Portobello Road traditionalists may be unhappy about its presence, but the young fashion chain’s flagship works hard to fit in
There’s been a lot of noise about young fashion retailer AllSaints’ 11,000 sq ft flagship store on the corner of Portobello Road and Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, west London, since it opened in December but not necessarily for the reasons that the retailer might have wished. The store is on the site of a former antiques market and AllSaints signed the lease on the vacant unit in late 2009. However, the fact it was empty did not stop a storm of protest over what was seen as the appearance of big commerce in a neighbourhood best known for small shops and markets.
Yet there is much to commend about this shop, if only for the sensitivity with which its external appearance has been handled. AllSaints is a “luxury bridge brand”, says retail director Brett Johnson, and as such it fits reasonably well with the price points to be found in many of the other boutiques and small stores in the area.
This, however, is not what will strike the casual passer-by who happens to be inspecting the reach-me-down retail chic of Portobello Road. The thing that will catch the eye is sewing machines. AllSaints is famous for window displays composed, for the most part, of Singer sewing machines and this branch is no exception. A quick count reveals 326 of them, occupying all the windows of this store. The long storefront is painted in different colours at various intervals, which is intended to promote the idea of a series of small shops rather than a commercial behemoth.
Which means it may be different from what it replaces, but AllSaints is to be congratulated for creating a space that blends with its surroundings.
Key looks and merchandise
As a bridge retailer, you’d expect prices to be at the top end of the high street and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Jeans, in a wide variety of washes and fits for men and women, start at £65, T-shirts at £35, knitwear at about £60 and a leather jacket is just shy of £300.
What marks the product out for men and women is its unstructured feel, whether it’s jackets, collarless shirts or the occasional foray into goth-wannabe wear. The latter includes, for instance, a pair of rock-chic skeletons printed on a T-shirt bearing the legend “Poxy Music”.
It’s worth noting the accessories too, which edge towards grunge, and the fact that colours are muted across all of the range. The net effect is appealing. Johnson says the collections are “no longer just for youth - we’re for all ages.”
For those venturing into the store, the sewing machine-dominated exterior is replicated inside, but on an altogether different scale. Nearly 50% of the back wall is a Singer paean of praise with even more of the black and gold machines in evidence than on the outside of the shop.
The second-hand nature of the display sets the tone for much of the visual merchandising across the store’s two floors, which are made up of women’s and kids’ on the ground and menswear in the basement. Articles such as vintage market porter trolleys and garment manufacturing machines are used as props on both floors.
Mannequins are used sparingly and in groups around the floor while graphics are used with even greater caution. It’s the product that is made to sing, visually, for shoppers’ wallets. Items such as the jeans wall, where each pair is furled, bedroll style, and cobblers’ lasts, piled high in a glass case, all add to the interior’s loft-dwelling post-holocaust feel.
Mention should also be made of the magnetic wall behind the cash desk on the ground floor, which is a useful display device, and the wall beneath the stairs filled with rams’ skulls - a reminder of the AllSaints logo.
AllSaints may be in the high street’s uppermost pricing echelon, but this doesn’t mean you will be trampled in the rush to be served, as might be the case in a designer store. This is about self-service and being given the time and space to enjoy the surroundings, but if you do need help, it is on hand and the staff know their stuff.
When you do come to pay, the cash desks have enough visual interest to make the process diverting.
The shape and appearance of the store is the result of meticulous planning and a great deal of creativity. Elements of the original space, when it was an antiques market, have been retained in the landscape that greets the shopper, so the faded magnolia tiles on part of the ground floor back wall and some of the steel pillars supporting the ceiling are original.
But as Johnson puts it: “Originally, this was about faded grandeur and now it’s more of a loft.” It is, and the attention to detail is impressive. The floors have been created from reclaimed oak taken from French railway carriages and secured to the floor using split nails, rather than the swifter nail-gun option. The ceilings have been sprayed and blasted to foster a warehouse aesthetic and the mid-shop equipment is a mix of found pieces and metal fixtures that have been fashioned to appear as if they have been lifted from an early 20th-century factory.
There are probably rather more than 10 different sorts of light fittings above the shopfloor, reminding the onlooker of the upper part of a theatre directly above the stage, rather than a shop, and creating interesting areas of light and dark.
The total effect is somewhat nihilistic and it is obvious that it has been copied by other retailers. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap and a figure north of £1m would be realistic for the fit-out.
Would I buy?
Certainly. There is much that appeals in this store and plenty of reasons to make a purchase, even if the prices are not quite everyday. Whether it’s the stock, which is about style rather than fashion, or the interior, which has something worth examining at every turn, this is a store that will persuade you that you really do want that extra pair of jeans or unstructured jacket that you didn’t know you needed.
There are 60 standalone AllSaints stores in the UK at the moment, and on the basis of this branch there is no reason not to visit the others. In spite of the brouhaha that has surrounded this store’s opening, it is likely to bed into the area well in the longer term.
Address 290 Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, London W11
Size 10,000 sq ft
Number of floors Two
Merchandise mix Womenswear, menswear, kidswear
Interior ambience Postmodern neo-brutalist
Open since December 2009
Number of Singer sewing machines in store windows 326