Drapers meets the head of luxury concept store The Shop at Bluebird, Claire Miles, to discuss the retailer’s new Covent Garden home.
After more than a decade on the King’s Road, Chelsea institution The Shop at Bluebird has spread its wings and flown the nest. The designer concept store, which shuttered its long-standing former home earlier this spring, has landed in London’s tourist hotspot Covent Garden, moving into a lofty former coach house on Floral Street last month.
Created by interior design company Dalziel & Pow, the 15,000 sq ft flagship store more closely resembles a lush garden oasis or ornate greenhouse than it does a traditional, minimalist high-end boutique. Daylight streams in through the building’s glass atrium, bounced around the space by a many-sided reflective sculpture. Trailing plants and an array of eye-catching finishing touches, such as modern art, jewel-toned vintage lampshades and vibrant botanical print changing rooms, create a quirky, artful store that invites customers to touch and try. The result is a modern update on a luxury shopping experience that feels premium without being intimidating, impressive but inviting.
It is against this spectacular backdrop that Drapers meets Claire Miles, head of The Shop at Bluebird. Launched by Jigsaw founders John and Belle Robinson, the first store opened on the King’s Road in 2007, billing itself as a “cabinet of curiosities”. Bringing together an eclectic mix of fashion, home, beauty and gift items for its discerning customer, The Shop at Bluebird can also be found at Jigsaw’s Emporium stores in Mayfair, Chelsea and the West End. Miles has been at the helm since 2014, when she joined from her previous role as head of buying for womenswear brands at fast fashion giant Asos.
Bluebird, as Miles affectionately refers to the retailer, could have happily stayed in Chelsea for another ten years, she says. Although the business refuses to give any exact figures, sales at the King’s Road store were up in double digits year-on-year and The Shop at Bluebird enjoys a loyal customer base. Miles, however, is not one to stand still. She has ambitious plans to transform The Shop at Bluebird from a much-loved secret among in-the-know Chelsea locals to a destination store for shoppers from around the capital – and indeed, the world.
Our brand is about being warm and welcoming. We want people to feel like they can come in and have a look around
“We had a very loyal regular customer in King’s Road and she was a joy to buy for, because she loved all the brands I love, like Helmut Lang, No 21 and Chloé,” she explains, sitting on a millennial pink velvet sofa tucked away on the store’s first floor. “I thought there was more opportunity. What used to frustrate me [about the King’s Road] a bit was that although the store looked beautiful and customers loved our edit, there just weren’t enough people seeing it. I think there’s a synergy between the King’s Road customer and the Covent Garden customer, but ultimately it will mean we reach more people because it’s more central, there’s higher footfall and more international visitors coming to this part of London.”
She adds: “Our brand is about being warm and welcoming. We want people to feel like they can come in, have a look around, read a book or smell some perfume. There’s no, ‘Don’t touch this because it’s too expensive’.”
Warm and welcoming is also an apt description of Miles herself. Dressed in an embroidered, floral Isabel Marant dress, she is clearly excited about the opportunities ahead for The Shop at Bluebird, and is rightfully proud of the retailer’s new home. Bluebird’s customer, she explains, knows her own mind and respects design, but doesn’t slavishly follow trends. She is at the heart of everything Miles does.
Uprooting this customer from Chelsea and attempting to lure her to central London could have been a risk, no matter how stunning the new store, particularly given the wealth of nearby luxury shopping opportunities. However, Miles says she has already seen some familiar faces come through the doors of Floral Street.
“On our first day in the new store, I saw one of our regular customers who flies over from Ghana to shop with us. She loved it – she spent £4,000. I’ve met a few regulars who have said to me that they were devastated when we first announced the move to Covent Garden, but now they’ve been to the store, they absolutely love it.”
Customers are greeted by The Shop at Bluebird’s more affordable, contemporary offer, which includes premium womenswear brand Rejina Pyo and Scandi label Ganni, as they enter the store. Upstairs is home to the roster of luxury names: from Alexander McQueen, Chloé and Victoria Beckham to Galvan, Peter Pilotto and Isabel Marant. The Covent Garden store stocks more than 100 fashion and accessory brands, which make up around 75% of its overall business. Beauty accounts for 7% of trade, and homeware the reminder.
Quality, regardless of price, is key. Miles, who buys across all the store’s categories, describes her process as “simple and complex”.
