When the going gets tough, luxury brands pull out all the stops. Pamela Buxton looks at some spectacular schemes that promise to keep their brands in the style to which they’re accustomed
The luxury sector often feels like a parallel universe, immune to the nitty-gritty of recession, a world where it’s completely normal to contemplate spending four figures on a bag or pair of shoes or to treat yourself to a stay at a country club where the joining fee alone is £24,000, like at Skibo Castle. Whatever the general economic climate, the high-end hot spots of New Bond Street and Knightsbridge are still bustling with moneyed customers and lavish store refits. Yet there was a blip in the luxury market – in 2009 sales were down by eight per cent according to a report by Bain & Co. It seems even the super-rich can hurt. But not for long. In 2010 the market was expected to rise by 10 per cent, and predictions are for a further three to five per cent growth in 2011, fuelled in particular by wealthy Chinese clients. Mulberry recently announced a 30 per cent increase in retail sales, for example. And while many luxury shops seem to be aimed at an international clientele, it’s refreshing to see Mulberry’s very English take on luxury, represented by the splendid dry stone wall that dominates its New Bond Street store. Eric Parry’s spa at the Four Seasons hotel is a gorgeous combination of tactile materials, sinuous contours and comfort, with an amazing rooftop view to boot. But as any high-end brand knows, design, however important, is only part of the story. It takes exceptional service on top of that to create the true luxury experience.
The Private Club
When members are paying an annual fee of £7,660 on top of the £24,000 joining fee, the environment has an awful lot to live up. At The Carnegie Club, a truly exclusive private members club at Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands, facilities include a new pool pavilion, a £4.2m rebuild of the 1904 original built for philanthropist steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. This fell into disrepair in the middle of the last century and was closed in 2006 before its reincarnation.
Architecture practice Archial of Edinburgh has constructed, appropriately enough given the Carnegie heritage, a stainless steel structure with broad span and clear glass ceiling to enhance spectacular views over the 11 square miles of country estate. It’s not just for idly splashing around in – the 22m length and 1.2m depth makes it suitable for a bit of serious swimming.
Archial worked with Historic Scotland to retain some of the original features, including sandstone pillars with carvings of mythical sea creatures, and metal roof trusses. New features include a steam room. The Grade A listed pool is filled with ozone-treated water and supplements the club’s other spa facilities, which are housed in a former garage where Carnegie once kept his car collection.
New Bond Street, London
Designer: Universal Design Studio
As a quintessentially English brand, it should perhaps be no surprise that Mulberry’s handsome new London flagship eschews the glitzy expression of luxury so popular among its New Bond Street neighbours. Instead, the central feature of Universal Design Studio’s store concept is a massive dry stone wall. Elsewhere, the store is populated with timber ‘follies’. It’s eccentric, but winningly so, and a pleasant change from other luxury stores that could easily be in a Dubai mall rather than the capital of England.
With Georgia Fendley, brand director of Mulberry
How does the new Mulberry store express luxury?
Our definition of luxury has always been linked to how we work. We are very aware of craft and materials, and process. It’s a luxury to see how things are stitched and how much care has gone into the hand finishing. We were keen to work with the best craftspeople and joiners – luxury is about using the best-quality materials you can afford to use.
A lot of ‘luxury’ stores feel very tense and that’s not luxury at all. Luxury isn’t about people being rude to you or staff who aren’t happy. Mulberry has always been about family values and that filters down to the type of staff we employ. People love how the store feels The light and acoustics and temperature are really brilliant. It feels really good to be in.
What was the thinking behind the design?
We were focused on the particular nature of the site. For the first time, we could have everything on one level – in our previous site there were three. We were keen to keep it as open as possible so we started to think of it more as a landscape rather than internal architecture, which reflects the Englishness of the brand. We have a series of follies – all but the largest is movable, which is exciting as we can make the store reflect the rhythms of the seasons.
What role does the dry stone wall play?
We wanted the shop to be as ethical as possible and that means using as little energy as possible. The dry stone wall isn’t just an aesthetic feature – it is functional, amplifying the job that the M&E equipment does. We’d have felt uncomfortable with a big, monolithic statement that didn’t have a function. It’s all incredibly desirable but incredibly practical too.
Mulberry’s design is very different to the more glitzy stores elsewhere on New Bond Street?
We’re really proud of our products, and while we wanted the store to be beautiful, it isn’t too tricksy, or pastiche, or flash. That would get in the way of the product. As a customer, that makes me really suspicious.
How has the luxury market been affected by the economic downturn?
Whether you’re a luxury brand or mainstream, you have to be very sure of what you’re doing. There’s nowhere to hide anymore. In terms of pricing, in luxury terms, we’re reasonably accessible. Often it’s a case of [customers] thinking ‘If I have less money to spend on things, I want to buy things that will last and that I’ll love for life’. I have one Mulberry bag, that’s still going strong after 20 years.
