Frasers, the Glaswegian House of Fraser flagship, has come to the end of revamping its ground floor. As John Ryan discovers, the results have been spectacular

House of Fraser’s association with Glasgow stretches back to the department store group’s founding fathers in the middle of the 19th century. Even today, the head office may be in London, but much of the chain’s heritage is intimately associated with Scotland’s commercial capital.

And it would be hard to visit central Glasgow without catching at least a glimpse of Frasers, the local House of Fraser branch and flagship, so dominant is its presence at the point where Buchanan and Argyle Streets meet. From the outside, this is a department store in the grand style, as befits a mighty Victorian city. But as is the case with any large building, the older it becomes, the more dated the interior appears and it becomes a matter of restoration and, to an extent, sympathetic modernisation.

It’s a process that has been ongoing at Frasers for some years now and Retail Week last visited in September 2008, when the menswear department, on the first floor, had been overhauled. Back then, this was seen as a major step forward. It was, but that still left the other floors.

Now the revamp of the ground floor is complete and in many ways this is a more significant milestone than the first floor makeover, if only because it’s the first thing that the shopper encounters when entering.

Flooring it

Director of store development David Blakeney lists three elements that he says make a difference on this floor: shop-in-shops, click-and-collect and Biba. Work started on this part of the store in March last year, following a blueprint provided by Kinnersley Kent Design (KKD), the consultancy that has worked long-term with House of Fraser. And the outcome is certainly surprising.

The difference is clear from the moment you turn the corner into Buchanan Street. At the risk of being London-centric you expect to see brands such as Prada and Gucci in the windows of their eponymous stores along hallowed (and very pricey) thoroughfares such as Bond Street and the Brompton Road, but probably not in a Glaswegian department store. In fairness, the city’s Merchant Quarter, a few hundred metres to the east, has plenty of designer names, but putting these into a department store is still unexpected.

Yet here they are, with the Prada window, in particular, setting upmarket expectations about what you’re going to see when you step inside. A number of the windows allow views into the shop interior. “You don’t want to give up windows, but you want to give people a chance to know what you do,” says Blakeney.

And depending on which door you choose to use enter by, you’ll find either the beauty hall or the shop-in-shops. Blakeney is keen to show off the latter and first up are Gucci, Prada, sister brand Miu Miu and Hermès. “It’s a great place for us to trial the brands and for them to trial us,” he says.

Even if you were unfamiliar with the look and feel of these, it would be hard to miss them as their names have been set into the marble floor at the entrance to each shop-in-shop. Blakeney says that getting brands to behave in a uniform manner in a department store is always something of a challenge, but that “there has to be integrity in terms of densities, height and size”.

The other minor detail to be dealt with in almost every store interior of this size and age is the fact that it is highly unlikely to be a contiguous whole. Instead, Frasers’ ground floor is a series of highly discrete rooms with a central atrium that is home to the beauty department. This is perfect for the creation of shop-in-shops, but it does carry the mild problem of how shoppers can navigate their way around the space.

Stepping up

Frasers, Glasgow

  • Total store size 200,000 sq ft
  • Ground floor footprint 60,000 sq ft
  • Local design and department fit-out Havelock
  • Trials Miu Miu, Prada and ‘Apothecary’
  • Standout feature The beauty hall

In this store, there are even different levels on the same floor - something that Blakeney and his team have turned to advantage with steps and glamorous mirrored corridors that join rooms and act as tempters to attract shoppers to explore further.

Each of the shop-in-shops has been allowed its own character, but Blakeney says that the House of Fraser “brand DNA that we established at Westfield” has been maintained in this store. Move beyond the shop-in-shops and you enter the accessories area, again a series of rooms, with pride of place going to the jewellery area where black mid-shop counters topped by glass display cabinets are internally lit by strings of LED lights.

And as a progress is made around the floor, there are the sparkly black marble terrazzo tiles that were used in Westfield, but they are used to provide a link to the branch of Yo! Sushi, rather than being deployed across the whole of the floor, which Blakeney says would be over the top.

The shoe department, with its curved display fixtures and the curved, gold-sprayed display rails in the Biba area are also impressive. Blakeney says that finding a supplier that could reliably create Biba fixtures in gold proved a headache and that there are only a few manufacturers who can do this in the UK.

Up to this point, the floor is “a series of self-contained worlds. It makes shopping easier”, as Blakeney puts it. But through another room you emerge into the light and height of the beauty hall. Every department store that means business has one of these and they are usually given prime position. Frasers is no exception, but what is on view is spectacular. Perhaps like the Galleries Lafayette flagship in Paris, what really captures the eye, among all of the high-gloss glamour of the branded cosmetic houses, is the architecture. “We’re combining a 160-year old building with modern shopfitting,” says Blakeney. “We’ve worked to let the architecture be seen,” he adds.

The carved pillars, balconies and dark wood staircase bear out his words, but the large space also works in terms of being able to provide sightlines through it - quite unusual. In part this has to be the outcome of a rectangular space that encourages a linear layout, but nonetheless, the clarity is noteworthy.

At the far end of the hall is a new House of Fraser department called ‘Apothecary’. This probably takes its cue from the semi-clinical name and success of cosmetics retailer Space NK Apothecary, but in place of the white pseudo-scientific ambience provided by that retailer, this is about old-fashioned pharmacy, full of small boxes and jars. The effect is positive and House of Fraser’s own brand manages to differentiate itself from the mainstream brands without shouting House of Fraser private label.

At 60,000 sq ft, this makeover is the kind of thing that is more normally associated with a total store overhaul. All in all it has involved forking out about £10m, but it does look worth it. It is, however, hard to resist the thought that by the time the upper floors are done, at some point later in this decade, it may be time to start thinking about menswear once more. But then Forth Rail Bridge-style projects are a feature of this part of the world.