Why London’s high fashion stores are heading east

·7-min read
 (Browns )
(Browns )

It’s 11.30am on a crisp autumn Saturday in London and a twenty-something with an undercut has just dropped £2,000 on a jacket and a belt in Gucci. Elsewhere in store, an American in her 40s strokes a £415 bucket hat, then enquires after a £2,550 burnt orange jacquard jacket. Meanwhile, upstairs in a wood-panelled lounge, fans of the label sip flat whites from Gucci branded coffee cups and pre-order pieces from the Gucci & Balenciaga ‘Hacker Project’, which launches on Monday.

This may sound like Bond Street behaviour but I’m watching this scene unfold in east London, where the mega-brand has recently popped up just off Redchurch Street, covering the Sir David Adjaye-designed former house of artist Sue Webster in yellow-and-turquoise monograms. But while it might be the most visible, Gucci is far from the only luxury brand making waves in the area.

Less than 100 metres away, in the Tea Building, is a temporary Bottega Veneta space in which Greem Jeong sculptures sit alongside £3,000 Cassette bags. Bottega’s branding is subtle: you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it, which many have been since Skepta visited, did a lot of shopping and posted the whole thing on Instagram. Meanwhile, Browns East, on nearby Club Row since 2017, is also pushing the boat out, this week launching the UK exclusive of the men’s capsule collection by Dior’s Kim Jones and Chitose Abe of Japanese brand Sacai — a catnip collaboration for fashion fans — with special events and installations over two floors of its concept store.

These moves are just the latest luxe additions to Redchurch Street and the cluster of roads around it. Since Shoreditch House set up shop in 2007, the area has gradually become a temple to the East London Dream. There are scores of fashion brands that cater to a design-conscious crowd, such as Sunspel, APC, MHL by Margaret Howell, Folk, Toast, as well as Reformation, which opened on 6th November, and concept store Gentlewench, where Comme des Garçons sits beside artfully nobbly ceramics. The fashion brands nestle between shops offering almost every imaginable product and experience, from spectacles to reformer Pilates to tinctures to wine.

Shore thing: Gucci’s Shoreditch pop-up (Gucci)
Shore thing: Gucci’s Shoreditch pop-up (Gucci)

As this part of east London has grown more desirable, property prices have soared. In 1997, the average E2 property price was £82,400 according to Zoopla. Now it is £478,000, a rise of 580 per cent. Still, the most jaw-dropping figures come at the top of the market, with a £4.1million penthouse currently on sale. Affluent tourists and business travellers flock here, staying in Redchurch Townhouse or the Mondrian, going to Columbia Road Flower Market on Sundays and eating at Padella or Cecconi’s.

That said, for all of the money sloshing around, at least compared with the manicured squares of Mayfair, the area is not glitzy or ostentatious. Something of an east London vibe remains in Redchurch Street’s warehouse buildings, street art, overflowing bins and the sight of morning-after-the-night-before types wandering into The Owl & Pussycat pub dressed as characters from Squid Game.

That legacy designer brands are making major post-lockdown retail moves here, rather than in west London, signals a significant shift in London’s retail scene, and in the aspirations of some affluent customers. The Browns East customer, says Ida Petersson, buying director at Browns, is often someone ‘who might have that Berlin vibe, who is more into industrial design, who might base themselves in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side in New York. That person who is affluent but is looking for a different energy.’ Such fashion fans are omnipresent in east London, she says. ‘You go to London Fields and every other person is wearing [Bottega Veneta] Puddle boots!’ Although Browns does the most business in east London with big names, including Dior, Celine, Prada and Gucci, ‘customers also love newgen’. Its launch of London-based designer Maximilian, for example, was a big success. Dior x Sacai is strategically wise, pairing a legacy brand with a cult label.

“Customers might have that Berlin vibe, be more into industrial design. People who are affluent but are looking for a different energy”

One Redchurch Street shop manager, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that the east London customer was very different from those he had served in west London. There, he said, they might park outside in their Lamborghinis, wearing a full brand look and a huge watch. In east London, customers are a mix of creative types, including Chinese expats and students, and many who live here work nearby in tech or in the city. ‘It’s much more chilled. They’re locals — they might be wealthy students, or editors from style magazines.’ Whatever they — or, let’s face it, their parents — do for a living, they value the progressive dream this part of London sells; there is much talk of creativity, community and sustainably sourced fixtures and fittings.

Ola Alabi, of rising gender neutral label Cold Laundry, who has had a store there for a year, agrees there is a sense of community in the street. The brand did a pop-up in the street first, before launching a year ago, he says, ‘and we built a community. Now they come to us.’ His customers are ‘all sorts, from older working professionals or the core fashion-conscious community in this area to those who are experimenting and trying to find fashion.’ It tends to feel a lot more laid-back, he says, than west London: ‘You can speak to customers — it feels more authentic, they are down to earth, there are no barriers.’

Bottega Veneta’s Shoreditch space at the  Tea Building; (Bottega Veneta)
Bottega Veneta’s Shoreditch space at the Tea Building; (Bottega Veneta)

The seismic shifts in the area have not come without friction: there is a clear tension in the position of a new centre of wealth right in the heart of Tower Hamlets, one of the capital’s most deprived boroughs. You can’t help but wonder what the anti-gentrification protesters, who targeted the infamous nearby Cereal Killer Café in 2015, would make of it, though clearly that particular horse has bolted. There have also been eye rolls at the new moneyed crowd from some in the original artists’ community who set up in the area in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was an affordable source of studio space, and who arguably conferred much of its initial cultural cachet.

But what’s happening here — complicated as it is — will be watched keenly by other retailers. The kind of immersive brand experiences and pop-ups being experimented with may offer inspiration for high streets everywhere as they emerge from one of the most bruising 18 months of trading imaginable.

‘I don’t think anyone has got an answer to the question of the future of retail,’ says Petersson, ‘but what the pandemic has accelerated is that people want experiences, they don’t just want racks of rails, and we are having fun trying to define what it could be. Most humans love interaction. I firmly believe that retail will remain, but that the metrics will change. It won’t just be about how much we make per square foot, but about staying at the forefront of people’s minds, and giving them an ever-evolving physical experience.’ Other Browns innovations such as an ‘infinite shelf’ — which aims to bring the convenience of digital shopping to a physical store by arranging rapid delivery of additional sizes or items to customers’ homes or to stores — is another idea that seems set to take off more widely.

The Gucci pop-up, with its curated bookstore, plush velvet Listening Lounge and coffee shop, designed to win over new fans who are casually passing by and lure existing Gucciphiles away from their screens, is clearly an experience that could not be replicated online. One interior designer I spoke to in the coffee lounge told me that she had not shopped anywhere but online since the pandemic, but the opportunity to shop locally had helped convince her to come in and pre-order a coat and two bags from the limited edition Gucci & Balenciaga ‘Hacker Project’. ‘This is east London, so it doesn’t seem formal,’ she said, pointing to her lively little son, ‘so I can bring him with me.’ And so another order was made, although — in this new world of pre-orders and home deliveries and infinite shelves — I didn’t see anyone leave with anything as gauche as a shopping bag.

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