Bricks and mortar: pillars of confidence?

I seem to spend a fair amount of time, wherever I am in the world, seeking out the best disrupters and leaders – not followers – in retail, digital and brands. And so, much to my joy, in recent weeks I have not had far to go. London has recently seen an ambitious mix of bricks and mortar retail ventures across town: the relocation of Dover Street Market, the revamped Uniqlo flagship on Oxford Street and Libreria; a new bookshop owned by and opposite trendy Shoreditch workspace Second Home.

In our column last week, we cited the mounting pressure for fashion and luxury brands to digitise. These latest ventures are proof that we really do want physical spaces. All three seem to have been spared the scepticism that now so often accompanies aspirational bricks and mortar retailing and it is worth asking why. Are the unapologetically elaborate stores a statement designed to project a steady and unflinching brand identity? Or the product of a hard-earned reliance on a unique, engaged relationship with traditional footfall?

Dover Street Market was founded 12 years ago. It was a distinctive six-storey building on Mayfair’s Dover Street. The astonishingly successful high-concept fashion hub is the brainchild of Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo and her partner, Adrian Joffe. It now has stores in Tokyo and New York and is credited with almost single-handedly transforming a part of Mayfair into a top fashion destination. It’s a striking example of conceptual physical retail paying dividends of truly iconic proportions.

In this context, the move to the former Burberry headquarters in Haymarket is rather a daring one. There have been several speculations on the impact the move will have on both the old location and the new, but anxieties are low, with many already presuming the faultlessly executed model will have a similar impact on Haymarket as it did on Mayfair.

Such confidence in the power of a single store, however enticing and artfully curated, stands out in the current retailing climate. The new DSM has attracted seemingly unanimous praise from early reviewers, and when the move was announced it was met with shock but real excitement. Last Saturday the first day of trading to the general public was like one big fabulous party. So important for brands that even Sir Paul Smith was working behind the counter. I have no idea how many customers they had on the day, but the store was full and there were more DSM bags on Haymarket than the eye could see!

Yet what might seem to be the effect of a particularly visionary concept, relying on a unique speciality offering, has been felt a few streets away in response to a very different kind of retailer.


Uniqlo launched its revamped Oxford Street flagship over the same weekend, featuring almost double the space, a collaboration with Liberty and a new conceptual floor, Uniqlo WearHouse; conceived as a multipurpose sales and event space. Like Dover Street, reviews seem to be overwhelmingly positive and optimistic. For an established name like Uniqlo, slick and exciting flagships have long been a strategy for articulating brand identity. Even so, the scale of the project, and its enthusiastic reception, is remarkable.

I’ve written about conceptual ventures and multi-purpose spaces before, but seeing such inspiring bricks-and-mortar launches this weekend is a reminder of the power of consistent creative visions, and the potential of innovative physical retail.

Libreria is another example. Second Home founder Rohan Silva is said to have spent years working on the project. Interestingly, Rohan’s two creative hubs represent a distinctly push/pull relationship with digital integration. On one side of the street, the seamlessly modern Second Home provides a sanctuary for young tech companies and their employees. On the other, operating on a strict no-phones policy, lies Libreria.


The bookshop has been painstakingly designed to give the impression of both a vast, babel-like library and to provide exclusive touches like its own printing press and the resources for a range of events. It’s an immersive oasis with the perennially plugged-in in mind, and steeped in a vast confidence in the attractiveness of bookselling, widely considered a shrinking market.

There is always disagreement over the role of bricks-and-mortar, and in particular the rise in experiential, conceptual stores. It is easy to view these enterprises as a sign of its pressures, brands working harder than ever to justify physical space in a digital age, but what Dover Street Market, the Uniqlo flagship and Libreria share is an innate confidence in generating footfall and the ability to inspire it in their consumers.

They can each boast an intimate connection with the city they inhabit, and there is certainly a great deal to be learnt from the excitement generated amongst Londoners. It felt like when Vittorio Radice took the reigns at Selfridges and transformed it from a middle of the road department store into a destination spot. I was reminded of his confident assertion: ‘People go to work, they go home and they go to their community centre, Selfridges. Long live physical stores!’