Seeing is believing, so in the case of toxic air it can be hard for many people to be motivated enough to protect themselves. Despite appalling figures for air quality in many UK cities, this invisible killer, which speeds up the end of life for many thousands of people each year, doesn’t feel like it is getting the attention it deserves.
Things are starting to change though with awareness growing and cities introducing steps to reduce air pollution. Fashion brands too are seeing an opportunity to tap into this desire for people to protect themselves, both inside and outside, from this silent killer.
During the famous London smogs of the 1950s, people could see how polluted their air was, today, things are very different with micro particles from traffic pollution being sucked into our lungs and causing long term damage.
The death rate for a lifetime of exposure to microscopic PM2.5 particles created by diesel engines, coal burning power stations, wood fires, agriculture and building sites is rising in almost three quarters of London boroughs. Scientists say that tiny particulate pollution is especially dangerous as the specks of dirt can be absorbed deep into the lungs, then seep into the bloodstream contributing to heart and lung disease, cancer and aggravating asthma. London’s air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 9,000 early deaths each year.
Left - Airinum - Urban Air Mask 2.0 - £55
In 2017, the worst locations in the UK for nitrogen dioxide pollution was Kensington and Chelsea, followed by Leeds and Doncaster. Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. It also estimates that seven million people die each year from exposure to such pollution with the majority in low and middle income countries in Asia and Africa, with India being one of the worst culprits.
When Alexander Hjertstrom visited India he was inspired to start his own company to tackle air pollution. ‘Airinum’ founded in 2015 and based in Sweden, specialises in stylish protective face masks. The name is a merger between ‘air’ and ‘inum’, taken from platinum, to signify the highest quality of pure air.
When Hjertstrom moved from Sweden to India his long-gone asthma had started to come back. He realised he was becoming another victim of air pollution. After searching for a means to protect himself, Alex found that wearing an anti-pollution breathing mask was the most effective way. To his surprise, the majority of the masks on the market were very basic and far from perfect in their construction. Their designs were primitive, reminiscent of the masks worn by dentists or miners. Not something you would want to wear everyday.
“The reason the topic has gained interest lately is due to increase knowledge and awareness fuelled by media highlighting some recent studies showing the detrimental impact that poor quality air has on health.” says Hjertstrom, CEO of Airinum.
“WHO listed air pollution as one of the largest health risks we face today, killing more people than Malaria and HIV combined. Once the public start to realise that this is a ticking health bomb, similar to the effect of when people realised the impact of smoking, new measures will be taken.” he says.
“The ‘Airinum Urban Air Mask’ is a high-quality mask designed to effectively clean the air for the wearer. The key thing is our masks offer very high filtration efficiency and thus protection, high comfort with dual exhalation valves and fully face-adjustable straps for a snug fit, and durable & high-quality design with washable & anti-bacterial treated skin and replaceable filters.” says Hjertstrom.
People in Asia, most notably Japan, have been wearing personal pollution masks for many years, but, will Airinum be able to get the rest of the world to?
“The rest of the world is slowly but steadily getting convinced.” says Hjertstrom. “We sell to NY, Paris, Milan and even Stockholm, today.” he says. “As the product become less ‘must use personal protection equipment’ and more of an lifestyle accessory (or necessity), the barrier gets lower and the acceptance level increases. With celebrities around the world using the Airinum masks of course helps, as it destigmatised the mask from ‘weird’ to something cool instead.”
Right - Airinum - 3 additional filters cost - £12 - The working life of a filter depends on many factors such as the pollution level in your surroundings. On average Airinum filters last 100 hours but they advise to change every second week for hygienic reasons
The Mayor of London has recently introduced his ULEZ - Ultra Low Emission Zone - clean air zone in Central London and the British government has put off the majority of urban drivers from buying diesel cars, but what can we do as individuals and will pollution masks become the latest fashion accessory?
“Recently catwalks in Tokyo, Seoul and Paris all had models wearing masks. This shows how this item is slowly becoming part of the everyday fashion outfit, just like a pair of sunglasses.” says Hjertstrom.
When Stella McCartney unveiled her new flagship Bond Street store, last year, it was the first to offer its customers and staff cleaned air. The first indoor commercial space to do so, the ‘Airlabs’ filter is designed to protect both shoppers and store workers from gas pollutants present inside and outside of the store, in particular nitrogen dioxide from diesel fumes on busy Bond Street.
A unique installation of custom-made filters into the store’s ventilation system cleans more than 1800 m3/h of air with very low energy consumption due to the filter’s innovative structure. it removes 95 per cent of the air pollutants and harmful gases and particulate matter inside through a hidden ventilation system with a nano carbon filter.
