Burlington Arcade, New Bond Street, Oxford Circus and Knightsbridge. London’s most famous shopping districts conjure up images of grand 19th century buildings, heaving sidewalks and vast flagship stores. They’ve been written about in novels, they’re open seven days a week and are always packed with shoppers—making them essential to the city’s economy, its reputation and its tourism industry.
Due to the centralized nature of the U.K., how London spends its money continues to have a major impact on the national fashion industry as a whole. The capital makes up nearly a quarter of all retail sales in the U.K., according to McKinsey, and is home to the majority of the country’s most affluent urban demographic groups. It’s also one of the most polarized places in the U.K.—there are more of the country’s super-rich, as well as more young professionals, than anywhere else in Britain. Alongside them are high volumes of the least affluent members of the country.
This wealth imbalance is partly why London’s center of gravity has shifted. The younger, professional consumer is the one that has had the most significant impact on London shopping locations. These young shoppers have money to spend—but not an abundance of it—they are brand conscious, and they are constantly seeking a new experience.
As astronomical rents and an influx of foreign ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWI) have priced most of them out of Zone 1, the department stores and shopping streets of central London have lost their cool factor. They may be beautiful (Mayfair), traditional (Harrods) and rammed with people (Oxford Circus), but many Londoners are turning elsewhere to buy their wares.
Department stores were once the beating heart of London’s shopping scene. Trends were made and sold in the hallowed hallways of Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. But with the arguable exception of the latter, department stores have lost their cachet and young shoppers are swapping the stores their grandmothers loved for new districts.
Most of these are now found in east London—with the exception of Dover Street Market, that denizen of cool in W1, just off Piccadilly Circus, which has spawned similar retail empires in New York, Beijing and Shanghai.
It may be a stone’s throw from St James’s Park, but the ambiance of Dover Street Market is pure east London. Highly fashionable, intimidatingly creative and packed with the under-40s, it is the future of British fashion. In Redchurch Street, Hackney Wick and Mile End, shoppers are drawn to similar fashion collectives. The next two years will see this doubling thanks to ambitious plans to make east London the global center of fashion technology.
The recent launch of the Fashion District—a new hub for London’s fashion industry—aims to return world-leading fashion manufacturing and design to east London, with sites in East Bank, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Hackney Wick, Haringey and Poplar, where there will also be major shopping centers built. This new hub aims to boost growth through thousands of new jobs, improving skills and training, and creating new affordable retail spaces.
Throughout the capital’s history, the east end has been at the center of fashion manufacturing—from silk weaving in Spitalfields to all the work of the seamstresses and tailors. Currently, 23 percent of London’s fashion enterprises and shops are based in east London, and this new hub will support further growth through training and provision of technology used in fashion production—3-D printing, laser cutting, interactive and wearable fabrics—and design software. The vast new retail spaces, meanwhile, will lure customers away from Oxford Street when they open in 2020.
“The Fashion District encapsulates what we’re doing on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park: bringing together a cluster of exciting organizations to collaborate and innovate—and at the same time, nurturing local talent and generating new jobs for east Londoners,” says Lyn Garner, CEO of the London Legacy Development Corporation. “The growth in the fashion industry represents a real opportunity for London, and we will be investing in local people and local businesses to make sure this is a real success.”
Then there is Bicester Village. You may not know it, but this rural English shopping center, 40 minutes from London, is more popular with Chinese tourists than Buckingham Palace. The artificial high street boasts astronomical visitor numbers, with 6.4 million people treading its perfectly maintained retail avenue last year.
It has all the big names—cool cachet brands such as Roksanda, Christopher Kane and Orlebar Brown join mega labels such as Prada, Gucci, Armani and Versace. The draw, however, is not so much the names as the bargains throughout the village (which is about the same length as Oxford Street) where there are impressive price cuts, making ultra-expensive brands almost affordable.
Elsewhere, London is swapping traditional high street shopping for the Americanized comfort of a shopping mall, with Westfield, Broadway’s Shopping Centre and Hay’s Galleria luring customers away from traditional European-style outdoor shopping.
And while the ornate passageways and grand flagship stores of the city center will never lose their appeal—for the moment, it seems London is turning east and looking for bargains.