Most Londoners have known it for a while. In fact, some may even say that it is old news and the coolest of the cool are now to be found in other postcodes. But the top end fashion pack, those with the pounds to spend and the labels to flash as well as style credentials, are finally putting down roots in East London. Fuelled by investment and gentrification projects, the East End has long been shaking off its barrow boy image. Amongst the graffiti clad walls, galleries such as the White Cube showcase works by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Interspersed with market stalls are the likes of All Saints and Cath Kidston. Dotted between curry houses and bagel joints, pie and mash shops and proper boozers you’ll find swanky restaurants and swish champagne bars. Luxury fashion houses Christian Louboutin is set to move to Redchurch Street, Prada is on the house hunt, and Vivenne Westwood is planning on setting up shop in Shoreditch. Eschewing the traditional central London location for something which whilst certainly on the up will still be seen as a little, well downmarket, by much of the fashion world swanning around Paris and Milan. Shoreditch may be cool, but Fifth Av it’s not. So has high end fashion lost its way? So much so that it now wants to hang out on the high street?
Louboutin et al will be in crowded company. Developer Hammerson is a planning £485 million project south of Shoreditch High Street to have 630,000 square feet of offices and shops. It is being touted by industry insiders as an opportunity for retailers to attract a new affluent crowd, one with an edgy hipster appeal. This seems to be the key mind shift, a change suggesting high street and high end may be on the same wave: seeing top designer names not only as artists with a vision, but retailers, shops with clothes to sell, rents to pay, and crucially of all profits to make. As businesses, high street and high end both have the same goal.
Would they have come to these postcodes in the less salubrious days? Of course not. As much as fashionistas work best when they are at the front of the pack, they need a certain framework to work within, to legitimate it. Bishops Square, the smooth and arguably soulless development between Brick Lane and Liverpool Street has seen rents double in the six years since its development, from £65 per square foot to £135. Compare this to the cost of retail space on Bond Street or Oxford Street though, where a square foot will set you back closer to a grand, and you can start to see the pound signs racking up. Redevelopment of the area has resulted an emerging affluence, and transport links mean that it is only a few minutes away from the traditional fashion houses. Of course it’s not only the pricey fashion houses that have made real estate decisions. Met with raised eyebrows when it first joined the high and mighty on Oxford Street in 20 Primark has the highest turnover per square foot of any retailer. When you account for the fact that the average item costs £4, that’s a lot of footfall.
If your customers are cutting back, it makes sense that as a retailer you might have to do the same. Whereas a few years ago flashing the cash was what it was all about, now austerity is a new badge of cool. Leader of fashion’s front foot, Kate Moss, happily mixes high end and high street, Fearne Cotton has been known to go to the shops in Urban Outfitter jeans and Beyonce once wore Topshop. Heck, even the future queen rocks the High Street, although the Reiss dress she wore to meet the Obamas back in May 2011 is slightly more pricey than your average Primark dress, at £175. Fashion thrives on people talking, and crucially people buying, and when the Reiss website crashes the day the pictures appear in the newspapers, you can see why mass appeal starts to light up the brains of high end designers.
It’s not just that high end designers want to meet the masses that have made the high street more successful, but that the high street retailers have made the designer style, if not actual substance, seem something they can achieve.
There’s something about supporting your local high street, helping out retailers, and splashing the cash (in a measured manner) locally that has in itself become fashionable. People want to support their communities, and high end designer fashion as always thrived on its inaccessibility, its desire making capabilities. Now people are walking away from the inaccessible, as the High Street has made it far more accessible.
Lamented at length has been the fact that we live in a disposable society, but this is good news for the lower priced retailers. Shoppers are doing the maths and realising that if they are going to only wear an item for a couple of months, once or twice, and then throw it away, why spend on it. Fashion comes in phases, swings and sways more than a hormonal teenager, and as such is arguably not worth the commitment.
Labour costs and speedy supply chains means that it is not only those in the know with the cash that can have the latest fashion trends, but everyone in proximity of a shop. Being able to produce the same designs but at a fraction of the price is what makes business sense in today’s climate. There’s also a far broader range of styles, cuts, colours on the high street, with more body shapes than the stick being catered for. The catwalks have always been a source of inspiration for high street retailers, but the similarities have become more and more similar, and people are finding it difficult to identify the difference. Remember the fuss when Topshop copied the lemon Chloe dungaree dress and was subsequently forced to destroy all remaining stock, back in 2007? Primark is in regular battles over its copy cat clothes, having paid thousands to the likes of H&M, Monsoon, and the Beckhams.
It’s not new, high end designers teaming up with high street retailers to create collections that will get further exposure. Debenhams first welcomed designers into their stores in Autumn 1993 with a small collection of hats by Philip Treacy and evening wear by Ben De Lisi, and back in 1996 Jasper Conran teamed up with Debenhams to create a luxurious fast fashion brand, or a diluted version of the real deal, depending on who you ask. Not everyone has been as forward thinking. In 2008 Donatella Versace was asked in an interview her view on potentially collaborating with H&M, dismissing the idea as one that would only ‘confuse the brand’. Three years on and a deal has been signed, with Donatella thrilled that the collaboration will give Versace the opportunity to ‘reach a larger audience.’ Co-inciding with a heavy restructure and 350 job cuts, it seems that the economic angle rather than creative inspiration and direction is what is really pushing this. H&M’s first link up was back in 2004 with Karl Lagerfeld. The buzz campaign around it, and the fact that after only a few hours shelves were bear, something that Lagerfield credits with making him a household name. Arguably all artists have a bit of a complex, and if there are too few people buying your product to even credit you as niche and fashionable, then the next thing to do for an ego boost seems to be appeal to the masses.
Of course, fashion is never simple and amongst all this talk that rather than a merger, one (the cheaper) is perhaps replacing the other, sales at the top end aren’t doing too badly. At the beginning of Novemeber Selfridges reported a surge in profits which analysts are stating is due to a surge in the luxury fashion market. But if you look closer it might be that this middle ground is holding sway. Managing director Anne Pitcher however has a more realistic view, and has said the company has because it mixes high-end and low-cost. Primark launched its menswear concessions in Birmingham and Manchester Selfridges stores last month, and Cheap Mondays are now a regular fixture on the Oxford Street store calendar. Where Selfridges goes beyond the bog standard bargain bin is its customer experience levels. Innovotaive window displays, exciting theatre, the upmarket stores tap into that fundamental factor that keeps people purchasing, the belief that by buying this product they will be one step closer to being the person they want living the life that they desire. Add to this the fact that sales on promotion or at a discount now almost equal those at full price in some retailers, and you can see why people are returning to some of the more upmarket stores. Standing in a queue of forty with hangers clattering around you and clothing strewn across your arms waiting for a cashier who won’t even look you in the eye doesn’t strike the same feelings of indulgence, excitement and delight that comes from buying new clothes.
Rather than the high street replacing the high end, a merger of bargain basement and choice couture, top designers losing their edge, or fashion being generally lost, maybe it’s that fashion is finally finding its way to the customer and consumer. Whether that’s through moving to a new side of town, collaborating with designers or offering good value, it all comes down to nice clothes, at a good price, with a bit of customer service. Simple really.
See the original in Issue 54 of Who’s Jack