“It is simple in its execution, but I consider many different things [when buying]. There’s a lot of back-of-house mechanics going on in my brain versus my initial ‘I love it!’ reaction. Quality has always been really important to me, even though I’m from a fast fashion background. I was always really difficult for suppliers, because I would complain if things looked cheap. It has to be great quality, it has to have a story and there has to be something about the brand that I respect. Chloé is a brand that I’ve always loved, because it has that fashion house feel, and you know what you’re going to get for the Chloé girl. Isabel Marant is the same: just really beautiful, credible designs.”
The second you step into the space you feel like you’re part of something different
Anine Bing, founder, Anine Bing
Supporting new designers is another important element of The Shop at Bluebird, which stocks emerging labels Alistair James and Alice Archer, among others. Miles also talks passionately about rising contemporary stars Rixo London, accessories label Danse Lente and footwear brand Aeydē, all of which are stocked at the Floral Street store.
“Claire has been unwavering in her support and guidance,” explain Alistair James co-founders Nicholas Alistair Walsh and David James Wise. “Bluebird was our first stockist with our debut collection. She put a huge amount of trust in us with that move, and we will always be grateful for that leap of faith at the beginning. The shop is thoughtful and curated. It offers customers the special buying experience we want them to have.”
Anine Bing, founder of the eponymous premium womenswear brand, which is also stocked by The Shop at Bluebird, agrees: “The Shop at Bluebird offers such a unique shopping experience. What sets it apart is that it has really honed in on the shopper’s experience and made the space immersive and engaging. The second you step into the space you feel like you’re part of something different.”
Alice Archer says: “It is such a special store. The new space is amazing – such a beautiful selection and curation. It feels really idiosyncratic and has a lovely atmosphere.”
Today’s social media-savvy customer means retailers have to work harder to meet shopper’s sky-high expectations, Miles argues.
“In the old days, you’d dress a window and that would be the customer’s inspiration,” shes says. ”Now, they have that inspiration on hand. You can’t say to customers, ‘This is the latest thing, you’ve got to have it’, because they know that. It is more about building a relationship and saying, ‘Is this right for you? How do you feel in it?’ Nowadays, a collection goes down the catwalk and customers can see it straight away, so they are telling brands and retailers what they want, instead of it being the other way around.”
Miles says she has always liked “nice things”, joking that she has the credit card bill to prove it. Her buying career started at high street retailer New Look, where she joined in 2004 as an assistant buyer, later working her way up to a senior buyer before becoming buying director at now-defunct retailer Internacionale in 2010. A role at Asos, as head of buying for womenswear brands, followed in 2013.
“I was at Asos on maternity cover and could have stayed, but I actively wanted to come to Bluebird because it just felt more me,” she explains. “I love Asos for what it does, but Bluebird gave me the opportunity to work with some amazing brands much more intimately. Asos was more volume trading and I’d got my buzz from that at New Look – I took New Look denim to number one market share, I saw girls walking down the street in coats I had bought, and I was part of a £112m department. That gave me a thrill when I was younger, but now it is more about quality rather than quantity.”
The Shop at Bluebird remains part of the Jigsaw Group. Miles heads up a tight-knit team of five, working from Jigsaw’s comfortable office in leafy Richmond. The Shop at Bluebird shares some key functions, such as social media, marketing, human resources and finance with its premium sister brand.
“I’ve worked in big companies and I’ve worked in small companies and, to me, Bluebird feels like a family,” Miles says. “I have very high expectations – I always have and sometimes in my career that has frustrated me before. But everyone here cares so much about Bluebird and the customers, which is an experience I haven’t really had before.”
Relaunching The Shop at Bluebird’s transactional website is a long-term goal for Miles. Currently, the retailer sells fashion, accessories and jewellery via luxury ecommerce platform Farfetch, which accounts for around 25% of sales. The Shop at Bluebird trialled a standalone transactional website in 2016.
“I’d love to have a transactional website again,” Miles explains. “We tried it when we were at King’s Road, but we were too localised and unless we had invested in significant digital marketing, we’d never have reached as many people. Now we’re in Covent Garden, in central London, we’ll have more international visitors and I’d like to give them the opportunity to shop with us [online] when they go home as well.”
In a landscape dominated by constant news of store closures and company voluntary arrangements, retailers are battling with what to do with stores. Many are focusing on opening fewer, but better, stores that offer customers something truly unique. The Shop at Bluebird’s new Covent Garden store is an example of how to do experiential retail well. Miles’ carefully curated edit in its striking new home has the potential to make Floral Street one of the capital’s must-visit premium shopping spots.