By the time 2008 is done and dusted, House of Fraser will have opened five stores. And whether it’s Belfast, High Wycombe, Bristol, White City or Glasgow that you choose to look at, they will all be of the same high quality that has become the retailer’s hallmark of late. However, keen House of Fraser observers will have noticed an inaccuracy in the first sentence. Isn’t there already a store in Glasgow and hasn’t it been there forever?
The answers are: yes and almost. Since 1849 Glasgow’s Buchanan Street has played host to a House of Fraser store in the grand buildings that house the present one and any list that includes it as a new store must clearly be wrong. And externally this is certainly the case. Most of the shops along this regal pedestrianised thoroughfare are Grade I Listed and it would therefore be surprising if anything at all was done to the fabric of the buildings other than the occasional clean-up.
And until very recently, House Of Fraser shoppers might well have thought something of the kind about the interior of this 200,000 sq ft (18,580 sq m) store. But on Thursday last week things changed. In an interior that even the management admitted was due for a facelift is a sparkling new first floor.
In the normal run of things, this would probably be insufficient to merit comment; the ground floor is due for an overhaul next year and the two remaining floors above the first will have their turn in 2010, when the project will be wrapped up.
The point however is that this floor alone has had such a root-and-branch makeover and is such a beacon for House of Fraser stores to come, that it deserves a visit. And this is the justification for putting it alongside its much newer sisters.
The first-floor project is also something of a feat when compared with a new store. It may not be easy building a large-footprint store and dividing it up according to the dictates of modern department store retailing, but it is a whole lot more straightforward than having to do so within the confines of an existing listed structure.
Amyas Wade, director at Kinnersley Kent Design (KKD), who leads the team that is transforming this space, says that the listed status has been part of the challenge and is what has made it such an interesting project to work on. “What we were asked to do was simple: take this store and turn it into the best department store in Scotland,” he says.
Wade started with an inherent advantage – the building’s internal architecture. The current structure is an amalgamation of five different buildings, meaning that it is far from uniform in shape. However, it does mean that when KKD and shopfitter and project manager Havelock Europa, led by design director John Gillespie, approached the project, they were confronted by the kind of interior that just doesn’t get built today. The outstanding feature of this is a four-floor-high atrium with galleries either side and an arched roof.
The new menswear area is a transplant. Four months ago, menswear in its entirety was on the ground floor and occupied about 20,000 sq ft (1858 sq m), according to House of Fraser head of buying Jackie Hay. The move up to the first floor has doubled the size of the department, while the numerous rooms that comprise this floor have meant that many of the brands have in effect been given their own, almost self-contained, shop.
There is, for instance, a Ralph Lauren room, kitted out in the English-cum-American gentleman’s style that characterises the brand. This is at the front of the shop and is accessed by a single entrance. Its size is as substantial as many standalone branded shops and typifies what has been done with the floor.
Beyond Lauren lies the Paul Smith shop, positioned to allow shoppers a prime view of the atrium. Along the right-hand side of the gallery is the accessories shop, which Wade seems particularly proud of. “You’ve seen this?”, he asks, pointing down the narrow, open corridor that stretches away towards the back of the floor. “It’s got new fixturing for this store.” The accessories corridor leads to the shoe shop, another high point.
Like the Lauren shop, the shoe shop is another room on its own. It is an exercise in design restraint and modernity. Dark wood boxes with translucent, internally illuminated tops form the display elements of the room and they are piled on top of each other in different configurations to create visual interest. Along a runway in the middle are a range of Prada shoes – looking elegant in these suave surroundings.
Beyond the atrium, galleries and shoe shop, the shopper walks through room after room. Each one has its own sense of pace and is different from every other room. General manager John Thain says that a sound system has been installed that allows each room to have its own kind of music, in keeping with the merchandise that is on offer.
It is all part of what Kay refers to as “zoning” the floor and there is no mistaking the division between the floor’s more formal elements and the casual rooms where names such as Superdry and G-Star Raw bring the top end of fashion’s mid-market to Glasgow’s style enthusiasts.
Thain explains the logic that underpins this floor and the others that will follow. “We sat down in 2006 with a blank piece of paper and said: ‘If we opened a store in Glasgow, what would it look like?’” Thain is clearly a fan of chairman Don McCarthy. “Since he arrived [when House of Fraser went private in 2006], the way a House of Fraser store looks has really changed. The brands now fit right up to the ceiling.”
Creating this floor took four months and has cost£7 million. When the store’s facelift is complete, in 2010, a total of£30 million will have been spent – a sum that would buy a pretty respectable department store built from scratch.
However, it’s worth noting that if you are redesigning a store in its entirety while observing the niceties of dealing with a listed building, you have more or less created something completely new anyway.
The menswear department in Glasgow, with its very distinct shop-in-shops, is probably the best of its kind north of the border and, as Thain notes: “You’d have to go a long way south to find anything better.”