Sophie Power co-founded Airlabs in 2014 after realising the dangers of air pollution posed to babies and children when she was pregnant with her first child. Sophie became acutely aware of the fact that in the UK, especially in cities, we breathe high levels of nitrogen dioxide, primarily from diesel fumes, as well as other harmful pollutants. The levels we breathe here cause stunted growth of lungs in our children – a study in East London of 8 and 9 year olds showed their lungs were 5-10% permanently smaller when exposed to poor quality air. The younger the child, the more they are affected and most affected are those in the womb.
More than 2 million Londoners live in areas that exceed legal limits for NO2, including more than 400,000 children under the age of 18. More than 50 per cent of London’s toxic air is caused by vehicles. On realising the extent of pollution in London, Sophie left her job in finance to co-found Airlabs together with Professor Matthew Johnson, a Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen.
Today, Airlabs is comprised of a team of atmospheric chemists, airflow engineers and sensor developers based in London and Copenhagen dedicated to clean air solutions. They say better air quality can significantly increase workplace productivity as well as health outcomes, offering potentially revolutionary opportunities for hospitals, schools, office buildings, professional drivers and shops.
"Science is catching up with the reality, which is that the impact of air pollution on people's health is much worse than previously thought. Epidemiological studies take many years, in particular for health effects that develop over many years of exposure. More and more results from these studies are becoming available, feeding into the media news cycle. This has led to a growing public awareness of the issue. A challenge remains how to find out when you are exposed and at what level." says Marc Ottolini, CEO Airlabs.
"That's why we are working on small but highly accurate air quality sensors, with the aim of having one on every corner of the street. When you buy food, a label will tell you what's in it. We need something similar for the air that we breathe. People have the right to know.” says Ottolini.
"Our technology is generating a lot of interest within the retail sector and we have been approached by a number of retailers from shopping centres to stores looking for a clean air solution." he says.
Things are getting worse before they get better. The risk of dying from long-term exposure to London’s polluted air has risen for a second year running. The rate of fatalities linked to breathing in killer particles went up from 6.4 per cent to 6.5 per cent in 2017 according to computer modelled estimates from government body Public Health England. That followed a jump from 5.6 per cent the previous year.
The facts seem to be clearer than the majority of air most of us are forced to breathe in on a daily basis. There’s a helpless feeling of not knowing exactly what we are breathing in and when, and while we could wait for others to sort it out, it seems that we should be taking things into our own hands. Could anti-pollution masks become as common place as SPF and cycle helmets? People in Asia have been wearing masks for many years and we’ve often looked at them skeptically, but now it’s making more sense to follow their lead. If a brand or designer can make this a desirable and ‘cool’ trend, we could start to see many more masks on our streets.
“Hopefully, the more people that start masking up, the sooner our politicians can wake up and create policies that can speed up the cleaning of our air and ultimately our planet as a whole.” says Hjertstrom.
Below - Airlabs technology inside London's famous taxis
While the majority of UK cities are struggling to deal with the implosion of their high-streets, London is a juggernaut that keeps people spending. Thanks to tourist dollars and and an increasingly high-spending visitor, Bond Street, arguably London’s premier luxury shopping street, has seen a raft of new openings hoping to tap into London as the global retail destination. From Alexander McQueen to Loewe, this historical street has seen glorious new retail spaces tailored to this exclusive location open to entice more money from shoppers.
Left - Alexander McQueen's new three storey store
The Office for National Statistics has just released the final International Passenger Survey (IPS) results covering 2018 and it’s still looking good for London. While the number of visits to the UK in 2018 fell slightly (-3%) - 2017 was a record - to 37.9 million, the data from the last 10 months shows visitors spending huge amounts and are visiting Bond Street, in particular.
Data from Global Blue, a tourism shopping tax refund company headquartered in Nyon, Switzerland, shows that the average spend on Bond Street among international visitors increased by 4% year-on-year from January to October 2018. International shoppers spent a huge average of £1,341 per transaction during this time.
Global Blue has also just opened its first VIP Globe Shopper Lounge on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, just a stone’s throw from Bond Street. According to their figures, the top spenders were visitors from the UAE, Qatar and Hong Kong. UAE shoppers spent £2,074 per transaction, up 19% year-on-year. Qatari shoppers spent £1,964 per transaction (up 7%), while Hong Kong shoppers spent £1,837 per transaction (up 15%).
Interestingly, the biggest increase was seen amongst Indonesian visitors, averaging £1,551 per transaction, up 20% compared to 2017.
Right - Staircase in the new Celine menswear store
Paris is London’s closest luxury shopping competition and the 'yellow vests’ or Gilet Jaunes protests have been affecting its attractiveness and is putting off visitors. "We lost between one and two growth points in 2018 due to the yellow vests," said Mathieu Grac, Global Blue's vice president of intelligence strategy.
