In the popular imagination, Brussels is the home of the EU, chips and possibly something to do with Tintin.
Address 60 Avenue Louise, Brussels
Size 14,000 sq ft (previously 8,073 sq ft)
Brands Mostly upscale
Store environment Retro modern
It is not, however, a mecca for those in search of retail and indeed, those who make their way to the city’s Grand Place are unlikely to find much beyond a few waffle and chocolate sellers and of course, endless mini Manneken Pis replicas.
All of which would overlook that Brussels does have a major thoroughfare, the Avenue Louise, where many retailers can be found and which has a generally upscale feel about it. And among all of this is Francis Ferent, a department store that has recently had a makeover and doubled in size. For shoppers looking to pick up designer labels while in the Belgian capital, this is one of the better places to go and the choice of concession partners makes this an interesting place to visit for UK fashion businesses.
01 - VISUAL MERCHANDISING
The Francis Ferent shopfront is relatively narrow and the two windows, either side of the entrance, currently have something of a Côte d’Azur feel about them with dark mannequins wearing a mix of bright and white garments. Step inside this two-floor store, however, and it’s the furniture that does much of the talking, as far as the visual merchandising is concerned. The many chairs, all of them looking like the kind of thing you’d find in a very posh, modern furniture store, actually serve less as pieces on which to sit and rather more as visual merchandising props - setting mood and expectations. What the retailer has succeeded in doing is making this look like a unified whole, in spite of numerous concessions.
02 - CONCEPT
There is an almost retro-minimalist 1970s James Bond feel about this interior, with white box thinking being broken up by the various departments. The front of the ground floor is about accessories, lingerie and shoes. Menswear is at the back of the floor in a semi-discrete space. Upstairs, it’s womenswear, with a decision having been taken to start with lower-end designer labels at one end, then leading the shopper on a journey to the most expensive stock at the other.
03 - SERVICE
Maybe it was a particularly good day, maybe I looked better than normal (unlikely) or perhaps this is just a friendly place, but whatever the reason, walking into this store was not unlike taking a stroll along the red carpet at a chi-chi awards. Every member of staff was on hand to meet and greet and the same largesse seemed to be offered to every potential customer. This might sound trivial, but it’s something you rarely encounter these days and it does make you feel better about having walked in.
04 - PRODUCT
This store has an odd mix of brands, ranging from Italian shoe label Hogan to local talent Jean-Claude Minet, which offers fashionable glasses from an impressive wooden fit-out. For men and women, there is a heavy emphasis placed on Jacob Cohen jeans, while at the more ostentatiously label-led end of things, shoppers can choose from Marc by Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Vanessa Bruno, among others. There are plenty of items that while not pocket money in terms of price, are at least affordable.
05 - COMPETITION
Brussels’ Avenue Louise is a long street, set on a bluff above the historic centre and with a more business-like feel than much of the rest of the city. As such, it tends towards luxury, but Francis Ferent is certainly at the top end of the offer. In the relatively near neighbourhood are Zadig & Voltaire, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Tiffany … and so it goes on. This tells you pretty much all you need to know about Brussels shopping. Most of the big brands are here, but if you want something out of the normal luxury run of things, then it might be a mild struggle. On this reckoning, the offer at Francis Ferent does differ.
06 - VERDICT: THE PROSPECTS ARE GOOD
It’s fair to say that Brussels does not measure up to the likes of Paris, London or Milan when it comes to fashion. It aspires to do so, however, and there is probably a degree of wealth associated with its status that means luxury should do well here. But luxury customers aren’t immune to the vagaries of the economy and big-ticket items are more likely to be considered purchases than previously, according to a Francis Ferent spokeswoman. That said, this is a good-looking store with an appeal that will reach beyond the doors of the local embassies.