Can US lifestyle retailer Anthropologie’s second UK store in Chelsea live up to the ideal set by its Regent Street flagship?

October 2009 was a key month in the development of lifestyle retailer Anthropologie. Having more or less conquered the US, with at least one store in almost every major city, Urban Outfitter’s sister brand spread its wings and opened its first store outside North America, in the UK.

The reviews that greeted its arrival on Regent Street were almost universally positive and with features such as an indoor “vertical garden” and a giant suspended stuffed toy in the shape of a narwhal, it was quite hard to see where Anthropologie might go next.

As of last week, we have the answer to that question. A second branch is now trading on London’s King’s Road and as a retail experience it is almost totally different from what visitors to the Regent Street store will have seen. And the reason for this is simple. The Regent Street flagship has three floors, this store has one.

Yet it is actually only about 2,000 sq ft short of the 10,000 sq ft selling area found in Regent Street. As such, there are many in this part of Chelsea who may be inclined to view this as just as much a flagship store for the area as the other branch, which is around three miles away.

And they might have good reason for doing so, because at first glance this is, if anything, rather better than the Regent Street store. The key to this is the building itself. The new store is housed in what was, until the early part of 2009, a faded and fading antiques market.

Out with the old

The building itself perhaps lacks the neo-classical grandeur of Regent Street, but on the other hand, its quirky gabled facade, topped by a modest look-out dome with a spike coming out of its top, has always been something of a landmark for the area. This may well be the reason that when Anthropologie revealed that it intended to take a lease on the store from landlord London & Associated, the move was greeted with considerable consternation locally.

The protest centred on the notion that Anthropologie would move into the space, strip it of its character and add to what was perceived to be the decline of this part of the King’s Road. In the event, the plans went through. Anthropologie took possession of the building in October and any doubts that there may have been from the well-heeled denizens of Chelsea have more or less evaporated in the face of what has been done, according to European chief executive James Bidwell.

From the outside, the store is subtle and stringent efforts have clearly been made to maintain the integrity of this listed building. Nevertheless, the window displays are eye catching. Hanging metal chairs have been covered in foliage and hyacinths (a living motif that is repeated elsewhere in the store) in one of the windows, while in another, chicken wire has been covered with fake grass and moss giving it an eco-feeling to entice passers-by.

And on the right-hand side of the store front there is a “gallery”, which almost looks as if it has little to do with Anthropologie as the brand name is mentioned nowhere on it. In a sense this is true as this is used as a space for objects and has the feel of a library-cum-display space about it, but it is very definitely part of the internal floor plan.

Step through the main door and you have in fact crossed a threshold that has been moved. Bidwell says that during the restoration of the building, the door was moved back to its position prior to the premises being used as an antiques market.

That was the point at which the interior housed two entirely discrete businesses. The front 5,000 sq ft was the “Temperance Billiards Hall”, designed to keep ne’er-do-wells off the booze as they learned how to waste time with cues and a few balls. The rear portion was home to a garage. Both had their own distinctive architecture and during the restoration of the garage, the mechanic’s pit was found, complete with a rusted car that had been interred in it.

The first thing that the visitor will see, however, are a series of square arches and antechambers before the first of these two large spaces is reached. The visual merchandisers have been busy here, clothing some of the space in the same fake moss as is used in the windows.

As in Regent Street, tables and recovered vintage furniture have been used in this part of the store, and throughout, but it is the arches - which frame a series of different spaces, free-standing and incorporated into the initial part of the store - that set the tone for what is to follow. Worth noting too are the bright blue mosaic-style Italian tiles used to help separate this introduction to the store from what follows.

Beyond this is the first of the two major areas and the view is remarkable. Oak floors, painstakingly restored stained glass windows, steel joists that support the roof (they were covered by a suspended ceiling prior to Anthropologie’s arrival) and free-standing pieces of metal equipment for the stock.

There are also circular tables, a fine looking wooden slat-back sofa and in the middle of all of this there is what looks like a semi-covered piece of scaffolding that is home to a table with a host of kitchen and dining related items.

Let there be light

What really impresses, however, is the sheer quality of the light. The Regent Street store has relatively high daylight levels compared with many of its neighbours, but this is in an entirely different league.

More square arches and steps provide ingress to the space that was formerly a garage. Here the saw-tooth roof, which has been completely restored, allows, if anything, even more daylight into the interior. Half of each of the triangular arches that form the basis of this ceiling is glazed, while the other portion is covered in reclaimed wood. And to get into the area, the shopper has to descend what looks to be grey, antique oak-cut into large planks and used as steps.

It is, of course, nothing of the kind. The steps are formed of cast concrete, treated to give them the appearance of wood. To the right of this there is a water garden, with an infinity pool that drizzles water over a concrete edge.

Bidwell says that in Anthropologie stores he likes to have a “garden feature” of some kind as it is part of what the brand is about. Into the second space proper and the area has been divided by a mix of free-standing walls, with an array of different surface treatments, and carefully orchestrated pieces of visual merchandising that really do have the effect of making you stop, look and consider buying.

Wherever you turn there is something worth pausing for and describing each of these would take longer than you might have patience to read about, but it is enough to say that this is a store that rewards slow perambulation, rather than a hurried visit.

And at one fell swoop, it has also become the most attractive looking store on the King’s Road. If you want a glimpse of what is possible with careful visual merchandising, sensitive architectural restoration and a huge amount of creativity, look no further.

With the opening of this Anthropologie store, Chelsea has gained very much more than it lost with the disappearance of a tired antiques market.

Anthropologie, King’s Road, London

  • Selling area 8,000 sq ft
  • Former occupants An antiques market and prior to this, a “Temperance Billiards Hall” and a garage
  • Design features Numerous, but it is the restoration that takes the prize
  • Shell architect David Liddell of Coleman Architects
  • Visual merchandising and design In-house
  • Future stores Locations have not been announced, although Paris may be under consideration