White Stuff has opened its biggest store yet, in Edinburgh, bringing an old building to life with cunning visual merchandising and plenty of humour. John Ryan visits
What do you do when something small proves successful? There are probably two obvious options: create more of the same or unveil something similar but bigger and hope that it works in the same way. There’s probably a moment at which the law of diminishing returns kicks in if you follow the latter path, but the trick is knowing when that point is reached.
Bigger stores seems to be the current modus operandi at fashion and, of late, homewares, retailer White Stuff, which has just opened its largest store to date. The new “emporium”, as creative director Lee Cooper dubs it, is in Edinburgh and at a little more than 6,000 sq ft is about double the size of any other branch in the chain.
The word ‘chain’ would probably be met with some dismay by White Stuff personnel, as the aim, in the words of head of shop interiors Lou Burnett, is that every shop should be a “local response to local people”. Even the term flagship is treated with suspicion by Cooper, who says that implicit within the word is the sense that other stores are in some way not as good. “What we have done is taken the same loveliness that you see in other stores and given even more of it,” he says.
This does sound a little like a PR sound bite, but the fact remains that while this store is bigger, it has exactly the same attitude as is prevalent in smaller shops.
It also happens to be in a very grand Georgian building on George Street in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town. Previously, the premises was the home of Grays, a hardware business that had occupied the site since 1903. The current generation of the family that owned the business had been increasingly disaffected with retailing and threw in the towel earlier this year, according to Cooper. The decision to acquire a lease on the building was taken on the basis of looking around and seeing the remnants of a grand Victorian/Edwardian interior where it had not been covered up by slat-wall and suspended ceiling tiles.
Less than four months after taking possession of the store, this interior bears little resemblance to what was there before. Stand on George Street in front of the store and the familiar blue and white logo has been replaced by a 19th century-looking gold one that states White Stuff of George Street. Cooper says that in spite of this being part of a chain and trading from two large floors, the aim has been to make the experience of the store relevant to Edinburgh and that previously Grays used to be Grays of George Street and therefore White Stuff followed suit.
The window displays are the same as in other branches, featuring fairy tale characters with a particularly toothsome Little Red Riding Hood wolf cut-out taking centre stage.
Before stepping into the shop, it’s worth noting the Victorian-style tessellated tiling that forms the doorstep. This is in fact a low ramp, taking the place of steps that used to form the entrance to the store. Now walk inside and the view is long and deep.
The front two thirds of the ground floor is dominated by womenswear, with menswear at the rear - Cooper says that the trading split women’s to men’s at White Stuff is about 70/30. The back of the shop is framed by pillared arches and the thing that really strikes you is that while there is plenty of room to move - thanks to the efforts of AMD Interior Architecture, the Kew-based architectural practice that worked on the project - every available inch has been thought about. All of the hallmarks that have made White Stuff an idiosyncratic retail experience are in evidence. Whether it’s the mounted heads of dead animals that have been dressed and placed at intervals along the perimeter wall, or the kitsch paintings that are, well, everywhere, you know where you are. As an interior however, this is White Stuff plus.
It is all about detail. Cooper comments that “White Stuff is one of the few out there that does the whole thing: catalogues, shops and online. There are others who do bits, but few who do it all”. And this shop is about gently reinforcing this multichannel approach. In the mid-shop therefore, there is a red telephone box (complete with a bulldog cocking its leg against it) in which there is a computer that allows you to browse ranges online.
The rest of the floor, however, is decidedly low-tech and relies for its impact upon a sense of humour and cunning visual merchandising. In practice, this means that the pictures that adorn the staircase walls, of the kind found in a pastiche 1950s suburban home, have been doctored so that a sultry Mediterranean lady, for example, has had
her modesty preserved by the application of nipple tassels. More or less the same lady has been painted onto the lift door - she divides when the lift doors open.
It’s worth noting at this point that there are no obvious signs of air conditioning and suchlike. The reason for this is that the plant has been buried in the divide between the two spaces that form this shop and the outflows are concealed within vintage furniture.
At the back of the floor, the men’s area features sheds that double up as fitting rooms - “It’s about bringing the outdoors indoors,” says Cooper. And indeed, there is an atrium in the middle of the shop over which a mannequin dangles her long tresses, Rapunzel-like, as she looks at a tree that reaches up from the ground floor.
The sheds have a particular appeal with vintage topless model calendars from The Sun in the 1970s and 1980s inside the door of each. Mercifully, the nipples have again been covered up with a brown felt-tip pen, although Cooper remarks: “We’ve already had complaints about this…from a man.”
Now head upstairs via an impressive Victorian wooden staircase and it’s more womenswear, vintage and homewares, the latter a new addition to the White Stuff offer.
This floor is also about visual merchandising fun and the highlight is without doubt the bank of fitting rooms that fill the back of the floor. These are, according to Cooper, like a visit to Narnia and as you approach the area the row of vintage wardrobe doors, all different, all in a line, provides an inkling of what you are about to see. Open any of the wardrobe doors and you are confronted by a different vista. Each door is a portal to a larger space - a masterful piece of building - ranging from a bathroom, complete with a lavatory (non-functional, the lid is glued down) to a Scottish-themed space, filled with bottles of Irn Bru (“with girders”), fancy dress party kilts and other Caledonian ephemera.
There is another 3,000 sq ft floor above all of this, which Cooper says will be traded at some point in 2011. This is the first “emporium” for White Stuff, another follows shortly in Nottingham, with Bath and London both due to get one in the near future.
It is the retailer’s biggest store investment to date and the constraint upon other stores of the kind appearing is the availability of suitable sites, according to Cooper. If you want to see what is possible with imagination and a talented visual merchandising team, however, look no further.
White Stuff, Edinburgh
Location 89 George Street
Size 6,300 sq ft over two floors
Store category An ‘emporium’
Previous tenant A hardware retailer
Architecture AMD Interior Architecture, Kew
Reason for visiting A visual merchandising tour de force