As nearly as delayed as the Elizabeth Line, well, not quite, the new Flannels on the eastern side of Oxford Street has been the most anticipated addition to London’s busiest retail thoroughfare this year.
Sandwiched between Marks & Spencer’s Pantheon store and Matalan, this four storey, 18,000 sq ft store, selling designer clothes and accessorises, has been 3 years in the making. The entire building was purchased for £108 million in 2016 by a Sports Direct subsidiary and doubles as office space for its parent group. Part of Mike Ashley’s growing empire, it is the debut of Flannels in Central London.
Left - Veja display inside the new Oxford Street Flannels
This is Flannels' 44th store in the UK, after a lightning expansion, with a further 15 stores coming this year alone. In 2012, sportswear giant Sports Direct bought a majority 51% stake in Flannels and in September 2017 they acquired the brand in full and began investing in and opening stores.
It is worth noting Sports Direct also own other premium fashion chains such as USC, Cruise and Van Mildert, but, it is Flannels which has been chosen to lead the designer crusade to “elevate” the company. Sports Direct currently has an obsession with moving from discounted sports to full price branded.
Mike Ashley said at a recent shareholder meeting regarding Flannels, “I think they are better than any other stores in the market. Now, I might have rose-tinted glasses but one of the reasons is because I have absolutely nothing to do with it. I just sign off the money. It has nothing to do with Mike Ashley.
“It’s not just a few show stores. When you have a pipeline it takes time. I’m telling you – this is for real. The reality is, I’m telling you it is real and the proof of the pudding will be when they start to roll out. It’s happening, it’s coming. It’s just not as fast as I would like it.
“I’m going to do the same with House of Fraser and get around to elevating. The modern-day consumer – that’s what they want. It could be Stone Island, it could be Nike and Adidas – it’s all about the branded world.
“Maybe I was late to the party, I accept that. Maybe my son-in-law should’ve gone out with my daughter when she was 12, but now we’re on it, nothing’s going to get us off it.”
Oxford Street is their new flagship and is a physical testament to their ambitious intentions of becoming “the biggest global luxury retailer,”. This is what Sports Direct Group’s head of elevation, Mike Murray, Mike Ashley’s daughter’s boyfriend, told Drapers in March. He went on, “We’re in the early stages, but we have a clear vision for Flannels, we have ambition and we are willing to invest,”.
Right - Art on the second floor
The £10 million new store has been designed by Italian studio P con P, and you can see the Gucci influence in the rugs, over blown William Morris type screens, 1970s brass changing rooms and waiting areas and contrasting use of materials.
The store is split into women’s accessorises on ground, womenswear in the basement, men’s designer on first and men’s accessorise and sportswear on the second, though there wasn’t much difference between the latter two. The second-floor will also house the first ever UK retail space for US footwear brand Flight Club and the store offers services such as Click & Collect and personal styling.
One notable difference was the huge amount of staff, all dressed in black. I was told 50 members of staff currently work there. I visited on a late Tuesday afternoon and the only people seriously buying were a group of Asian tourists in the Gucci men’s section. They’d probably never heard of Flannels before.
I expected to see the usual chav labels such as Off-White and Burberry, which were there, but, interestingly, there were also brands such as Barena, Brioni, Alanui and JW Anderson. There was even a diamond necklace for nearly £60,000. I did ask how many they’d sold that week?!
Cire Trudon candles, Acqua Di Parma fragrances and Ganni dresses were also spied, and while nothing particularly revolutionary, it is difficult to pick holes in.
“His whole plan for 100 Flannels stores is bonkers. Knock a nought off, mate!” says Eric Musgrave, former editor of Drapers and fashion industry consultant. “It will be a ghost town for 5 or 6 days a week. Wrong location. Too big. Offering nothing you can't get in the West End or Knightsbridge already.” he says.
“My guess is that they will leave it as it is for two or three years, then reorganise it, making the Flannels area smaller and bringing in USC and SD. But, I believe Ashley owns the building, so he can run it as a vanity project.” says Musgrave.
Left - Display in collaboration with artist, Alec Monopoly
The simile I would use is, it’s like an Essex nightclub, which, if playing the right music, you’d have a good time in. And that’s what the clothes and buy is, the music.
(The security guards do look a bit like bouncers though, and one made me delete a picture I took on my phone of the new store *eyeroll*).
There’s nothing to fault in the design and money spent, it feels premium and everything is nicely presented, but Flannels has a problem with the snobby stigma London has towards Mike Ashley. He needs to distance himself like he says above.
People will need persuading to part with their cash here, unless it is product they can’t get anywhere else. Flannels needs to change perceptions so people are happy to be seen swinging a Flannels bag when they leave. It’s just not cool right now. They need to turn into leaders rather than just flogging the same old mega brands to punters.
