In the 1990s, designers such as Diane von Furstenberg and Alexander McQueen transformed New York’s Meatpacking District into a high-end shopping haven. Similarly, an increasing number of luxury retailers, deterred by the challenging property market, are today moving out of the main shopping areas and into niche neighbourhoods. These pioneers often have more than practicality in mind.
Lucian James, of brand strategists Agenda Inc, says: “Luxury brands are finding they can make more of a statement by going into new neighbourhoods, and designers have finally broken free of their zip codes.”
The American jeans-and-T-shirt brand Abercrombie & Fitch made one of the first big moves back in 2007. Opening a London branch not on predictable Regent Street or King’s Road but on exclusive Savile Row caused uproar amid the tailoring establishment. Yet it has proved so successful that the company has also opened stores in Milan’s Golden Triangle and Tokyo’s Ginza district, continuing to align itself with luxury players in upmarket districts.
Swing is a concept store that opened in Harlem in May last year. Helena Greene, its owner, says her choice was inspired by her experience growing up in New York. “I watched Soho, the East Village and Brooklyn transform and I thought, ‘Why not be a part of the change in Harlem?’ It reminded me of Manhattan 20 years ago.”
Selling clothes by Ann Demeulemeester and Cristina Bomba, Swing may seem incongruous among the $8 sweatpants sold on nearby 125th Street. But the shop attracts a steady flow of locals, tourists and members of the Manhattan design community.
In Europe, the situation is comparable. Slavko Felkar, buyer and manager for F-95, a Berlin store that stocks up-and-coming brands and international labels, says he chose to open in the non-descript neighbourhood of Friedrichshain in order to make a statement. “We are not normal, so we wanted to go to an abnormal area,” Felkar says.
Romain Brau, co-owner of the Belgian store Ra, which sells local and international designers such as Kitsune and Gareth Pugh, opened his shop on a quiet side street in Antwerp known for its antiques shops. “The concept of Ra is to be a destination,” he says. It seems to have paid off, according to Brau: “Our opening week was one of the busiest; we had high turnover.”
Stretching the bounds of fashion geography is not without risk. Two years ago, former stylist Stephanie Addis chose the shop-less street of Ocean Park in Santa Monica to launch her store Poolside/The Golden State, specialising in Californian design and fashion. She is now looking for more central digs. “If there had been a butcher, a barber, even a shoe guy to bring people here, I would have been happy,” she said. “We had zero foot traffic.”
Swing’s Helena Greene isn’t deterred. “We have had a lot of press and support from the local community,” she says. “It’s something besides gospel churches. Something new.”