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Could brands build a home in Boxpark?

Boxfresh founder and now brand consultant Roger Wade has joined forces with property developers Hammerson and Ballymore to launch a new concept in shopping centres dubbed Boxpark.

The so-called “pop-up” mall (although it will be open for a minimum of five years) will be built from 60 shipping containers like those used by trade show Bread & Butter at its January edition in Berlin. It will cover 18,000 sq ft of space opposite east London’s trendy private member’s club Shoreditch House and be adjacent to Shoreditch High Street railway station, which opened in April this year.

Eureka moment

Wade, who now runs consultancy Brands Incorporated, first hit on the idea 10 years ago when he still owned and ran the Boxfresh brand he founded in 1989. He subsequently sold Boxfresh to Pentland Brands in 2005, but the notion of a shipping container mall kept coming back to him.

“I’d wanted to create a shop out of a container for a long time as I’ve always had a fascination with containers,” Wade tells Drapers. “I wanted to open a Boxfresh shop out of containers, but then I sold it [Boxfresh] and never had the opportunity to do it. But the idea started coming to me more after seeing a scheme in California, which was a mall just for brands. The site [in Shoreditch] became available and I knew I could make it a reality.”

The timing is interesting. Wade firmly believes there is a backlash brewing against the homogeneous British high street, but says brands struggle to launch at retail because of sky-high rents. He declines to give details on leases available, but claims Boxpark’s rents would be about 50% lower than traditional store rents in the Shoreditch area.

Wade hopes to create a venue that people want to return to. He says: “There will be no high street retailers at all. I feel like British fashion has been taken over by high street retailers. It’s become about how cheaply they can source product and how much they can market their product. Brands can’t afford high street rent or perhaps don’t want to sit next to a high street retailer.”

So if Topshop approached Wade and offered him a chunk of money to enter Boxpark, he would turn them down? “I’d say: ‘I love what you do Topshop, but no thanks’. If it brought a catwalk collection that isn’t available anywhere else, then potentially [I’d let it in]. But in terms of traditional retailers, that’s not what I want.”

Helping smaller brands

Wade says he is in talks with about 20 brands so far and is interested in streetwear brands Carhartt and Stussy, premium casualwear brands Fred Perry, APC, Nigel Cabourn and Heritage Research, and young fashion brands Nudie and Religion.

The scheme could help brands with no prior retail experience to test the water, according to Wade. While there is no planned “hand-holding” programme through the opening and trading process, he explains that brands would benefit from not being tied into a lease for a long period and testing out the move from wholesale to retail on a low-risk basis. There is also little competition at retail in the area but a high volume of young, creative types visiting local bars and restaurants, who have money to spend.

Gavin Murphy, sales director at young fashion brand Lyle & Scott agrees that Boxpark could be used as a testbed. “It would give us access to an area we don’t normally deal with but we would have to get more resources on board as we don’t do retail,” he says. “I have an open mind [about the concept].”

The past couple of years have seen a transformation in the way brands move into retail, with many choosing to dip their toes into retail through opening pop-up shops. Hardly a week goes by without another brand opening up a pop-up shop, usually in London. US premium womenswear label Kate Spade launched a pop-up store in October on Henrietta Street in London’s Covent Garden, while last month outerwear brand Barbour opened its first pop-up shop on Commercial Street in Spitalfields, east London, showcasing its Heritage collection. Although most tend to open for about a month, Boxpark will provide a longer shelf life with brands offered a lease for at least a year.

Most of the young fashion brands Drapers contacted said Boxpark has appeal. Religion brand director Jamie Lloyd says he is “definitely interested” in opening a shop.

“It offers a great alternative to the usual ways of getting into retail. It’s right by the new Shoreditch High Street tube stop and it’s an upcoming area of London. With lots of brands involved it’ll attract a lot of footfall,” he says.

Another young fashion brand’s sales director, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “It’s a good idea if you’ve got a brand that is in its infancy and hasn’t got the finance to build a shopfit and set up a long-term presence somewhere. It’s a good way to experience retail because it’s all very well to get feedback from stockists on how your brand is doing, but you don’t know how it actually works through retail until you try it yourself.”

However, although Boxpark will no doubt help brands test the retail space at a relatively low cost, its container-unit approach means it could be difficult to get a brand image across to shoppers.

The young fashion sales director says: “A bigger brand isn’t going to be able to get any of the brand DNA across with a small store. How can they showcase their whole products and brand message?”

Hinton adds that if Wade is labelling Boxpark a “pop-up mall”, then consumers will expect the brand mix to be continually refreshed. “Brands are going to have to be creative in such a small space.”

Wade argues though that brands should always be striving to differentiate themselves through their collections first and foremost.

The right location

Vernon Etridge, international sales manager at short-order dress brand Yumi, says the location is attractive.

“There’s a good demographic around there and I quite like the concept of getting brands together. Plus, it’s better than being on the high street and then Republic [the branded young fashion chain] appearing next to you.”

Verdict Research analyst Maureen Hinton agrees there are advantages for brands in the Boxpark concept. “Shoreditch is the kind of area brands would want to go to as there are early adopters there and people are looking for more unique clothes,” she says. “It also gives young brands the opportunity to raise their exposure.”

While Shoreditch Boxpark remains in the forefront of Wade’s mind he does hope to open up a Boxpark in other major UK cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton, as well as in cities worldwide.

For Wade this is an opportunity that goes beyond just making money. “Of course I want to make money but this is also about creating a venue for smaller brands which are starting to disappear.”

What’s in the Box?

  • Boxpark will open next August, with space for about 60 brands
  • Tenants will rent a store for at least a year
  • Most units will be 300 sq ft, but a few brands will be allowed to take over multiple units for a larger retail space
  • Rents will be about 50% lower than traditional store rents in the area

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