As stores across the world struggle to secure footfall in an increasingly digital world, some of London’s luxury brands may have found the answer ‒ and it dates back more than 200 years, as Lucinda Turner discovers
Since the beginning of the 18th century, townhouses have lined many streets of London. They originally served as residences for wealthy families relocating from large country houses during the social season, and row upon row of these multi-floored terraced properties have become a defining aesthetic of London’s architecture. Recently a revolution has been taking place in townhouses in the exclusive district of Mayfair. A trend for turning such properties into restaurants and hotels (such as Soho House group’s Dean Street Townhouse and newly refurbished Kettner’s Townhouse) has been reinterpreted by the retail world, with townhouse locations in Mayfair becoming some of the spaces most coveted by brands in the city.
However, it’s not just the buildings that are the big draw, it’s what you can do with them. It seems that townhouses have opened the gateway for a shop to become so much more than a place for selling goods.
‘We think that physical retail is now about an experience,’ says Jess Christie, chief brand officer of Matchesfashion.com. ‘It needs to be surprising and inclusive and personal.’ If customers take the time to come into your physical space, she adds, ‘it needs to engage them and be meaningful.’ In 2018 Matchesfashion.com opened at 5 Carlos Place, a five-storey townhouse in the middle of Mayfair. Each floor is dedicated to a different activity; two offer retail areas and private shopping; three are used for events, panel discussions and more, including a podcast recording space; and there is a restaurant in the attic. ‘5 Carlos Place is not a traditional retail space, it constantly changes to reflect designer’s installations and specific events,’ says Christie. ‘The service also revolves around customer choice.’
She explains how you can shop directly through your mobile, as technology in the space will link you directly to products onsite; you scan items on your app and see a variety of options which can be delivered from the warehouse in 90 minutes. The link between technology and a physical shopping experience is a winning combination. ‘Our private shopping service and 90-minute delivery has been very popular as clients can pop to the attic for lunch and go downstairs to shop their look afterwards.’
The roster of names visiting to give talks, play acoustic gigs and record podcasts has been outstanding. The brand’s own podcast The Collector’s House has featured Lucinda Chambers, Tabitha Simmons and Alexa Chung, to name just a few stars associated with the project. Pop-up supper clubs, morning yoga sessions and talks on how to dress for everything from a summer party to a weekend on the slopes ensure that the townhouse is always a hive of activity. The majority of talks and events are live-streamed through the Matchesfashion.com website, allowing the brand to go further than retail both online and offline. When Matchesfashion.com started 30 years ago its business was entirely offline, yet in a dramatic digital restructure this became 95% online. So why invest in bricks and mortar now? ‘We think it is key to bring a sense of enjoyment back to retail and to collaborate with partners and have conversations that create a sense of community and inspire our customers,’ remarks Christie.
Just two doors down from 5 Carlos Place, jeweller Jessica McCormack’s townhouse has been turning shopping for jewellery into an inspiring event since 2008. ‘It is our goal to offer a varied experience each time a client returns,’ says McCormack. ‘We host lunches, dinners, cocktail events, evenings with interesting personalities. Luxury retail is all about the ultimate personal shopping experience and our townhouse is always evolving, so the experience varies from season to season.
While Matchesfashion.com offers an ever-changing display of the new, entering McCormack’s townhouse feels like walking into a treasure trove of the past. The space is filled with art, books and antiques. ‘It is a collector’s space, constantly mutating into something new – I love mixing eras and genres,’ McCormack says. ‘We wanted the house to make clients feel welcome to sit in the library or the garden and stay a while, I think that jewellery should be sold in a relaxed environment.’
Back in 1891 when the Duke of Westminster built the Carlos Place development, the upper and lower floors were utilitarian spaces; nowadays they are the beating hearts of the business. ‘Being vertically integrated as a business, with the shop, design studio, workshop and corporate offices under one roof, allows efficiency and client exposure into the world of Jessica McCormack,’ says the jeweller. ‘The workshop has become the best part of the house experience.’ Allowing customers to see their jewels from design to creation is a world away from the glittering displays and vaults of Bond Street, and that is just how McCormack likes it.
Jessica McCormack’s townhouse is the perfect embodiment of her brand. There’s a similar fit at another prestigious townhouse just 200 metres along the road. Built in 1720, Dunhill’s Bourdon House is the only detached townhouse in Mayfair and it functions not only as the brand’s flagship but as an immersive experience of the Dunhill world. It opened in 2008 as a shop, and its 2017 makeover included bringing in a mix of furniture and fabrics associated with Dunhill’s elegant menswear. The space feels like the ultimate gentleman’s club.
The house features a barber shop, cellar bar, cigar lounge, courtyard restaurant and cinema room, and it is easy to spend a day in its many spaces. If the draw of exquisite new-season menswear in the house’s Discovery Room isn’t tempting enough, client events, parties, talks and screenings have turned Bourdon House into a global destination for the refined gentleman.
Retail is no longer a game that can be won by square footage alone and brands are coming to realise that. While large stores certainly offer space for all manner of events, the welcoming nature of London’s historic townhouses allows customers to purchase, peruse, play and party at their leisure. And, best of all, everyone’s invited.