Contemporary womenswear retailer Toast has just seven standalone stores, with the latest opening on Valentine’s Day in the posh part of Cheltenham.
And in opting to set up this four-level, 1,500 sq ft shop in the town, the Swansea-based retailer and mail-order outfit is bang on brand. Its other stores are in places such as Bath, Harrogate, Oxford and Notting Hill. So Cheltenham is hardly a stretch in terms of the type of location in which new stores are being opened.
The shop occupies the site of a former Viyella store on a promenade of shops where names such as Alexon’s womenswear chain Kaliko, preppy young fashion retailer Jack Wills and lifestyle chain The White Company all have a presence. All of which puts Toast away from Cheltenham’s main shopping drag and locates it in an area where the better-heeled denizens of this Gloucestershire town tend to gather.
Which is just as well, as Toast is at the upper end of the price spectrum (it could even be termed fringe designer) and is probably not for the hoi polloi. Plans are in place for more stores, but as French Connection-owned Toast moves into gear with its new season offer, the bulk of its business remains mail order.
Key looks and merchandise mix
If you know Toast, the chances are good that when thinking of it a casual and understated picture will come to mind. In Cheltenham, this translates as a store that has a few very obvious themes for spring, according to retail area manager Rachel Lonergan. She cites layering, suiting - “which is new for us” - and an emphasis on denim as some of the
Couple all of this with the Toast heartland, which might best be termed as related separates in soft, washed fabrics, knits, and a tightly controlled range of footwear, and you have the bones of what this collection is about.
In terms of colours, it is largely a matter of neutrals interspersed with brights, such as the cheerful grenadine jacket that sits on a perimeter rail mixed
in with cool linens and neutral knitted tops. As for pricing, Toast has never been about cheap and this store follows that pattern. At the lower end, there is a range of overdyed illustrated vintage scarfs at £39, but the garment action starts at nearer to £80 and then heads up to £345 for a soft-as-butter unstructured brown suede shirt jacket.
The store’s geography assists the laying out of the offer as although three out of the four levels are visible from the front door, it does mean there are distinct areas for merchandise categories.
The basement level is for footwear and accessories, displayed in the middle of the floor, on tables and around the perimeter in cast-metal boxes. Cunningly, white surrounds have been built for these, which are then attached to the wall, creating impromptu chests of drawers. This level also has a recovered 1970s bentwood two-seater sofa and a cheerful bright orange chair of the kind normally labelled “modern classic”.
Heading up to the ground floor, which 15ft inside the entrance rises to a second level, it becomes clear that this store is about the low-key use of mannequins and simple but not overcrowded side-hung perimeter rails.
Up some stairs lies a higher level, demarcated by a balustrade. Here, the central space is occupied by a vintage wooden trestle table used sparingly to house a few accessories and a single pink dress. It is all about artless (but knowing) visual merchandising. The rest of the collection is displayed around the perimeter.
Finally, the top floor, reached by a staircase, is a visual merchandising tour de force. This floor is about Toast’s homeware, and old drawers of varying sizes have been attached to the wall to create open-fronted wardrobes for the merchandise. There is also a cafe.
Hard to tell really, as the store had only just opened, but the person I visited with found the service amenable, helpful and anxious to please. As she was the first person to make a purchase in the store on its opening day and was spending a fair amount of money, this is perhaps hardly surprising. But nonetheless, the well-scrubbed female coterie that formed the store’s staff looked as if they were up to the task of supporting Toast’s brand values.
Peer through the window of this shop and if you were unsympathetic to what Toast is all about, you might think the walls were unfinished. This, of course, is highly deliberate and for those in search of distressed interiors, the faded palazzo look is a well-worn design trope. Wooden floors and found furniture complete the look, but this interior has a number of features not normally associated with this kind of store environment.
On the biggest (and highest) of the three levels on the ground floor, there is an antique cherry wood armoire. Rather than acting as a stock cupboard, this contains all of the store’s back-office systems, as well as hand-held credit card payment machines, meaning there is no cash desk in this shop. Not only does this free up space, it creates a more relaxed feel and avoids the feeling of a commercial imperative.
Worth noting too are the reclaimed doors along one wall of the store’s lowest level, used to provide access to a stockroom, and on the top floor, the huge copper-fronted cube, which conceals an area for servicing the cafe.
All of the store design was undertaken in-house and has been something of a labour of love. Toast in Cheltenham is all about detail, while at the same time fostering a store-wide make-do-and-mend aesthetic.
If there were a criticism, it would be that the Toast logo, applied to the glass above the main door, is so subtle that you can’t really see it.
Would I buy?
Were I part of the target market, enough has been done in this store, both in terms of collection and store ambience, to make me reach for the wallet, which must stand as some kind of testimony to the effectiveness of this as a selling proposition.
A store that almost takes an anti-design stance in its choice of materials and finishes emerges as a shop that should find favour with Cheltenham’s style-conscious, semi-boho well-to-do.
Address 82 The Promenade, Cheltenham
Size 1,500 sq ft
Number of levels Four
Store design features Use of reclaimed doors for stock cupboards, distressed interiors, anglepoise lights around perimeter, a vintage wooden trestle table, low-key use of mannequins and a copper cube on top floor