As high street retailers join the “push for posh”, blurring the line between themselves and high-end players, can luxury stores maintain their point of difference? John Ryan reports.

Luxury used to be a relatively simple in-store concept. It was more or less everything that the mid-market was not: quality fixturing, room to move and products to kill for. That was fine, but the world has moved on. Conflated terms such as Primarni (Primark and Armani) and Pratalan (Prada and Matalan) have become part of retail vocabulary and do much to indicate the turn that events have taken.

The mid-market and even the value end of the retail spectrum all aspire to be something that they are not. It brings to mind former deputy prime minister John Prescott’s remark in the mid-1990s that “we’re all middle-class now”. It looks as if he might have had some kind of prescient sixth sense.

The reality is that retailers’ “push for posh” as Howard Saunders, creative director at Echochamber phrases it, is something that has been gathering pace for a number of years and it probably means better high street shops all round. There is, however, still a considerable gulf between the value and mid-market retailers and those at the top end.

Daniel Beardsley, a director at Found Associates, which counts Kurt Geiger, Selfridges and Anya Hindmarch among its clients, says: “I don’t think it makes any difference. If somebody buys a bag from the ground floor in Harvey Nichols, they’re not going to be too bothered that a player such as New Look has brought in an upmarket range.”

While luxury is about perception, it still costs to create an upscale shopping environment. Beardsley says that creating a store to satisfy the demands of mid-market shoppers will typically cost about£120 a sq ft (£1,292 a sq m). This rises sharply to£200 to£250 a sq ft (£2,153 to£2,691 a sq m), he says, to build a luxury environment. Alison Cardy, managing director at Hosker Moore Kent Melia (HMKM), a design consultancy that works with Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, argues the costs are higher still – in some cases as much as£350 a sq ft (£3,767 a sq m).

Cardy and Beardsley should have a good idea of the costs involved because most luxury retailers do not run an in-house store design department, opting instead to outsource projects to consultancies.

These higher costs should reflect the quality of materials used and the level of finishing, creating a better-looking shop all round. However, Ian Caulder, joint managing director of design consultancy Caulder Moore, warns that even luxury retailers have to be mindful of pressing financial reality. “There is a need to bring more commerciality to the luxury market. In a lot of cases, a store can look great, but is over-designed. Retailers need to create a store that looks great, but which still functions as a shop,” he says.

He cites Gina, an upmarket Bond Street shoe shop on which he worked, as an example of treading this fine line. “We tried to individualise each piece, in terms of the way in which it is displayed, but at the same time to bring a reasonable density into the store. There’s a lot of product in that store and a lot of different options,” he says.

Exclusive rights

But at what point does the mid-market become upmarket? Selfridges is a case in point. This is a store that claims to be about luxury for everybody.

On some level, it could be argued that this defeats the whole point of luxury retailing – namely that it is supposed to be exclusive – but it does highlight the growing Primarni tendency. Today, luxury environments, other than the ultra-exclusive boutiques, are more egalitarian than ever, as shoppers mix and match merchandise from the value end of the market with products from the upper echelons. And customers, it seems, are just as happy at either end of the retail spectrum.

HMKM creative director Christian Papa says that one of the consequences of mass luxury, or “masstige” as it has popularly become known, is that retail interiors that were once created to be exclusive now enjoy a far higher footfall than might originally have been anticipated.

Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on the Champs-Elysées in Paris has coach-loads of visitors deposited outside its doors, resulting in queues of people waiting to be allowed entry into the shop. Store design will therefore have to be more durable if it is to keep looking as good as the day it was minted, according to Papa. This may mean splashing out on yet more expensive materials and the need to refresh the fit-out more frequently than store owners would have hoped.

It is also possible to have different levels of luxury within the same store. The opening of the Wonder Room in Selfridges last year is a case in point. The area, which sells a mix of top-end luxury items, functions almost as a separate store and while the masses can admire it through the corner windows at the west end of the building, it is unlikely that many people will spend much time inside, other than to have the briefest of gawps.

But HMKM’s work on large parts of the rest of the Oxford Street store is more typical of the accessible luxury that has put Selfridges on London’s must-visit retail map. Here the emphasis is on visual merchandising as much as design. In one of the women’s department’s, for instance, a whitewashed minimalist tree helps to create an overwhelming impression of space. A similar technique has been employed in Harrods, where HMKM has added a series of mannequins on swings to the women’s accessories department in the Knightsbridge store. Combined with the gold pillars, the effect is one of space and opulence.

Beardsley says visual merchandising is more evident in top-end stores because they can afford the luxury of a more leisurely approach. “They operate on different margins and there is a higher proportion of budget devoted to visual merchandising,” he says. He notes that, given this state of affairs, graphics, which form a major part of any retail proposition, can be changed more frequently and to greater effect than in the mass market.

This also means luxury brands that have stores all over the world can keep a tight control over the way in which their products are presented. Cardy says that Prada may have showcase stores in locations such as New York or Tokyo, but the great bulk of its sales come from shop-in-shops, where the environments are broadly interchangeable and have been created from an admittedly expensive kit of parts.

Luxury, then, is not what it once was. Most people now feel comfortable in environments that would once have been seen as targeting a very narrow segment of the population. But in these enlightened times, luxury is available to all who can afford the trinkets and accessories associated with the big brands, even if the full branded monty is out of reach.

It is this that has led to the notion of the luxury street. This is the direction that has been taken by Regent Street as The Crown Estate continues to remodel one of its best-looking assets. David Shaw, head of Regent Street strategy and development at The Crown Estate, says: “While high-end luxury and the Donna Karans of the world have traditionally sat just off Regent Street, we have been working hard to attract luxury diffusion brands. With Armani Exchange, Calvin Klein, Burberry, Aquascutum and Jaeger all calling Regent Street home, we now offer an accessible interpretation of luxury retail for London’s West End.”

Has a point been reached where retail can offer luxury for all? The idea that it is the sole preserve of high net-worth individuals may be waning. But whether everyone will waltz into a Prada flagship and emerge clad from head to toe in the brand’s wares remains another question entirely.

Fortnum & Mason

You know you’ve found a true luxury environment when the Prince of Wales shows up to reopen a refurbished store.

Fortnum & Mason is perhaps best known for its fine food and upscale provisions, but beyond the two floors devoted to things to put in the mouth, a non-food world awaits. HMKM worked on most of the non-food areas and ran into budget problems fairly early on because most of the available money had been spent on the food halls. The result is that a series of focal points were created, aimed at capturing a sense of luxury without breaking the bank.

The perfume counter on the second floor (pictured), in particular, works at this level. Its mirrored art-deco structure would not look out of place in The Great Gatsby and the large glass-stoppered decanters of scent that sit on its top add to the feeling.

The store shows that luxury can be applied sparingly and the result can still be impressive. At the official opening party at the end of last year, Prince Charles seemed to approve.