Right - That £60,000 necklace
They own the building here, so are here for the long haul, but it will be interesting to see how it develops and how long they stick to this initial format. Flannels recorded sales of £173.9 million in its latest financial year, up 12 per cent from 2018. It’s growing because it is rapidly expanding, it obviously wants to get to the point where is it more powerful than the brands, rather than the other way around currently. I can imagine many luxury brands, currently, being cautious about choosing them as a stockist, but watch this space as they grow.
Flannels will also struggle with some of the quality of the product, and disappointed consumers. Read Gucci Quality Is Rubbish - here - which isn’t their fault.
Left - Flannels Oxford Street exterior. Sports Direct own the entire building
Sports Direct want more elevation than the Wright brothers, but it’s going to be expensive and I can't help think that 100 stores is too many, especially when you’re trying to sell £900 Gucci hoodies. Even though this is on Oxford Street, it needs to become a destination. It feels like the kind of store going against the retail tide, but I certainly admire the ambition.
Below - Interior shot of the new Flannels Oxford Street store
Mention Croydon and the first thing the majority of people say is ‘Boxpark’. That, and the fact the place is a bit run down, is all people seem to know about this outer South London suburb. The metal shipping container type concept of Boxpark has become the ‘up and coming’ stamp of hipster approval and many councils and developers see it as an opportunity to regenerate their town centres, drive footfall and appeal to a younger audience.
Since its launch in 2011, Boxpark has morphed from retail to food outlets, and, now, work places. Just announced, Boxpark has nationwide expansion plans alongside two brand new concepts; BoxOffice and BoxHall. They currently have 3 sites in Shoreditch, Croydon and Wembley. and there are plans to expand with a further ten new sites over the next five years.
Left - Boxparks new concepts; BoxOffice & BoxHall
The new concept, BoxOffice, is a co-working space which will be incorporated into brand new Boxpark sites. The Boxpark and BoxOffice schemes will be a 50,000 - 150,000 sq ft. in size with developments featuring the Boxpark streetfood and bars set up on the ground floor and leisure operators such as virtual reality, cinemas, crazy golf and karaoke on the first floor and between two to four floors of co-working space above. Boxpark will work along alongside existing co-working companies on the launch and operation of the new BoxOffice concept.
BoxHall is a new food hall concept. These smaller, 10,000-20,000 sq ft, food and beverage destinations will be based on existing sites within city centres across the UK, featuring between six and twelve street food vendors at each site. Boxpark’s turnover is reported to be currently in the region of £10 million a year.
Boxpark founder and CEO Roger Wade said, “I’m really excited to announce our plans for our brand new BoxOffice and BoxHall concepts. Boxpark has always been an innovator in the retail and leisure sector and these brand new formats demonstrate our investment in continuing to evolve both the brand and the sites we build and operate. These two major new innovations will help us secure a further 10 sites across the UK over the next five years.”
They haven’t named the sites, but proposals were submitted to Brighton & Hove City Council to revive the crumbling Victorian arches on the seafront, and will incorporate a new premium hotel operator alongside a Boxpark.
Founder Roger Wade’s background is retail and he was the founder of footwear brand, Boxfresh. The pop-up Boxpark idea has been successful because it has mirrored Generation Rent. The temporary nature and its choice of more ‘edgy’ locations needs less investment and has less local competition. It’s the opposite of chainy, while still being a chain and situated at travel hotspots for a generation who aren’t learning to drive. Read ChicGeek Comment Neighbourhood Shops - here
Councils are also encouraging them too. Croydon Council gave Boxpark a £3million loan, plus another £180,000 grant of public cash towards its launch party. Croydon Boxpark has 40 traders from around the world, both established and start-up, set in over 90 shipping containers. With Croydon as a further example, while the Boxpark seems to be thriving near the main East Croydon station with direct trains to London and Brighton, Westfield’s much feted shopping centre in the middle of the town seems to be wobbling and being pushed back further and further. Bricks and mortar is expensive and these easily converted containers are ripe for small start ups, offer more customer choice and can be moved easily if a location doesn't work.
Right - Time Out Market London opening at Waterloo Station in 2021
When Boxpark first opened in Shoreditch it was retail focussed with brands such as Calvin Klein Underwear and Nike. It quickly moved more into food when it realised young people wanted experience over stuff. The two further Boxparks were purely food focussed. Now, they’ve realised there is potential to develop further and make ‘Box’ the ‘Easy’ brand for younger generations.
Eating at these places is cheaper and cooler than eating in standard restaurants. It has spawned imitators such as Pop in Brixton and GRUB in Manchester while chains like Byron Burgers and Jamie’s Italian have all suffered. Shopping centres and town centres are seeing that these hipster concepts appeal to Millennials and Generation Z who want authenticity, and, while a similar idea, they feel like the antithesis of the traditional American mall type food courts.
