or warping the physical space into more of an art installation than a retail shop, the focus has been on catering to how this East End consumer spends their money. One particular standout is the Late Night Chameleon Café or LN-CC. A hard to find location, unassuming shop front and appointment-only policy yields a shopping experience like no other.

“The fusion of an online store and physical retail space has always been key to our approach to product and our customer,” says Jack Cassidy, assistant buyer. “We run the store on an appointment only basis, with an average of one appointment per hour so that our customers can have time, and space, to experience the product and space on a much more personal level.”

A core group of high-end designers from Kolor and J.W. Anderson to Damir Doma and an assortment of Japanese brands emphasise that this is not your conventional East London shop. But the combination works. Being a destination store in a non-traditional location has not necessarily meant hard times. The success of their brick and click fusion since 2010 means further expansion, says Jack; “Our business will continue to evolve in this way to keep it as visually interesting and engaging for the customer who visits our website and/or our store.”

So while destination stores work, what about a shop that has a similar premise to Narciss but is located in the East? Shop172 on legendary Brick Lane is nestled between a mini-cab stand and a leatherwear manufacturer. Stocking NJAL designers Riyka and Natalie Ann Moran, this boutique prides itself on filling its rails with wares from emerging designers and obscure labels, appealing to consumers’ sense of discovery and curiosity.

Speaking to Jack and Aisling, long-time shopkeepers at 172, we learn about their optimistic views. They both believe that the functional coexistence of the high street and independents is built into London’s cultural history, and that the success of either one is something that is constantly in flux.

“I don’t think the high street is devouring us… Primark may be on top and then suddenly the idea of [independent labels] will seem fantastic again,” says Jack. As a shop that spends a lot of time being empty, he attributes the style of the stock and the décor of the store - quite visually loud and unique - as intimidating towards consumers who aren’t confident. “We appeal to the style conscious person. The people who do come in are individuals and have their own look,” says Aisling.
This individuality has kept 172 afloat for six years. But as the big brands creep closer, are they guaranteed another six?

Around the corner from Brick Lane is Boxpark - the world’s first “pop-up” mall. Despite being purposefully ‘grey’ on their terminology of pop-up (they’ve signed a 5-year lease for the location), this is another example of big brands coming East. Puma, Volcom, 55 DSL, Monkee Jeans and Etnies is a sample of the brands neatly tucked away in their shipping container stores. Further development of Shoreditch is planned, and it was announced in 2012 that high-end retailers were sniffing around - namely Christian Louboutin and Ralph Lauren - to set up brick and mortar locations.

This sort of development is more upfront and is easy to comprehend in the eyes of the consumers but this week’s announcement that H&M is collaborating with Brick Lane Bikes makes me scratch my head. Why would a bastion of East London cycling culture partner with a high street brand? Why not an independent cycling brand? But ultimately, what is gained? H&M will gain some ‘cool’ street cred off of an alternative collaboration, a precedent is set for staunchly independent retailers to partner with the high street, and London’s retail landscape grows a little more homogeneous.