Sports fashion retailer JD Sports has opened a store in Cardiff with a glossy take on a traditionally lacklustre sub-sector.

At what point does sportswear become fashion? And how can you separate performance on the field from will o’ the wisp modishness? The answer is probably to be found on high streets the length of the country, where the young and not so young, slim and distinctly overweight strut around in variations of clothing that in days gone by were the preserve of the well-toned and athletic.

Fashion sportswear has been a mainstay of the shopping mall for years, with retailers such as Sports Direct, JJB Sports and a host of independents all offering sportswear of the kind that is more likely to be sported in the pub than on the track.

But there is one sports retailer that makes no bones about its positioning in the marketplace. JD Sports is a retailer that sells fashion first - although sportsmen and women may also find it useful. So, board the train at Paddington and, almost before you know it, you’ll be in Cardiff, home of the retailer’s latest store thinking. Here, on Queen Street, the city’s principal open-air shopping thoroughfare, JD Sports has chosen to open a flagship store, designed by specialist retail consultancy Briggs Hillier, that will set the standard for the rest of the chain and which, by any standards, is deeply impressive.

Stand outside this 29,525 sq ft store and the first thing to strike you is the triple height of the frontage. To the left of the main door a large, canary yellow totem carries the silver JD Sports logo, while to the right a series of shelves are clustered together under the neon-lit legend ‘King Of Trainers’.

The store’s manager, Craig Dobbs, says that this is the JD Sports branch that has had the most money spent on it by the retailer. Walk inside and that immediately becomes apparent: this store has capital expenditure written all over it. It is also one of the largest of JD Sports’ stores: the Liverpool One store is bigger, says Dobbs, but the scale of the atrium in the Cardiff store is spectacular.

There are three floors, two of which are used for trading. The third serves as back office and stockroom. The atrium reaches up through all three. Steel gantries attached to its perimeter are used as platforms for a series of mannequins striking poses in street and sports fashionwear, which gaze down on the scene below.

In the normal run of things, this would be fairly standard stuff for a fashion store, but it is the sheer scale that sets it apart here. What also catches the eye is that the gantries are not uniform: steps lead from one level to another, adding interest to the scene. The mannequins have been positioned around the space as though enacting a west-of-the-Severn version of West Side Story, boosting the visual merchandising impact.

Theatrical space

The theatrical nature of this space is reinforced by the simple use of single-coloured fluorescent tubes suspended from above within the atrium and, as if we needed reminding of the window’s ‘King Of Trainers’ message, by tubes fashioned into the shape of a crown.

On the first floor is a glitzy balcony, which permits shoppers on the floor below to view the LED-lit fixtures that display the training shoes above.

Now, at last, you are free to examine the rest of the shop and look at the way in which it has been laid out.

And it really is very simple. The ground floor is about clothing - T-shirts, McKenzie-branded denim, Duffer of St George casualwear and hoodies, with women’s fashion and reductions at the back. On the first floor it is all about footwear.

The shop is long and relatively narrow and the staff are stationed along its length on both floors. Signage and navigational aids are effective, but are kept to a minimum, as it is a fairly easy matter to find your way from one end of the store to the other. The focal point of the ground floor is the cash desk, which uses the same yellow flash set against a white background that defines the window-line.

Also worth noting are the oblong boxes, whose edges are studded with LED lights, that are arranged in asymmetrical groups on the wall and used to illuminate brightly coloured tops or training shoes (with the obligatory neon crown taking pride of place within the box).

The display equipment is organised to give shoppers plenty of room to move - a feature that is uncommon at this end of the market.

But it is only when you ride the escalator to the first floor that the store exerts its true appeal. Starting with the floor, which is surfaced with high-gloss black tiles (a contrast with the ground floor’s matt grey), almost no effort seems to have been spared to create an environment in which the trainer is perceived to be king.

At the front of the first floor, a balcony allows you to peer into the atrium. Then comes the mid-floor equipment, again in the form of freestanding boxes, arranged around a bright yellow, circular banquette with TV monitors attached to a pole that rises out of its middle.

It is symptomatic of the generally masculine nature of this store that the space devoted to womenswear of any kind is probably rather less than 25%. On the first floor, the yellow banquette has, at each of its corners, hand-held gaming consoles, which retract into the seat. This attraction might work for some of the 50% of the population that is not male, but it has clearly been designed with groups of young(ish) males in mind.

The floor’s high-gloss continues as you move further into the space, leaving the trainers for men behind. These are followed by women’s and children’s running shoes and then, at the back, there is a glass-topped table football fixture, which marks the point at which the rugby (this is Cardiff) and football area begins.

And, just in case you can’t quite work out what this part of the shop is for, there is a large graphic hanging on the wall featuring a picture of the Millennium Stadium.

Dobbs says that this store is intended to form a template for other JD Sports stores and has been designed to act as a showpiece. It is certainly different from its rivals and there is a sense that what Cardiff’s shoppers are being offered is a sports fashion store in which they will not be made to feel that sportswear is the low-cost option.

There is definitely a sense that this is a store that has been worked on and designed - something that is decidedly lacking in many similar retail stores that tread the tricky line between fashion and performance wear.

JD Sports in Cardiff may lack the sporting credentials of, say, a Nike Town but, if it can replicate what has been achieved here in other major locations, it will have a format that should help to ensure it remains a competitor.