There have been elegies written for the museums and art galleries about to close, but most are government-funded and will reopen. The greater mortal risk is to the high street. In a former life, these shops were my (working) life: I was retail correspondent of the Times and left that job because I was starting to love it too much.
I started off writing about the financials and the feuds. I covered the LVMH/Gucci takeover battle, the Philip Green/M&S battle and came to know senior figures on all sides. But what I also discovered, as I covered the sector, is the beauty: the artistry of all levels of retail. In curating a shop, a vibe, a brand, an experience. At a time when ‘non-essential’ retail is about to be forcibly shuttered, it’s worth reflecting on this aspect of what we’re about to lose.
In the first episode of his documentary, Civilization, Kenneth Clark said the word is impossible to define ‘but I know it when I see it’. He then pointed to Notre Dame but I’d also point to Jermyn Street in London. Its shops — the restaurants, the bookshops, the shirtmakers — are full of character and of characters. There’s Trevor Pickett, whose shop in Burlington Arcade I used to gaze at in the same way normal people admire the National Gallery. He used to work in a store in Burlington Arcade called Unicorn, and when it closed in the late 1980s he set up his own. My last paid gig as a pianist (another former life) was for his 40th. My payment was one of his weekend bags. The Pickett wallets, bags and backgammon sets might have been way out of my price range, but if you know how they are made you can see why it’s worth it. Such luxury items are unaffordable for 99.99 per cent of shoppers, but so is most artwork that also lights up lives.
When I became editor of The Spectator, I decided to shop more with our regular advertisers, which is no great hardship as they are some of the best companies in the world. It meant an excuse to buy stuff from Trevor Pickett, not just gawp. On my first day in the job I had lunch at Wiltons in Jermyn Street, which was serving customers when my native Highlands was still a wilderness. I’ve come to know a bit more about the people who make these places, and have been struck at the variety of their own stories.
Take Emma Willis, perhaps the best shirtmaker in London. She has a factory in Gloucester whose workers include Syrian refugees, and serves army veterans for free (in an initiative called Style for Soldiers). I went in to her shop on Friday — she’s usually at the till — and she told me how lockdown had been. Her online sales had done better, but a company like hers is fundamentally about real-life, shop-based retail. It’s about the regular customers who walk in: the ones she knows, and who know her. Who want to see and feel her fabric, to be measured, to understand how the new brushed cotton range differs from normal. There will be small businesses everywhere for whom the personal touches make all the difference. And for whom a website can only ever be a simulacrum of the real thing.
The high street’s role — the artistry of the shop window and facias — means it lights up the lives of the people who pass by, not just those who shop there. It’s something you only notice when it has gone. You might never be able to afford a diamond ring, or a Rembrandt, but you can look and admire both for free. It’s about a feeling. I would never have got away with writing about that feeling when I was retail correspondent: my job was to cover the financials. But the best shops, from a small bookshop to a grand jeweller, provide a feeling, as well as the products. You can only do that with imagination, artistry and love.
That feeling was captured by Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly Golightly could never afford to shop there and didn’t think women under 40 should wear diamonds. Her point was how it made her feel to look at it from the outside: ‘The quietness and the proud look of it.’ She yearned for a ‘real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s’. A beautiful shop-front can have this quiet effect on people. A website: not much.
If you shop in H&M, the beauty there is the sourcing: being able to serve catwalk designs on a mass market at a staggeringly low price on a global scale. That, in itself, is a big change over the years: gone are the days when the rich were well-dressed and the poor badly dressed. Gone are the days where hegemons like M&S could restrict the public to two seasons a year. The revolution in retail means high quality, durable clothes are available in the high street for the price of lunch at Pizza Express. This change has happened in increments, so retailers have never quite received the credit they deserve. The quality of clothes has risen relentlessly up, and the cost — as a percentage of the average salary — has gone relentlessly down. H&M’s success has made it a global behemoth, with a brilliant website. But the smaller retailers of St James’s will struggle to do the same.
Other, larger retailers will also struggle to project themselves digitally. Carpe Diem beds are famous in Sweden but barely known here: its shop in Marylebone is a work of art. It seeks to showcase and explain a different concept: why its beds are fundamentally different, why the frame is part of the mattress. Their beds and mattresses are of such quality that the second-hand market for them in Stockholm is thriving: quite a difference from Britain where mattresses are disposable, junked after ten years.
Buy a bookshelf from Ikea and you now know you can sell it after five years on eBay: this reduces, perhaps halves, the effective cost of ownership and is far better for the environment. To do the same with a mattresses would be something, but you need to establish the concept. That means heavy, loss-making investment in a showcase story of extraordinary quality: that’s what Carpe Diem has attempted in Marylebone. But it will be closing its doors on Thursday. It came to London imagining a bustling city, and the slow but relentless evacuation of the capital is now underway.
Small retailers can survive making a loss over the summer because they sell so much in the final months of the year, when our habits change and we stock up for winter (not to mention Christmas). In recent years, bigger retailers have been trying to survive that way, too. That’s why so much time and effort is put into Christmas lights: it’s to make the high street more attractive to shoppers, to curate the art gallery of its shops. I was in Liberty at the weekend and saw its stunning preparation for winter, all of which will now go to waste. On my way to work this morning I walked past a boarded-up House of Fraser, a reminder that the big chains will also go to the wall now. We’ll soon see how many others will join it.