Five years ago I took the plunge and moved from New York City to London. I was approaching the magical age of 50 and had never lived abroad. Now was the moment to step outside my comfort zone.
I had been coming to London on business for the previous 25 years in my career as a fashion buyer for Bloomingdale’s, then as general manager for Henri Bendel and, before Liberty, as a senior vice-president at Bergdorf Goodman. In retail, London was always the place to see the latest trends, outrageous creativity, eccentric style and inspiring street fashion.
Nonetheless, few American stores actually bought anything. Fashion was a tough sell. Young British talent struggled with manufacturing and securing financing to develop into viable businesses. Over recent years, however, and thanks to considerable work by the British Fashion Council, London has evolved into a fashion capital with a balance between artistic influence and commerciality. It doesn’t hurt that there is an endless influx of foreign spending and investment. Just when you think London has peaked, it reaches a new level.
My job takes me back to New York four to six times a year, and my outlook on my home town has changed to an extent that makes me wonder if I’m just becoming more British. The differences in styles between New York and London are now glaring.
To compare the cities, I usually start with the relative state of shopping. For me, London comes up trumps. Every day another indie store opens; another area is rediscovered or pioneered, be it Shoreditch, Dalston, Stoke Newington or Mayfair.
London’s old and new shopping districts reinvent themselves on a regular basis. Major renovations to large established stores such as Harrods and Selfridges happen constantly, while smaller creative concept stores are a growing presence – think luxury interiors brand House of Hackney, and progressive retail concept LN-CC.
The rocketing rents in Manhattan during the Bloomberg years drove the creativity into Brooklyn. But now even that area, with its artisan coffee scene, feels tired to me. New York’s Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, SoHo and Meatpacking districts can’t hold a candle to Bond, Sloane, Regent, Oxford, Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Notting Hill, the King’s Road . . . the list goes on.
Now for the service culture. You have to give it up for the conveniences of New York – from the walk-in manicures to the 24-hour hair salons. Mind you, you have to pay for that service with tips and God help you if you’re not generous. An irate waitress followed some British friends of mine down the street on their last trip to the city. But, in her defence, they had ordered and received their meal the way they wanted – full of substitutions. Also, the teamwork between your New York doorman, dry cleaner and 24-hour deli remain unequalled.
In New York you can have your cable and internet attended to within days. When I moved to London, I was given a date for connection four weeks in the future. That day eventually came, and what did I get? A box. A do-it-yourself internet box.
. . .
When it comes to culture, though, it’s London all the way. From the established theatres of Soho to the avant-garde productions that take place across the city, London is awash with great performances. New York hasn’t had that type of explosion since the early 1980s, and even then it was brief.
The gallery experience is also unmatched. There is always a blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern and slightly riskier fare at galleries such as the Whitechapel. Add to that the museum and opera options and you have a full deck.
Food-wise, New York gets the points. London never met a fried potato that it didn’t love – especially if dipped in gravy. And it’s ironic that the country that champions tea can’t figure out how to serve it chilled in the summer. Even in the most luxurious establishments, it is difficult to have food prepared other than raw or overcooked, and the notion of “on the side” often brings a harsh glare. New York is far from blameless but the prices in London for this level of cuisine border on the exorbitant.
As for luxury health and fitness, it’s a tight race as both New York and London pump those biceps. Both cities have celebrity trainers, nutritionists and spas. And, as many of us consider these some of life’s necessities, I will have to declare a tie between the two.
The personal style you see in London generally surpasses New York. Simply walking to work, I have seen full-on 1950s looks, mods that could be straight from the day, punk regalia and every Japanese-inspired art student . . . in fact such a variety of looks that they’re regularly featured in global publications and fashion blogs.
So as much as I’ll always love New York, London gets the edge. Good God – maybe I am becoming British!
Ed Burstell is managing director of Liberty London