On any day trip ‘Up West’ my first stop was always Vivienne Westwood’s ‘World’s End’, where I pawed over new designs and planned that I might buy on my next visit. I would relish in the moment, in this wonderful tactile space knowing this was the only shop I could make a Westwood purchase, once I’d saved for it.
Continuing down the King’s Road, I’d repeat the joy of browsing and trying-on different clothes and shoes. Spending time with friends before heading off to Covent Garden Market and Soho to grab a coffee and pastry from ‘Food for Thought’, an original vegetarian cafe offering unashamedly home-spun, handmade food. Sadly, after more than 40 years of refusing to be processed, packaged and pocketed this wonderful cafe closed its independent doors in 2015 - another casualty of rental price hikes on the High Street.
Back in the 80s & 90s a day out shopping was a day of pure fun. Shopping was an experience. The high street was worth travelling for. A joyful experience of browsing, discovery, connecting and falling in love with the product. Where design and individuality was paramount.
Contrast that to recent times where we find a homogenised high street of big brands. Where, mostly, it really doesn’t matter whether you are in Oxford, London or Newquay you are sure to have a similar experience. Add to this the disappointment of small stock and even smaller choice in comparison to their websites, and it’s no surprise that there’s an apathy to the slow, creeping suffocation to retail as we knew it.
We all know the biggest battle to bricks and mortar shopping is the fight against the convenience of online shopping. Next day delivery, free returns and an increase in tailor-made technology feeding our individual needs all encourage shopping without stepping outside the front door. But what you gain in convenience surely doesn’t outweigh the loss of the personal touches of in store shopping, the connection with real people and real things, the buzz of finding the perfect fit in the dressing room or just the day out. With the rise of the experience economy surely retail can find a way to capitalise?
But I’m pleased to see there has been steps towards improving the shopping experience and bringing back a touch of what has been lost. There are faint traces of hope popping up across the country and in the corners of London such as Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. Here they have strived to create a curated space showcasing established and emerging designer shops side by side with restaurants, cafes, exhibitions, wellbeing-workshops. A varied experience, a real day out. And one that will change over time riding the trend of ‘pop-ups’ and feeding the Instagram generation.
And add to this an insurgence of reinvention from the many designer-makers who take a much-loved craft adding their personal touch and we can start to believe that maybe there really will be a retail revolution – or re-revolution taking back a bit of what has been lost. There is now an exciting influx of slow fashion that pays attention to the small details, championed by those that have always done it that way, like bespoke jeans from Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, the only London craft jean makers for 50 years and built on quality, community and eco-consciousness.
I’d love to see big brands support this ethos and find their own way to re-ignite the shopping experience. We can see signs of this in the way drinks brands are evolving – and it’s certainly something we hope continues as we all deserve a great experience no matter if we are shopping, drinking in a bar or having a meal out.
We’ll never get rid of the big repetitive brands or the convenience of online, but we can strive to add an experience that makes customers want to leave their couches for, and bring back the day that’s just as much about the experience than it is the purchase. Although the retail revolution in search of individualism is in its infancy, it is starting to spread its wings like those beautiful Heatherwick ones that span across Coal Drops Yard.
Let’s raise our glasses to positive change.