Farewell to Fenwick’s New Bond Street flagship
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We all knew the day would come. Fenwick, the low-key but beloved department store that has occupied the corner of New Bond Street and Brook Street in Mayfair since 1891, is closing down. Last week, the Fenwick family announced it had agreed to sell the location to property firm Lazari Investments, to be converted for “mixed use” starting in 2024.
I like to think that I made the most of it while I could. I bought regularly from the beauty department on the ground floor and made a point of always patronising it over any of the flashier shops nearby. It’s been part of my life in London ever since I first ventured into the centre of town with my mother and her best friend, window shopping as a pre-teen in the 1970s.
In a vast department store, I become bewildered by crowds and loud music and give up on a simple mission to find socks or wrapping paper. Fenwick, in contrast, has always been a joy. It’s low key. It’s not about wowing you — it’s about pleasing you. While I love the lavish food halls and Comme des Garçons concessions of Tokyo stores, I see that as part of a unique travel experience. Fenwick is thoroughly British.
It is rarely busy (which is much of its appeal), and the writing seemed to be on the wall — in bold bright pink neon — when Victoria’s Secret opened right across the street 10 years ago. That suggested a new millennial direction for Mayfair, while the outlandish Peter Marino-renovated Louis Vuitton shop pointed to another when it opened in 2019.
Fenwick, on the other hand, feels like Grace Brothers of the sitcom Are You Being Served?— a place of quiet good manners and Captain Peacock management, stuck in the past. There is no mercy in modern retail. When Barneys in New York filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 2019, the city without it seemed unthinkable. But now, like Henri Bendel, it’s history.
I miss so many once great stores: Jenners in Edinburgh, where I used to regularly see Stella Tennant shopping; Filene’s Basement in Boston; and even Allders in Croydon, where I was embroiled in a saga at the age of 12 when a particularly wayward school friend decided to liberate, unsubtly, armfuls of Gabicci jumpers from the ground-floor menswear department. Though I was merely a surprised bystander, I was still implicated by Allders security and banned from the store for life. The site is apparently going to become a sibling to Secret Cinema, with an immersive experience called “LOST”. How apt.
Fenwick is closing to “fund significant investment” in its online business and other stores. It makes sense, but it’s sad. No one bonds with family and friends while adding things to a digital shopping basket. There’s also the unique pleasure of wandering around a department store in a disassociated meditative state to kill an hour, like Liz Taylor in The Driver’s Seat.
Fenwick has never been cutting-edge, which is why it is so lovely. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Way In department at Harrods was aggressively fashion-forward, stocking BodyMap, Michiko Koshino and Richmond Cornejo in its last decade, when I frequented it most. It was one of the few places you could buy the gargantuan 50cm x 70cm magazine The Manipulator. In the 1990s, the menswear department at Liberty was a place of pilgrimage, selling Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 1996 “Hunger” collection when sightings of his clothes in the wild were extremely rare.
In both these cases, the fashion departments were of the moment, and their moments passed. Fenwick remained static and unconcerned with the hot new thing. While Selfridges morphed into a kind of daytime Berghain a few blocks away in the early 21st century, with pop-up events every other day, Fenwick was Fenwick. Yes, it currently stocks The Vampire’s Wife, but it was always more Jean Muir than Jean Paul Gaultier. You go to Stella McCartney for crystal-encrusted vegan high heels, and then up the street to Fenwick to buy her childrenswear for your best friend’s daughter.
I will miss so many things: the lavish fake floral displays outside the corner front doors and the omnipresent Charlotte Tilbury carnival-style branding on view along Brook Street. For several years I was commissioned to shoot the new collections in situ for Issey Miyake for his flagship across the road, and each season I spent hours on Photoshop, retouching out Tilbury’s lightbulbs reflected in Issey’s windows. They were a nuisance but they were part of the neighbourhood, as was Bond Street Kitchen on the second floor, where I’d regularly meet friends to flirt with our favourite waiter.
While it was there, Carluccio’s in the basement of Fenwick was a reliable place to get a table any time, any day of the week. It was also right next to the toilets — perhaps my most frequent reason to visit the store. I know where all the most pristine WCs are in Mayfair, and while Claridge’s will always remain the gold standard, Fenwick was ever reliable.
And because they were in the menswear department, it was impossible not to peruse the stock while you were there. It was usually too Home Counties for me, but during sale time there would be surprise gems, like an overlooked Mulberry bag for half price. The same bargains might well appear online at fenwick.co.uk in the future, but there won’t be the charm of the millinery displays, the perfume testers and the day drinking.
I hope that what replaces Fenwick will offer some kind of solace to those of us who will mourn it for ever. There are still New Yorkers who talk emotionally of the demise of Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue as if it were yesterday. It was where Rauschenberg and Warhol rose to fame creating window displays. It was everyone’s favourite department store, and in 1979 Donald Trump knocked it down and turned it into Trump Tower. It deserved so much better.
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