“There are so many generic shops on the street,” says Hannah Carter Owers, associate director at Universal Design Studio. “We wanted to make a type of shop you wouldn’t expect to find on Bond Street but would stand up in terms of concept and innovation.”
Universal Design Studio, which has worked with Mulberry for more than two years, needed to accommodate two differing aspects of the brand – the fashionable, high-profile items and the more ‘grown-up’ core product. The design solution aimed to be playful rather than stuffy, and was inspired strongly by English landscapes and gardens.
The large site – 500 sq m on the ground floor and 465 sq m on the lower ground floor – needed a grand gesture for focus. The 40m-long dry stone wall, made by James Randolph Rogers, was the answer, used to give a sense of continuity throughout the space, with the freestanding oak follies providing focal points and more intimate, enclosed spaces in the “meandering landscape environment”.
“We looked at the English countryside for ideas we could appropriate,” says Carter Owers, adding that the wall also suggested the hand-made, crafted quality embodied in the Mulberry brand.
The wall has another, practical purpose. It functions as part of the heating and cooling system, with tempered and filtered air supplied through openings in the wall in the summer. In winter, the mechanical ventilation system harvests waste heat from light fittings, mixes it with outside air, and supplies it into the store through the wall.
The hand-crafted quality is also suggested in the poured concrete floor. Despite its industrial, neutral qualities, it is turned into a bespoke piece through the incorporation of 25 brass motifs designed by Jonathan Ellery on the theme, appropriately, of the David Bowie song The Maid of Bond Street. More brass is used to clad an 8.7m-long cash desk and in handmade, tessellating panels which clad the largest of the follies, positioned towards the rear of the store.
Flexibility was important – apart from the wall itself, everything is freestanding and can be reconfigured, including the large-scale oak shelving units. A number of pieces of artist furniture are included, such as Rachel Whiteread’s Daybed and the Zero-in table by Barber Osgerby.
Any concerns that shoppers might not be entranced by the unorthodox shop design swiftly proved unfounded, with people keen to explore the depths of the store and some customers feeling comfortable enough to try on clothes in the main space in full view.
“It feels like it has a real modernity to it even though it’s referencing tradition. We wanted to stimulate people on an intellectual level rather than [just] a handbag lust level,” says Carter Owers.
Mulberry expects the store design to have a longevity, unusual in retail. ‘Unlike many slick shop-fitted environments our new Bond Street flagship is designed to last and to develop a patina over time. Like nearly all of the best things in life it will get better and better with use!’ says Mulberry brand director Georgia Fendley.
Four Seasons Hotel spa
Architect & interior designer: Eric Parry Architects
This is truly a spa with a view. Created in a rooftop extension to the Four Seasons Hotel off Hyde Park Corner in London, this offers the visual luxury of 360-degree views across the city. Most spas are windowless; this is the opposite. And with such a location, it would be madness to do anything but exploit the vista.
Inside, the luxury is of a very different order. This is beautiful space, elegantly restrained with a limited palette of quality materials, but with comfort as a priority. Eric Parry Architects has been involved in the project for five years, creating a lightweight steel structure to house the spa on the hotel’s roof.
Parry calls it his ‘spa in the sky’. The 1,150 sq m facility, designed for use both by hotel guests and nonresidents, is a haven of visual calm.
On the floor is shrunk oak veneer, which has a dark patina and a slight undulation, with granite used in wet areas. Walls are deeply contrasting tones of white – either vitreous enamel in heavy traffic areas such as the curved walls on either wide of the lift; white lacquer, or cream Corian.
Treatment rooms are cocooned in triple-weave drapes designed by Eric Parry Architects. The tranquility is enhanced by gently undulating walls and the organic forms of furniture such as the reception desk.
All is softness and rounded edges. Special design moments are created by the limited use of cracked gesso lacquer, horsehair upholstery in the relaxation areas, and the accommodation of Egyptian stone sculptures by Stephen Cox.
Inspired by hospitality and ritual in both India and Japan, Eric Parry Architects has paid particular attention to the journey the spa-goer makes during their visit.
They relax on ottomans in a reception area, enjoying the expansive views before being escorted to the changing areas, equipped with oak lockers and granite showers. Here, the glass is fritted for privacy.
Nearby are the treatment pool, steam rooms and sauna – men and women have separate facilities – with the best being the women’s saunas, where the glass is fritted at lower level for privacy but left clear higher up to reveal the view.
A waiting area for those using the nine treatment rooms is subtly divided to separate the sexes but all can enjoy an open fire. Each treatment room has blackout drapes and bespoke curtains which close off the space when required to complement the intensity of the experience, but can be thrown open afterwards for maximum effect. Best of all is the VIP suite, including steam room, shower and dual treatment beds.
Afterwards, customers are not shown the spa door. Far from it – a series of private relaxation areas are on hand where they can recline at their leisure after the rigours of the treatment. Pure luxury for the very lucky indeed.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.