Designer haven Browns has created a new-look space aimed at wealthy wardrobe builders who might have one eye on the bank balance.
Browns, the cluster of linked units that dominates the northwest end of South Molton Street, has been around for as long as most people might care to remember. And during its long lifetime it has been viewed as one of London’s natural destinations for those in search of catwalk fashion.
It would be a statement of the obvious, given its location, that Browns is not aimed at those who have to worry about where the next £50 is coming from, as it has been unswerving in its focus upon the luxury and designer end of the market. It was something of a surprise therefore to receive a note from the press office stating that the independent retailer was launching a new area called Shop 24 that would concentrate on offering “great pieces at affordable prices”.
The name might lead you to think that this is a separate shop. This proves not to be the case. Instead, any approach to Shop 24 reveals that it is very much part of this South Molton empire. Indeed, the name above the door remains Browns, even if the number 24 has been applied to the glass above the entrance.
Strange, you might think, that Browns feels the need to do this kind of thing, but even at the top end of the top end, the prevailing mood of shopper caution is probably as much a feature as in any other part of the retail spectrum.
The interesting thing about this is that for the passer-by, you wouldn’t be aware that much had happened out of the ordinary. Browns is, was and remains Browns, and Shop 24 doesn’t feel as if anything has changed, occupying as it does an area that was previously devoted to designer womenswear under the Browns fascia.
Key looks and merchandise
There are two floors in Shop 24, ground and basement. At first glance the split, in terms of merchandise, is between heavier autumn pieces on the ground and a lighter offer in the basement. Practically, this means that if you want a woollen coat, tweed jacket or a piece of winter-weight knitwear, then the ground floor is probably where you’ll find it. Downstairs, there are also some winter elements, but it you want a sequined grey voile Stella McCartney vest for £425 or an Alexander McQueen T-shirt at £180, this is where they are.
Affordable means different things to different people, but there must be a slight hesitation before describing a pair of Irfé skinny-leg leather jeans at £1,775 as an everyday purchase, and the fact that these are very much of the moment might leave a question mark over the notion of wardrobe building.
That said, the Browns own label cream cable-knit longer-length cardigans at around £425 do look close to fulfilling that brief.
As far as brands are concerned, this is a catholic mix, with Nina Ricci, Burberry, Los Angeles-based Standard James Perse (good for lightweight knitwear) and Moncler down-filled jackets all featuring, among many others.
The best visual merchandising is in the windows. Here, hundreds of yellow, black and red pencils have been pushed through a backdrop, creating a bed of nails effect, in front of which two mannequins, one in each window, are positioned. Both mannequins are dressed in a fashion take on back-to-school, although the most striking is the one in the right-hand window, which sports a bling necklace formed by multiple linked vintage watches.
In store, mannequins are restricted to the ground floor where a trio of size zero white figures are positioned in arresting poses. As for the rest of the ground floor, there isn’t a great deal in the way of VM as this is a stripped-back semi-white box throwback where props seem to have been deemed inappropriate.
Much the same is true of the lower floor, although the curved glass cabinet is a talking point and the beauty area, with its simple product arrangement, demands to be looked at (although it would be better if some of the empty glass shelves had stock on them).
You’d be entitled to expect top-notch service when you’re being asked to pay the sort of prices demanded in Browns and the staff, clad in black and looking as if they’d just stepped out of the offices of Vogue on nearby Hanover Square, looked the part. The thing is, looking the part is fine, but you also have to live up to the expectations you’ve created. Whether therefore it was the press officer who said that getting to the store for 10am would be difficult “because of the tube strike” - Drapers staff were at their desks by 9am - or the offhand manner of the staff, it was difficult to feel special.
White box, or the variant presented here, which includes duck egg and a grey purple as part of the palette, is fine, but it has to be slick and look finished.
A quick inspection of the fitting rooms and the white oak staircase did much to tell the story of this store. Whoever the shopfitter involved on the project was, they succeeded in splashing paint on one or two of the stairs, and in the fitting rooms the mirror surround also looked as if it had been painted on a Friday afternoon. Couple this with the fact that there was a bulb out in one of the fitting rooms and that it looked as if it had been done, well, with a price in mind, and a slight feeling of anticlimax was somewhat inevitable.
Would I buy?
The truth is that you’d think twice. At this level, whether you are wardrobe building or not, it’s reasonable to expect that service, store environment and stock should all be of the highest order. The stock is certainly worthy of consideration, but then so it is in sundry other independents, such as Matches, less than half a mile away in Marylebone. You might buy, but it would be on holidays and high days, rather than as a natural must visit.
Browns’ Shop 24 is perhaps an attempt to adopt a mildly more accessible approach to its shoppers, but it is hard to see this one working.
Address 24 South Molton Street, London W1K
Opening date September 9
Number of selling floors Two
Reasons for visiting An eclectic mix of top designer labels and brands
Most arresting feature The store windows