Victoria Gate, which opened last week, is the latest piece in the jigsaw of Leeds’ revival as a retail destination.
Leeds is in the midst of a retail revolution. With a strong community of independent retailers, a booming high street and a brand new shopping centre opening its doors last week, new brands and established retailers are thriving in the city’s new retail landscape.
Two days before the opening of Victoria Gate, there was a buzz in the air on Harewood Street in Leeds. Across the road from the Victoria Quarter, with its vaulted arcades and glossy black store fronts, passers-by paused, peered through rattling wire fencing and past diggers for a glimpse of Leeds’ next retail leap as it prepared to open its doors to the public.
Victoria Gate, a 380,000 sq ft shopping centre rising grandly out of the formerly empty area of the town centre, finally opened to the public last week. However, to call Victoria Gate “a shopping centre” belies its grandeur and blurs quite why the city had such tangible excitement about its opening. Designed to reflect the fashion heritage that shaped Leeds as a city, the centre is a modern interpretation of the city’s Victorian shopping arcades.
Through the glass entrance, the centre divides into two parallel channels of stores. They are joined by an undulating glass front window that runs the entire length of each arcade. Rather than standard frontages, each store has an identical black granite name board and fin with the store name embossed in shimmering gold – mirroring the design of the Victoria Quarter across the street.
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Robin Dobson, director of retail development at Hammerson, which developed Victoria Gate and also owns the Victoria Quarter, says the area focuses on a more premium offering than the nearby Trinity Leeds shopping centre, which opened in 2013: “Trinity covers a lot of the high street brands and Victoria is a complementary retailing opportunity. We’re focusing on premium, individual and more independent retailers.”
Of the 23 retail units in the centre, 17 are new to Leeds, and several stores, such as Australian lingerie retailer Honey Birdette and womenswear brand Ghost, are opening their first shops outside London. Anchoring the centre at one end is a 260,000 sq ft John Lewis, the first in the city.
“We estimate there is £500m of untapped retail spend in the Leeds region, and much of that is in the premium sector,” explains Dobson. “That spend currently travels out of the city to London. What we’re hoping Victoria can do is keep the Leeds spend in the Leeds region.”
One way of doing this was to make the centre a destination in itself.
“Shopping is all about experience and destination now,” says Dobson. “With Victoria Gate, we aimed to create something very different and very special.” In addition to its architectural mirroring of Leeds’ arcades, the space is crammed with references to the city’s textile manufacturing history. Herringbone-patterned granite flooring sweeps through the arcade, while diamond motifs and triangular adornments on the walls and ceiling reflect materials and textures deeply ingrained in the city’s heritage.
“Fashion was a really significant part of the city’s economy,” says Lee Hicken, producer of the film Fashion in Leeds, which investigates the industry’s resurgence and heritage in the city. “The brands born here, such as Marks & Spencer and AW Hainsworth, shaped the city. It’s a huge part of our heritage. The story and the soul of the city are really steeped in fashion.”
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There are echoes of the city’s past throughout the centre. The halls are lit by brass pendants, harkening back to arcades of Victorian design. While the lights were designed to look like honeycomb, in a fiercely proud city, there have apparently already been comparisons to the Yorkshire rose. In another nod to the region, the white terracotta used on the outside of the building was manufactured in Doncaster, Yorkshire. With its design focused on history and heritage, Victoria Gate is heralding a new era for Leeds.
Leeds retail by numbers
- 118 new brands since 2013
- 1,200 stores in the city centre
- 15% of all retail brands arrived in the past three years
- £124 average spend per visitor in the Victoria Quarter
- 22 million visitors to Trinity Leeds in its first year (2013)
- 26 million tourists visited the city in 2015
- £60.5bn economic output in 2015
- 40% economic growth in the last 10 years
Sources: Invest in Leeds and Savills
A property perspective on Leeds
Steve Henderson, retail director at property agent Savills, explains how Victoria Gate fits into Leeds’ retail property portfolio
“The retail offer in Leeds goes from strength to strength following several years of continual change and improvement. This began with the development of Trinity Leeds, which helped to put the city firmly on the radar of numerous retailers that did not previously have a presence in the city. As some retailers relocated to Trinity Leeds from the prime retail pitches of Briggate and Commercial Street, a flurry of new entrants moved into the stores they vacated.
“Victoria Gate will further help to meet demand for retail space in Leeds and create a new, high-end shopping experience. Victoria Gate will further enhance the retail mix in Leeds and draw shoppers in from a much wider catchment area, creating a positive ripple effect across the city centre.”
An independent’s view of Leeds
Mark Bedford, director of menswear independent The Chimp Store, in Leeds’ Thorntons Arcade, gives his take on the evolution of the city as a fashion retail destination.
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What are your thoughts on the fashion industry in Leeds?
The fashion industry in Leeds is great. It has a large mix of high street along with some of the finest indies, in my opinion, that the UK has to offer. It is certainly growing and that can be seen with the addition of two huge shopping centres – Trinity Leeds and Victoria Gate – and the biggest John Lewis outside of London, which have all been built within the past few years. There has certainly been money spent on building Leeds’ shopping offer.
How have the city centre and the shops changed since you took over as director in 2010?
The store was established in 1998, but the opportunity to buy it came up in 2010 and I jumped at it. I previously worked one door down from Chimp, so I have built up a great relationship with a large number of Leeds shoppers. It made sense to stay in a place where they already came to see me to buy their new clothes.
It has changed a lot since then. The regeneration of old areas made them habitable to retail, deli, coffee and bar tenants. Leeds was very compact when I first started out, basically having Briggate and the old arcades used for retail. Now, with the addition of the new shopping centres, Leeds is becoming more spread out.
How did things change in the city when Trinity opened? Did you see any impact?
Trinity did have an impact – everything was driven to the Trinity, which sucked [business] away from the end of town where we are situated. A lot of stores soon left their big units on the streets around us and moved into Trinity, which left big units void around us. That had an impact on day-to-day footfall.
How do you think Victoria Gate might affect the city?
Victoria Gate will have an impact, of course. John Lewis will have a huge pull and it’s good to have a big multi-storey car park back near our store – people will be more likely to walk past the arcades where our shop and a lot of other indies are situated.