Swedish premium brand Acne’s first UK store, in London’s affluent Mayfair, resurrects the white box format on the premise that less really is more
Founded in 1996, Acne is a fairly familiar name to trend-spotters around the world. In the decade and a half since it was established, it has opened stores as far apart as Sydney and New York. It was only three weeks ago, however, that it finally got out of the starting blocks in London. And it has done so in style - with a four-storey shop on Dover Street, just up the road from The Ritz.
It has also managed to recreate something that might have been thought to have disappeared during the 1990s: the white box. This was once the lingua franca of upscale retail design and worked on the principle that the less you actually put in a shop, both in terms of stock and the fixtures used to display it, the more you could add to the price tag.
This eventually fell out of favour as there was more than a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes about the whole thing. Yet when done well, the white box can work to advantage in showing off a pared-down collection in which each of the pieces needs room to breathe. Couple this with one of the grand buildings found in this part of Mayfair and you have a formula that sparkles.
Key looks and merchandise mix
If you had to look for a few words to describe Acne, you might be tempted to utter spare, chic and glamorous in the same sentence. The store has sufficient space to devote the ground floor to men, the first to women, the second to a unisex denim shop and the top floor to footwear and accessories.
Perhaps the best indication of where this brand is headed is to visit the denim floor, as denim tends to be displayed in a commodity-like fashion, irrespective of brand, and therefore comparisons with others are easily made. There are relatively few body shapes for Acne jeans, about six in all, with prices starting at £130 and rising to £200.
The member of staff in charge of this area says the aim is not to take the prices up to stratospheric levels. When compared with other branded jeans, the prices look reasonable, especially given the area in which the shop is located.
Move onto the womenswear floor and there is much to look at, with prices at the lower end of ‘designer’. In practice, this means an oversized cardigan is £220, while if you’re short of cash, there’s an asymmetric “twisted” T-top at £70 available in two colours: light yellow and black.
Black and grey are the predominant colours across all of the collections, although a trip to the top floor offers colour in the shape of shoes in bright and muted tones. These tend towards the more avant-garde and prices are typically £320 and top out at £450. This is a subdued and stylish collection, one that does not need to shout its name in order to make itself heard.
Some of the best visual merchandising at this end of the market is the hallmark of this store. Whether you care to look at the black-winged abstract eagle, carved from a piece of wood and situated on the denim floor, the faded yellow baby grand piano in menswear or the slabs of concrete used to display shoes on the top floor, this is about as good as it gets.
All over the floor are mannequins constructed to look like outsize artists’ dummies. Curiously, the majority wear no clothes and are used instead to add to the store’s ambience.
Acne is concerned with providing sophisticated simplicity of the kind more usually seen in a gallery. The visual merchandising is such that it would feel more at home in trendy east London than in the old-money environs of southern Mayfair.
From the moment you walk in, the friendly staff do their best to provide a welcome. This may be a store selling upmarket stock in a very upscale part of town, but there is none of the snootiness you occasionally encounter when entering a store where a pair of jeans are a considered purchase rather than a grab and go.
Selling clothing at this price level is a matter of gentle seduction.
It has to be said that one of the downfalls of the white box format was that it was, well, a bit boring. Just how many artfully white interiors can you inspect before you stifle a yawn? Fortunately, Acne may be white box in intent, but dull is the last adjective that would be applied to its interior. The menswear department on the ground floor is typical of the restrained tendency, with a framed Jean Cocteau line drawing on the wall and a baby grand piano, both serving no function other than to create the impression of a modern metropolitan interior.
It’s a pattern repeated on the upper floors, with an opened-fronted black steel wardrobe divided into a series of steel boxes and used to display jeans being a case in point. There is nothing fancy about this, it’s just perfectly in tune with the simple stock that is on display.
It’s the top of the shop that really pulls out all the stops. Every Acne store is referred to by the brand as an Acne “Studio” and the high ceiling, the white staircase that goes nowhere and the incredible amount of daylight all contribute to this sense. Add to this the recurring use of concrete across the store - both as display plinths and as divides between various areas on the four floors - the plain wood floors and the use of light and dark, and you have a very well thought through retail interior.
Would I buy?
Unusually, I would. This is a store that treads that fine line between the better end of the mass market and the beginning of designer branded clothing and is almost within reach if you’re determined to treat yourself. It also manages that rare trick of making you feel comfortable rather than making you think you are being sized up by the staff. Oh yes, and the stock is pretty good too.
Acne’s new London store has much in common with the nearby Dover Street Market in terms of the type of customer it is likely to attract. This is a considered, modern shop that will persuade visitors to reach for their wallets or purses.
Number of floors Four
About the brand Acne is a Swedish brand founded in Stockholm in 1996. This is the brand’s first UK store
Most arresting feature The top floor, home to accessories and footwear
Store design Updated white box with a twist
Key materials Plain concrete and untreated wood