The opening of the eagerly awaited Westfield London is now less than a day away from opening and many retailers are putting their best foot forward. In an exclusive preview, John Ryan checks out some of its stores.

In retail circles, 2008 may well go down as the year in which the crunch became the crumble as banks folded, retailers went under and lines of credit to run businesses ran dry. With the benefit of hindsight however, it may also be seen as the year in which a number of very grand retail developments finally welcomed their first shoppers. By the end of this month, Leicester, Bristol, Liverpool, Livingston and finally Wrexham will all have become the recipients of shiny new schemes bringing, it is hoped, improved retail and massive urban regeneration.

However, impressive as these shopping centres are, they will all be eclipsed by the opening next week of Westfield London in White City, a scheme that its developers are anticipating will have far-reaching effects on the shopping habits of practically every Londoner who lives north of the Thames.

Unpicking the origin of the name, one of the bolder claims made by the Australian developer at the end of last year was that it had “succeeded in renaming a suburb”. Whether or not we eventually come round to substituting the name White City with Westfield London remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt that the scale of this undertaking has been epic.

When it flings wide its doors on October 30, the 43 acre Westfield London site will be edging towards having 300 retailers, 40 of which will be located in The Village, an area set aside for upscale retailers and anchored by Louis Vuitton. Beyond this, there will be five major anchor stores, a 14-screen cinema and close to 50 eateries – all of which has led Westfield to forecast that the centre will be visited by 21 million people annually.
But has Westfield done enough? Have the mall’s marble floors, double-height units and spectacular undulating glass roof proved sufficient to persuade its tenants to create stores that stand out from everywhere else? And will the customers come?

We may be in recession, but openings like this don’t happen very often. The issue for Westfield London is one of timing. Nobody could have predicted the scale of the current financial crisis a year ago, when Westfield was already up and running with its marketing campaign for the centre. And when we emerge from the current trough, Westfield London will still be there.

As things stand, on the basis of a gentle stroll around the development, it would seem that if they’re in the mood for a little conspicuous consumption, shoppers are in for a treat. Here, we look at some of the most striking stores.

Karen Millen

Karen Millen boasts a new look at Westfield with an angled fascia and a series of mirrored plinths piled on top of each other that form the lower part of the window. This sets the store apart from its neighbours, all of which have flat shopfronts. The store is different inside too, with a series of large circular shades overhead, also mirrored, that rotate at the rate of one revolution a minute. Adam Brinkworth, founder and director at design consultancy Brinkworth, says that there was a feeling at Karen Millen that stores had become too masculine, with an over-reliance on straight lines, and that this store is an attempt to overcome that tendency. Add to all this a slick and contemporary colour scheme and the upper mid-market brand is headed in a fresh, but at the same time familiar, direction.

Full Circle

Full Circle was some way from being finished at the time of visiting (hence the rendering), although the store’s fabric was close to completion. This is another offering from the Brinkworth design stable and to appreciate the finer points of its design it is necessary to stand about two or three metres back from the open front doors and stare into the interior. Do this and you are confronted by what appears to be a perfect circle carved out of the rear of the shop. When you move into the store, the illusion is lost as the circle appears, miraculously, to change shape, becoming an elipse. And when you turn around, the same illusion is practised on shoppers as they exit the store. Brinkworth says that the shop is intended to give Full Circle a more upmarket positioning and that this will be a flagship for the chain.

The Village

One of the more striking features of the public areas at Westfield London is The Village – the area with curved glass shopfronts and a ceiling with circular patterns. Paula Wiley, general manager of the design studio that has policed the appearance of the many flagship formats in Westfield London, says several of the distinctly upscale stores in this part of the mall only joined the party on condition that they had an architecturally led space. Perhaps for this reason, the chandeliers at the heart of this space would be impressive in any retail context. The fact that they are in a public area, rather than contained within the confines of a cutting-edge retailer, stands as testament to the attention to detail that characterises much of what this development is about. The retailers that have taken units in this part of the centre range from Prada to Bill Amberg and all are installing the kind of fit-outs normally only found in international locations such as Bond Street or Fifth Avenue.

Debenhams

Debenhams was predictably advanced in its preparations for the mall opening, with most of the floors more or less completely merchandised nearly 10 days ahead of the first customers walking through Westfield London’s doors. Much of what characterised Debenhams’ thinking at its Liverpool store has been taken forward in this multi-floor anchor. And, as in Liverpool, much of the in-store emphasis has been lavished on visual merchandising, although the building itself is admittedly impressive. New touches include chandeliers created from long-necked glass flasks, used throughout the fashion floors, and the use of hard terrazzo flooring across the whole of the shop – the ritzy black tiling with the glitter flecks is particularly impressive. Glancing around, almost everything seemed complete, with just a few finishing visual merchandising touches to be done. In a sea of frenzied and, from time to time, desperate-looking preparation, Debenhams stood out as a beacon of tranquillity and forward planning.

Habitat

Habitat has come under significant pressure of late, principally because of the poor performance of some of its older branches. In keeping with its other newer outlets, however, this beautifully designed store looks as if it will bring home the bacon, even in these straitened times. The exterior takes full advantage of the imposingly tall shopfronts that are found throughout the scheme. Habitat has resisted the temptation to install a fascia composed solely of glass, opting instead to put in a louvred wooden entrance created from plain, stripped wood. Couple this with the white outsize Habitat logo that dominates the upper portion of the window, as well as a brightly lit, two-level interior, and the retailer has succeeded in creating an impressive branch.

Fred Perry

Fred Perry is a brand that rarely gets a mention in this magazine, probably because it is rather more brand than retailer. However, its store at Westfield deserves its place in these pages – for no better reason than that it shows how, with thought and decent design input, a brand can more than keep pace with the best that retailers can offer. The dark stained wood of the door yields to a white interior with matching merchandising equipment, where tone will presumably be provided by the stock and full-colour graphics that are already in place. Fashion brands such as this are traditionally stocked in large-footprint department stores. Westfield London affords some of the high street’s less familiar brands the opportunity to show a leg – worth looking at too.

DKNY JEANS

Although DKNY Jeans was yet to be merchandised, it was hard to ignore the canary yellow shopfront and the use of plain white, light boxes within the store. The mid-floor equipment is matt black, providing a contrast with the stark whiteness of the walls. This store is located in the area that leads up to the mall’s designer area and, along with its neighbours, provides a transition area from the more mainstream mid-market offers in other parts of the centre.

Nike

Nike was midway through merchandising a glamorous two-floor unit with a chunky stripped wooden sliding door. The simple, curved wooden display system is mirrored upstairs and downstairs by a ceiling with curved cut-outs, giving depth to the space as you look upwards. The ground-floor perimeter has been fashioned from beech-look wood panelling and a feature has been made of the staircase, which is located at the front of the shop and visible from inside the mall.