Austin Reed has opened its new flagship on Regent Street, but has enough been done to give the brand relevance? John Ryan reports.
When news broke that Austin Reed was to vacate its store at the lower end of Regent Street, there were many who said that it was symptomatic of a brand whose time had run its course.
With more than 100 years of trading under its gentlemanly belt, this is a brand with both heritage and tradition on its side, but as its flagship store was being taken by Superdry, there was a sense that perhaps a younger pretender was taking over.
The fairly obvious question was whether a brand that is posited predominantly on men’s formalwear is needed, and if so, how do you go about making it relevant for a modern shopper?
Now we have the answer. Moving across the road to occupy the former Aquascutum store and giving the interior a makeover seems to make sense from a financial perspective (Superdry is understood to have paid a premium for the Austin Reed site). But is this enough to convince the modern man of a certain age and a relatively stable income that this is the place to go shopping?
Mark Pinney, of the eponymous London-based architectural practice Mark Pinney Architects, says: “The problem was how do you take a brand that’s been around for a long time and breathe some life into it?”
Pinney, who was retained to work on the Austin Reed project following a beauty parade that saw him up against close to 10 other design and architectural firms, continues: “The task was to take elements of the DNA of Austin Reed and to offer them up in a new and more contemporary way. The product was generally better than the environment before and it’s a bloody good product.”
Practically, this means that while externally this 22,000 sq ft store, set over three floors, may look the same as when it was an Aquascutum flagship, internally it has been almost completely remodelled – despite menswear being at the heart of both brands.
Since the revamp, completed last March, there is still a vestigial Aquascutum presence when you walk through the door. However, on the first floor, both mood and physical environment are almost completely different. Initially, the ground floor is about men’s casualwear – probably not the first thing that springs to mind when the brand is mentioned.
But forgetting the product for a moment, what the shopper encounters is a fairly generous decompression zone just inside the front door and then it’s straight into some low units set on an oiled oak floor.
The ambient lighting is subdued, with the emphasis on highlighting individual parts of the floor, but it is the graphics that jump out. These are translucent, backlit and feature recoloured versions of Austin Reed adverts from the 1930s. Taking the form of films applied to floor-to-ceiling glass screens, they do exactly what Pinney refers to when he says the store is about taking the traditional and making it applicable for a contemporary audience.
Walk deeper into the store and you move beyond casualwear and arrive at the shirts and accessories part of the floor. This is where the menswear with a twist becomes apparent. The modus operandi for many retailers selling shirts is to organise things by size. This is fine except that frequently when a style catches the eye, it turns out not to be available in a size that fits.
In order to avoid this, Austin Reed in Regent Street now has what Pinney refers to as “a gallery”. In more everyday terms, this turns out to be a perimeter unit that describes a long, lazy curve along the wall and which allows individual shirts to be displayed with all of the relevant sizes beneath each style.
As should be the case, the ambience is distinctly masculine with low lighting and the perimeter unit discreetly lit from below and above.
In front of this, across the slate-grey floor, there is a mid-shop unit for tie displays that mirrors the curve of the shirt wall. In total, the wall allows for 60 shirt styles to be shown off and the generally sombre surrounds of this area mean that the stock, which tends to be in lighter colours, stands out.
The other point about the shirt shop-in-shop is the pillars. Normally, these might not be worthy of comment, but in this store they add much to the overall look and feel of the interior. They are in fact the same pillars as were in place when the store was an Aquascutum, but the cladding and concrete on each has been stripped back to reveal the rivet-studded skeleton. The sense is industrial and contemporary and if you were to put these in the forthcoming Superdry across the street they probably wouldn’t look out of place.
Pillars of the community
There are two other features on this floor that won’t go unnoticed. The first of these is a large plasma screen located next to the staircase which tells, in fast-forward motion, the fast-track nature of the store fit-out. It proves strangely compelling. The other point is the staircase itself. This is in fact a reconfigured version of the staircase that was in place when Aquascutum occupied the store, but like the pillars it has been denuded of much of its original cladding, with glass and plain wood being used to create a modern vista.
Upstairs, on the first floor, the underlying structure that preceded the refit is still in place, with a series of open-fronted rooms being accessed via what Pinney refers to as “a street” (a walkway created from tiles), but each of these has been revamped along the lines of the ground floor. The furniture on this level is also worth noting as there are deco and faux-deco chairs and sofas that provide a plushly relaxed feel to the whole.
The floor is home to shoes, coats, jackets and trousers and Aquascutum, although the latter is a much-reduced version of what was here before. There is also womenswear. The mood in this part of the shop changes pretty abruptly with the dark wood giving way to beige and white with a gazebo-like structure at its centre. Womenswear is clearly a relatively minor part of the Austin Reed offer, its location says as much, but this does function pretty well as a discrete area within the store. Viyella, which was acquired by Austin Reed in 2009, will open in a connected 2,000 sq ft space later this month.
Finally, it’s up to the top floor, which is where men’s suits and the Austin Reed bespoke service is given space. As this is the top end of the offer, a bar has been installed with a TV monitor where you can sit and watch Sky Sports if the fancy takes you. Drinks run from Taittinger champagne to Asahi or Peroni beer, with orange or tomato juice for the more abstemious.
All in all, this is a world away from Austin Reed as it was when it was across the street and it is the better for it. The real challenge for the retailer is how does it take the good work that has been done here and translate this for use in the provinces – Southampton and Stratford-upon-Avon, for instance, remain a long way from London.
Austin Reed, Regent Street
Size 22,000 sq ft
Design and refit cost £3m
Project length 16 weeks
Number of floors Three
Design Mark Pinney
If the suit fits
Austin Reed chief executive Nick Hollingworth on the new store:
“I always hated the store we were in [across Regent Street]. It was too big, so we always had to fill it up with brands we didn’t necessarily want in. When we signed for this store there was a really fundamental problem that we needed to address. For a lot of people we just weren’t on their agenda. The question was: How do you make heritage a real benefit? The danger, if you’re not careful, is that you look a bit old-fashioned. What we asked Mark [Pinney] to do was to keep elements of our heritage but to look modern while doing so.
“We actually need to take less money than we took when we were across the road, because the shop is smaller. The new store not only looks good, but it also works well financially – it’s already taking as much as when we were across the road.”