The East India Company has a rich history, but can its relaunch with an opulent new shop in London do this justice?
Founded at the beginning of the 17th century, at the outset the East India Company was established to trade with the East Indies (for which read Indonesia), but latterly saw the majority of its revenues coming from China and India. As such, it ran until the last quarter of the 19th century, when it was finally dissolved and close to 300 years of corporate colonialism came to an end.
Since then, the East India Company has more or less mouldered as a footnote in British history until the rights to use name were acquired by an Indian entrepreneur in 2005. Now, 136 years after the company ceased to be a trading entity, it is up and running once more, albeit this time in the hands Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta, and the first evidence of its rebirth is to be found in central London’s Conduit Street.
Here Mehta, who is determined to make the name a force in contemporary luxury food retailing, has set up shop in a single-floor unit on one of the capital’s most upscale streets with an attention to detail rarely seen these days. It’s called, not altogether unsurprisingly, The East India Company and going from drawing board to finished shop has not come cheap. Mehta is reputed to have ploughed more than £12m into The East India Company ahead of the store opening, although not all of this has been spent on the shop and its design.
However, given this level of expenditure and the location, you’d be forgiven for expecting something at the better end of the food retailing spectrum and you would not be disappointed. Mehta hired design consultancy Four IV, which numbers Harvey Nichols, John Smedley and upmarket shirt retailer Duchamp among its clients, to translate his vision of a store that reflects a name based on the exotic and oriental coupled with a sense of history.
Positioned just inside the entrance and looking into the store, the initial panorama is of a highly wrought interior. Mehta comments: “There’s a reason for everything [in the shop]. It’s about lineage and authenticity and at the same time it has to be intellectual - we’re not a flashy brand.” There are also, as Chris Dewar-Dixon, creative director at Four IV, observes “some negative associations with the name”. He adds: “We’ve tried to pick out the best. The challenge has been not to make this a pastiche of the past.”
The end of history
Picking out the best of the name must have been quite difficult, allowing for the fact that the East India Company was a colonial and, inevitably, somewhat exploitative organisation, but one that has a vast array of design and history behind it. Dewar-Dixon points out that it was responsible, among other things, for introducing the paisley pattern to Europe. And for this reason alone, paisley features as a major design motif in the store and is used to embellish containers of the store’s principal category: tea.
This finds its strongest expression on the store’s back wall, a feature designed to grab the gaze of the visitor. Consisting of two four-shelved, internally lit cupboards with colonial style folding shutters, the space is filled with large silver tea caddies. Each of these has a paisley engraved pattern on its surface and is the culmination of a journey made by the visitor starting at the front of the shop who will, it is assumed, sniff (there are tea brass and wood tea-sniffing pots everywhere) his or her way to the waiting products lining the back wall.
It also provides an immediate sense of the exotic and of a traditional tea emporium. Tea looms large at every step. There are black mid-floor tables with carved legs bearing boxes of the stuff and the bulk of the right-hand wall is devoted to it. There is also space afforded to coffee, chocolates and preserves, but they are actually also-rans to the main event.
All of which might be to give the impression that this is a teashop with a few other bits and pieces, but this would be to do it a massive injustice and if you fancy some jam with pieces of gold leaf in it, you’re in the right place.
The finer details
The point about The East India Company store is detail and the counter immediately in front of the tea caddy wall serves to illustrate the point. In the normal run of things a retailer, even at the luxury end of things, would think that a good job had been done if a counter was constructed from heavily disguised MDF and then topped by a slab of expensive Corian. This would be expensive. In this store, however, the counter is fronted by wood with studded brass strips, old-style packing crate fashion, the rear of it is highly engineered thick plywood and the counter top is a single piece of streaked marble.
This would be impressive in its own right, but the thick marble top has a brass inlay with the following words from 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift: “Tea is water bewitched.” This is almost obsessive detail. It adds nothing to the store’s potential to sell, but does add to the sense of being witness to a small piece of history as well as visiting a shop.
Stare at the floor for a moment or two and the same attention is apparent. There’s a tiled mosaic pattern at the store entrance, followed by a pale oak panel, inset into the grey tiled floor, and beyond this is a large circular area that incorporates the heart shape that formed part of the East India Company’s chop (the Indo-Chinese term for a company’s brand symbol) in its original form.
And whether it’s the shopfit, which Dewar-Dixon says cost about £600,000, or the individual products - all of which have packaging on which care has been lavished over and above that which you might normally expect, even in a luxury environment - this is a store that rewards close scrutiny.
It’s also worth noting that many of the images that appear on the packaging have been taken from the archives of the Victoria & Albert museum, with whom Mehta’s family has an association. This means Dewar-Dixon and his team have been able to use much of what is available as a starting point for the interior. “The problem with designing this is that there’s so much to pick up on. It’s a matter of knowing where to stop,” says Dewar-Dixon.
Finally, it would be hard to leave without noticing the Madhur red ceiling and glass-fronted wall behind the cash desk. The latter has a gold iteration of the the East India Company’s coat of arms attached to it, reminding the onlooker of the brand’s provenance.
Mehta has spent a lot of money getting this off the ground and is quick to point out that discussions are already under way to open further standalone shops in major global cities as well as creating products spaces within department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Selfridges. The interesting point about all of this is that were the gentlemen of the East India Company around today there is probably much that they would find to endorse, but equally they might find it unsettlingly modern. This is retail heritage 21st century style.
The East India Company, London
Location Conduit Street
Size 2,000 sq ft
Design Four IV
Shopfitting Daw Green
Major design feature Tea caddy wall
Time from initial design idea to finished store Two years