Food is the fulcrum for all these developments, and it's the theatre of food that creates the buzz and energy missing from many modern retail locations. People need to eat, it brings people together and makes them leave the house.
These mini-food halls are seeing a boon ATM. ‘Market Hall’ opened at Victoria Station and Fulham with a third opening, the flagship, ‘Market Hall West End’, opening late 2019 in the old BHS building off Oxford Street and will become the largest food hall in the UK. Covering 37,500 sq ft over three floors, with over 800 covers, "this impressive space will feature twelve independent food vendors made up of crowd favourites in Fulham and Victoria as well as some new faces, four bars, a children’s play area, three dedicated events spaces and TV recording studio including a demo kitchen". Market Hall founder, Simon Anderson, told the Big Hospitality website in April 2019, “We are concentrating our attention for the next year and a half within the M25 as we know the London audience well. When we go further afield we’ll go to the north first as half our management team is based in Yorkshire and has a good understanding of that marketplace. Within the next few years we hope to have three or four more sites in London and three or four out of London.”
These modern food halls are like an internet portal or host. The umbrella brand hosts numerous smaller and unknown brands offering more choice and novelty while charging a fee and not getting their hands too dirty. Shopping centre owner intu asked Market Hall to open at their Lakeside centre in Thurrock this Spring. I wrote this last year, ChicGeek Comment Returning Malls To Markets
'The Hall’ “brings together dynamic and independent food traders from across the south east and use the big-city energy, theatre and excitement of street-food to create a compelling dining experience for intu Lakeside’s 20 million annual footfall” says the blurb.
The Hall at intu Lakeside is 14,500 sq ft and includes seven kitchens, a coffee shop, pop-up areas for food trucks, two bars and seating for 680 people.
Other examples include the Time Out Market London, opening at Waterloo station in 2021 - Read more ChicGeek Comment Investors Letting The Train Take The Strain and Eataly, opening on Broadgate, next to Liverpool Street station, in 2020.
Left - Eataly opening on Broadgate in 2020
This global Italian food “marketplaces” operator, which combines retail and restaurant concessions, already has locations in New York City, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as in Japan and Brazil. It promises a selection of “the best Italian products, restaurants, bars, quick services, exciting on-site production laboratories, and a cooking school.”
The Boxpark brand is the leader in this area of pop-up food malls and developers and towns are seeing this as a worthy replacement for the contraction in retail demand. The new BoxOffice and BoxHall concepts seem like logically growth of a popular brand.
Umbrella brands like Boxpark also know councils and shopping centre owners will offer financial incentives for them to bring these currently cool concepts to their locations. The only difficulty I see is expecting an unlimited supply of authentic, ambitious and quality start-ups to fill them. These concepts are only as strong as their groups of operators and it will be a fine balance of supporting them while profiting from them.
You’re joking, not another one!! - said in a Bristolian accent - when news came in that Sports Direct’s, Mike Ashley had snapped up Jack Wills. Yet another brand to be gobbled up by the Pac-Man of the British high street.
Left - Jack Wills was just gobbled by the high street Pac-Man, Mike Ashley
The preppy retailer had been on the block after private equity owner, BlueGem Capital, lost interest. Things were obviously worse than was thought with Jack Wills being put into administration and immediately sold pre-pack to Sports Direct for £12.75 million. The deal includes all 100 UK and Ireland stores and stock, as well as a distribution centre, but not the international business.
This is just another brand in a long list of troubled retailers snapped up by Ashley in his buying spree over the last few years. While many of these retailers have been snapped up for bargain prices, inspired by his Sports Direct marketing no doubt, they were in trouble for a reason, and, there’s only so many brands you can give the attention and TLC they need to nurse them back to health.
Ashley has also been distracted with his failed bid for Debenhams and his shareholding being wiped out, and in his recent, disastrously handled, release of Sports Direct’s latest set of results he started to lament his purchase of House of Fraser. He’s realised that House of Fraser is a serious money pit. So, why does he want even more? Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Every time a brand gets into trouble, Ashley is named as a potential suitor and it’s almost becoming a joke. It’s as though he’s some magic man that knows something we don’t and while we’ve been waiting, with some scepticism, on some of the ‘Harrods of the high street’ rhetoric to be followed through on, he needs to hurry up before it all becomes too late to repair.
Social media has become a running commentary of people saying how bad their local House of Fraser has become and how it is slowing turning into another branch of Sports Direct with its Lonsdale pants and Slazenger joggers.