The weakness of the pound is making shopping in London more attractive and better value for money. The Chinese, in particular, have always chosen Paris over London, but this could be starting to change with new stats show record breaking results for the end of 2018 for London. Visits to the UK from China in this period were up 52% to 94,000 – the 9th consecutive record quarter for visits. These visitors spent £160 million in the UK between October and December 2018 – 30% up compared to the same period in 2017. In total there were a record 391,000 visits from China to the UK in 2018, up 16% on 2017.
Overall, UK visitor spend in 2019 is forecast to be £24.9B, up 7.8%, on a forecast of 38.8m visitors.
While many designer brands are closing stores and trimming their global retail network, others are realising that in order to stay ahead, you need to invest heavily in the world’s finest locations. The days of copy-cat, identikit stores are over and brands know they need to make something unique for its location.
Proving this point is the new ‘Casa Loewe’. The Spanish brand, Loewe, owned by LVMH, and famous for its puzzle bags, has opened a three storey boutique designed in the vision of creative director, Jonathan Anderson. Like an art gallery with clothes, but with a personality and warmth, the London store features work by a selection of internationally renowned artists, including three oak sculptures by Ernst Gamperl (winner of the LOEWE FOUNDATION Craft Prize in 2017) alongside 15 photographs by Alair Gomes, the ‘Vulcano Table’ by Anthea Hamilton, a long- standing LOEWE collaborator, William Turnbull’s 1956 sculpture ‘Idol 4’ and Grayson Perry’s ‘Mum and Dad’ vase.
Left - Casa Loewe showing Anthea Hamilton's 'Vulcano Table'
It feels a very creative space and is one of the few luxury boutiques on Bond Street to give you this full idea of a lifestyle. The sales assistant I spoke to said Anderson was often in the store talking to them through the product and also making sure things were working correctly. She also said they had a great many Chinese customers.
Further down Bond Street is the new Celine menswear boutique. The first time Celine has done menswear under new creative head, Hedi Slimane, it feels very déjà vu in the Saint Laurent mould and looks like all those other marbled minimal retail palaces from brands such as Neil Barrett or End Clothing in Soho. On the corner of New Bond Street and Grafton street, in the old Boucheron store, it is exactly what fans of Slimane will want and the quality of the clothes do look good. Downstairs is a compact tailoring area and while none of the extra skinny clothes had a price tag on, the raised front doors are automatic, just in-case those super-skinny rockstars don’t have enough strength to open them. Disappointly, this concept will look the same the world over.
Into Old Bond Street, Alexander McQueen has amalgamated all three of their London stores into the large, former DKNY outlet. The three storey boutique is a beautiful, sweeping space by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic, his first retail project. It truly flows with giant glass tubes linking the floors and acres of matt walnut covering every surface including the two spiral staircases.
The ground floor is home to womenswear and the first floor to menswear. The top floor is like a museum, probably hoping to capitalise on the popularity of ‘Savage Beauty’, it illustrates the artistry of the current collections while being dotted with archive pieces. This area will also be used to host a programme of exhibitions and talks aimed specifically at inspiring students. It left me with a renewed respect of the work of the brand which I’ve often dismissed since McQueen’s death. There was a men’s coat, hand embroidered with silver graffiti, on sale for £100,000.
Stella McCartney has moved her store from the Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby designed Bruton Street to Old Bond Street. A difficult space, it is linked by a huge metal staircase reminiscent of the tanks at Tate Modern. More concrete and terrazzo, the front ground floor is peppered by giant boulders and moss. A small glade of silver birches decorate a roof garden and 'Airlabs' technology makes this the first indoor commercial space in London with the cleanest air possible.
The store carries all the brand’s collections including women’s and menswear ready-to-wear, accessories, lingerie, swimwear, kids, eyewear, fragrance and adidas by Stella McCartney. Stella McCartney said, “Old Bond street, it’s probably one of the most prestigious retail locations in the world. And for me being born and bred in London and having our business headquarters there and design studio, it’s an incredible honour for us. This store really tells the story of the World of Stella McCartney; incorporating sustainability, fashion and luxury.” Louis Vuitton’s giant Bond Street store is also being refurbished and will hopefully offer something bespoke to this prestigious location.
Right - Stella McCartney's ground floor showing boulders running through the centre
What this group of shops show is the huge investment still going into physical retail. If you’re going to entice those shoppers, you'll need to offer something original, something they'll want to investigate and explore and ultimately an experience of buying something truly great and memorable. By working and competing as a group, it gives more incentive to brands and people to make this the greatest destination and a positive cycle of openings and continued openings will keep this firmly as one of the most thriving luxury retail destinations in the world.