Loewe, luxury and the enduring allure of London’s Bond Street
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Anyone awaiting the final demise of bricks and mortar retail, or unduly worried about the repercussions of Brexit on London’s main commercial thoroughfares, would do well to visit Bond Street. In recent months, the Richemont-owned luxury brands Cartier and Chloé have polished their presence on the street. A new Alexander McQueen store hosts museum-quality exhibitions and workshops to promote the Kering-owned label’s work. At Hermès, you have to join a waiting list to join the waiting list for handbags — while a nice young staff member walks around with trays of drinks.
Meanwhile, huge swathes of commercial space are being colonised by brands owned by the French luxury group LVMH: at number 164, Celine has just unveiled a spacious 145 sq m selling space furnished in grand antique and Travertine marble and dedicated to its new menswear line by Hedi Slimane. Givenchy’s new flagship, designed under the direction of its artistic director Clare Waight Keller, occupies a block on the opposite corner. The Louis Vuitton store, undergoing a huge refurbishment, is operating out of a temporary space a bit further up the road. All this in the midst of a major retail trauma in which longstanding high-street stalwarts are collapsing by the week.
Much of the development is being done in anticipation of the Elizabeth line, a new cross-London rail link that was scheduled to open in December 2019 but has been delayed. When complete, it is expected that passenger traffic through Bond Street will increase from 155,000 to 220,000 each day. Westminster City Council in partnership with the New West End Company, Greater London Authority and Transport for London, has spent an estimated £60m on a makeover of the area, investing £10m in a new public square and creating more pedestrian space.
Jonathan Anderson, creative director of the LVMH-owned, Spanish-based leather luxury house Loewe, has been overseeing and designing the build of his Casa Loewe alongside the brand’s in-house architect team for the past 18 months. Built in a Grade II-listed building at 41-42 New Bond Street, the store was due to open last year “but we had to stop the works because we had some sort of water problem”, explains Anderson. London, with its clay foundations, bothersome Victorian sewerage and antiquated Underground system, is one of the worst cities to build on. “It’s been a nightmare,” he says of the renovations. “Like moving house every week.” The store opens this week. Fully waterproofed. “They tanked it,” says the 34-year-old designer. “We could have a swimming pool downstairs if we liked.”
Instead, the new store will contain all of the brand’s fashion collections — men’s, women’s and homewares — and works from the house’s burgeoning art collection. Anderson ducks under electrical cabling and around drill-wielding builders to point out the prized pieces: an Anthea Hamilton “Volcano table” dripping with molten globules of red glass, a tiny pink sculpture by Ron Nagle that sits precariously on a lonely shelf edge, and three oak sculptures by Ernst Gamperl, winner of the inaugural Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, a project initiated by Anderson in 2017.
The space is a happy confluence of high art and handbags, which will be prominently displayed throughout the shop’s expansive space, but of all the new features Anderson is most excited by a spiral staircase, 10 tonnes of Campaspero stone suspended around a “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”-style lift in the middle of the store. “It was the biggest investment in this entire building,” he adds. “But it’s nice to be able to do a staircase based on a design that’s been around for 400 years. Leonardo da Vinci did a two-way staircase in the Vatican.”
Suspended via some law of physics I can’t pretend to comprehend, the staircase gives the building both a sense of historic grandeur and of domesticity, appropriate enough for a designer whose approach to the store’s design was to “imagine I was building my own house”. Certainly, the mid-century furniture, ceramic vessels and Arts and Crafts-style chandelier by the architect Sir Edward Lutyens are very much in keeping with Anderson’s personal taste.
“For me, this store was about how do you create a domestic space and at the same time be a cultural space,” says Anderson, who was born in Northern Ireland and also runs a namesake label in which LVMH own a majority stake. Museums are a side hustle: he curated an exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2017, and last month was named a trustee of the board of the V&A.
“A shop is a public space. Anyone can come in. So, therefore, I think there is a responsibility of a shop that it doesn’t always have to sell to you.”
The first substantial Loewe store to be opened in the UK (it previously had a “shoebox” in Mount Street) the store’s focus is much in keeping with current retail thinking. Where 10 years ago, new luxury stores would dedicate loads of private rooms to accommodate the needs of high-spending customers, today’s spaces are more likely to feature a flower stall, a café or gallery on site. “I feel that people should come in here and feel equal,” says Anderson. “VIP fitting rooms just feel so elitist. I feel like those days are a bit 1990s or something, early 2000s, in terms of retail.”
As online shopping continues to grow, brands are having to reconsider what purpose is being served by a shop. And while e-commerce still accounts for only 15 per cent of all luxury spending, no retailer can afford to be cavalier about the clients.
“I think people expect more when they buy a product now,” says Anderson. “Yes, they want the bag, with the tissue, with the wrapping, the whole thing, and the person to know you as you come in. But we need to tell other stories. To give things more substance; more backbone.” The tourist clientele is vital to the business, agrees Anderson, “but it’s important to build a domestic network where you are.
“At the same time,” he adds, “it needs to be an enjoyable shopping experience. So that was always the point here, to build an amazing collection of art that is in stores as well. And I think we have been very lucky in what we have to show. We have a William Turnbull, ‘Idol 4’ bronze (1956), which is only one of four. The other is at the Tate Britain.”
One wonders how generous LVMH was with these sorts of acquisitions? “LVMH doesn’t really decide,” says Anderson about the costs of this build, which is doubtless in the millions. “We just have to decide in terms of profit ratio how much we want to spend.”
Although Anderson is forbidden from disclosing the figures for Loewe, whose revenues are combined with a number of LVMH fashion brands in the group’s financial statements, the designer insists that business is “doing very well”. The vast majority of sales are still made up of leather goods, but the ready-to-wear category is growing, having been boosted by newer lines such as Paula’s Boutique, a seasonal collection that launched three years ago when Loewe acquired an archive of prints created for the popular Seventies Ibizan boutique of the same name, and Eye/Loewe/Nature, a line of utilitarian outdoor clothes and accessories for men. Anderson claims ready-to-wear has grown by 5 per cent, and his output is prodigious — in recent weeks he has launched a collection of basket-woven handbags for the Milan Furniture Fair and a capsule collection of clothes and accessories inspired by the Disney film Dumbo.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that you need to be launching something every month,” says Anderson. To that end, the store’s entrance area will be an ever-changing space. “Everything that launches will go here first. The new Paula’s Boutique range will be our launch collection, and we’ll do a select preview for the Craft Prize. I think we’re going to do talks programmes here. And we’re going to be using the window as a curatorial space.”
This store now completed, Anderson is next headed to China where Loewe is due to open stores in Shanghai and Beijing. Then New York, where they’re developing a long-term pop-up, and on to Paris. In New Bond Street the doors are about to open. Underground, work on the Elizabeth line continues, and the staircase sits in a perfectly calibrated state of suspense.