Art dealer John Martin folds up his bicycle and puts it behind the desk of his Mayfair gallery, a haven of contemporary beautiful things and a feature of Albemarle Street for 22 years. We wander next door to Brown’s hushed tea room. From a banquette in the corner Trevor Pickett, purveyor of luxury leather goods in Burlington Arcade for 34 years, hails John, then ribs him for the shabby state of his trousers. It’s a vignette that has a particular brand of English charm — and because of the rocketing retail rents in central London, it has a sell-by date stamped on it.
This year, Old Bond Street rents have exceeded the extraordinary threshold of £1,350 per square metre per year, making it Europe’s most expensive shopping street — only Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay and NYC’s Fifth Avenue are more expensive, and not by much. The area has become a destination for global fashion brands: Louis Vuitton, Belstaff, Chanel, Dior all have megastores, 90 per cent of which offer private shopping outside their opening hours, and half of which have Mandarin-speaking staff. Even on sleepier streets such as Dover and Albemarle, rents have doubled — Victoria Beckham’s Dover Street store, opening in September, set a new rent record. And these not-exactly-packed flagship megastores aren’t obliged to make a profit: it’s all part of a larger brand strategy, so head office sucks up the loss.
This idea of luxury goes head-to-head with the sort that Bond Street has purveyed for centuries: fine goods sold by the people who make them. In the old-school version, the name on the shopfront often matches that of the person behind the counter, so a customer can expect to have their foot measured by bespoke shoemaker George Cleverley, or chat affably to Peter Harrington about potential antiquarian book acquisitions. It’s amazing — and, yes, possibly anachronistic: you can’t quite imagine Miuccia giving fitting-room feedback at the Prada in Old Bond Street.
Across the rest of London and the UK, specialist retail pockets whose names were made with independent shops are being rinsed out commercially, with chains taking over. The Kings Road lost its 1970s swagger a long time ago, while the famous bookshops of Charing Cross Road are a dying breed. Camden Market was sold earlier this year for £400 million — which includes planning permission for a shopping/housing/leisure redevelopment. On streets once famous for their wares, independent shops are unable (or unwilling) to compete with the bulldozing global brands. The rent review — which all retailers face every five years — has become a nail-biting business. ‘It’s a cockamamie system,’ says Michael Conitzer, owner of the Kings Road Sporting Club, a former favourite emporium of Kate Middleton which recently ceased trading because the idea of finding an extra £500,000 a year in rent and rates ‘just to wash my face’ seemed less than appealing. The system has its perverse aspects: some landowners don’t mind leaving units vacant, because hunks of commercial property are valued on the basis of the highest rent agreements — and a depressing street may therefore be hunky-dory on paper.
However, all is fair in love and shopping, and we live in a free market. ‘I agree that if you’re not a successful business then you don’t deserve to be here,’ says John Martin. ‘We’ve had our most profitable year ever — but at the same time, if your rent is going up threefold, it’s difficult to make a successful business.’ Nobody wants to whinge, particularly in the middle of a rent negotiation: moreover, the businesses I spoke to all know how privileged they are to be there. How long they’ll remain is another question.
In an effort to find out, I went to the offices of Colliers International, West End commercial real estate advisers. I was shown into a meeting room called ‘Amsterdam’; across the corridor a confab was going on in ‘Rio’. On the table was a black slate bearing petits fours. ‘Rents have gone up substantially as a result of London getting into its stride as a true world city,’ Paul Soubier, head of retail, told me. ‘We can’t ignore the fact that some areas of the West End have become Monaco-esque.’ He wasn’t joking. Because great chunks of central London are owned by estates such as Grosvenor, Crown or Pollen, areas can be developed strategically. In enclaves like Chiltern Street or ‘Connaught Village’, small, young businesses are seeded in — some estates even throw in extras such as free PR expertise. It’s an eerily managed version of the ecology that has built up over hundreds of years in areas like Savile Row.
And surely, if anywhere is worth protecting, it’s the epicentre of the suit? The Japanese word for suit, ‘sabiro’, actually derives from the street’s name. Under the French system — where a space that has held a lingerie shop must always hold a lingerie shop — there’d be no question, but Britain’s ‘A1’ planning designation is less discerning and covers a multitude of uses. A boutique haberdashery can turn into a supermarket in the blink of an eye. However, in an effort to slap an ‘appellation contrôlée’ on areas such as St James, Cork Street and Savile Row, Westminster City Council has developed a ‘Special Policy Area’ proposal which would protect specialist uses. Although this is a difficult goal to achieve when the national government is trying to liberalise the planning system, this scheme cleverly involves recategorising the usage of shops that manufacture into sui generis, or art galleries that allow browsing to the ‘D1’ category used for public galleries. Feedback on Westminster’s plan has been overwhelmingly positive, and a meeting between the council, Ed Vaizey’s office and the Mayor’s office is slated for July.
Sir Edward Lister, deputy mayor for planning, supports the move, saying, ‘The world-renowned art galleries of Mayfair are a vital part of London’s economy, generating billions of pounds in sales every year and supporting thousands of jobs. Westminster City Council’s proposal to designate Mayfair as a “special policy area” will help these galleries to thrive for many years to come and encourage new ones to set up.’ Seventy-five galleries are participating in an open house on the first weekend of July, designed to show just how approachable they can be.
Between Westminster’s initiatives and the creative efforts of large landowners — many of whom spend money on intangibles such as widening pavements or uncovering and restoring period details on which they’ll never see an obvious return — things aren’t so bad in W1. Everyone seems to want the same thing, even if the methods of getting there are different. Even the independent businesses haven’t totally lost out: the ‘key money’ offered by big brands to take over leases can sometimes be as much as a third of the value of a property’s freehold, more than enough to relocate to somewhere where new customers might go, even if those places don’t have the same cachet. The only pity is that in bending over backwards to let all this money have its way with the centre of our vibrant, cultural metropolis, London could become a ‘doughnut city’ — a place with a certain emptiness at its core.