Maybe a sign of intention, he paid £95 million - more than for the entire chain - for the freehold of the original House of Fraser in Glasgow promising to turn it into the ‘Harrods of the north’. (Harrods must be loving all this free publicity btw). There are plans to create a mini, higher end chain of stores - around 7, including Glasgow - within the House of Fraser group, called ‘Frasers’ with the remaining stores stocking more mainstream options.
Ashley said in the recent set of results, “On a scale out of 5, with 1 being very bad and 5 being very good, House of Fraser is a 1, albeit we are trying very hard to turn the business around this will not be quick and it will not be easy. Even though we do believe there could be a bright future for House of Fraser, and indeed have publicised our Frasers vision which we are very excited about, if we had the gift of hindsight we might have made a different decision in August 2018.
“We have continued to look under the bonnet as we integrate the business, we have found that the problems are nothing short of terminal in nature,” he said. “We are continuing to review the longer-term portfolio and would expect the number of retained stores to reduce in the next 12 months.”
He needs to start with the Glasgow store, which is already one of its premium branches, and show the industry and consumers what the plans for the roll out are.
As well as House of Fraser and Evans Cycles, he added online retailer, sofa.com, this year, and then said the overall retail industry is in “dire straits”.
If this wasn’t a big enough headache, the Belgian tax authorities has just sent a payment demand for a whopping £605 million. Sports Direct has entered into a mediation process and the demand relates to the tax treatment of goods being moved intra-group throughout the EU via Belgium. Even if reduced, it’s likely to be a huge bill regardless.
As for the core Sports Direct business, profits slipped by 4.7% to £264.7 million according to the latest financial figures. The company said it will not be issuing any profit guidance for next year, but some guidance may be issued with the company’s half-year results.
They also said, “We remain very focused on delivering our elevated proposition. We will see some great milestones achieved in the year ahead, with the Flannels flagship store opening and we will commence the work to shape the Frasers Glasgow store into what we believe will be a fantastic shopping experience for our customers and showcase our intentions for the remaining portfolio of stores.”
Flannels is the bright spark within the group and the most believable part when it talks of ‘elevation’. Selling premium brands such as Valentino and Gucci and expanding rapidly, it would fit into this vision. As part of the Premium Lifestyle division, which also includes Cruise and van Mildert stores, it has grown from sales of £60.4m in FY17 to £173.9 in FY19.
Right - Inside the 'Harrods of the north' - Glasgow House of Fraser
The company told Drapers, Flannels had an ambition to open 15 to 20 stores per year until it reaches its target of 100. There are currently 43 shops with new openings in Chester, Newcastle, Watford, Sutton and York as well as the huge and much anticipated Oxford Street branch.
Sports Direct Group’s head of elevation Mike Murray said, “We are focusing on key cities that haven’t had exposure to luxury or a well-executed luxury environment. Our stores aren’t the typical size of 2,500 sq ft or 3,000 sq ft. We are focusing on big destination stores so it is worth people’s while coming.”
The new House of Frasers or ‘Frasers’ could just be an enlarged version of this, but there are only so many £800 designer hoodies they’ll be able to sell and will need incorporate more experiential services and novelties. The House of Fraser brand has been damaged and will take a lot of time and money if it’s to compete with the regional Selfridges and Harvey Nichols of the world.
The prediction is the entire brand will be binned and disappear along with the majority of the stores and the new Frasers brand will live on in a handful of larger cities. But, this is still going to take a lot of money.
The Sports Direct Group currently operates 367 stores in England, 37 in Scotland, 28 in Wales and 17 in Northern Ireland, along with 35 other fascias including USC. This represents a net reduction of 9 stores over the period as a result of 13 openings and 22 closures. Despite the net reduction in stores the total sales area has increased to approx. 5.6m sq. ft. so it is very exposed to the current state of the high-street.
Lord Stuart Rose has warned Mike Ashley over his ambitions for a retail ‘oligopoly’, saying, “My view in retail is to stay nimble, lean and mean. You need to be able to turn on a sixpence,” he said.
This shopaholic nature of brand buying and lack of investment in what he already owns is a confusing and dangerous combination. He needs to slim everything down, keep what’s working and be ruthless. (That last bit shouldn’t be a problem).
We’re all hoping Ashley’s game plan, whatever it is, is successful because he now owns a huge slice of the British high street. FYI - Spud-U-Like is still available… #harrodsofthehighstreet
Read more ChicGeek expert comment - here
Oxford Street is the main artery linking west and central London. Everything goes through it: either sucked or pushed out the other side. You can spend hours on the bus thinking you’re on a magical mystery tour rather than a straight road bookended by two Primarks.
Well, “radical” plans are afoot, there are plans to pedestrian Oxford Street from December 2018. Admittedly, only half of it, at first, but this is going to be the retail equivalent of the smoking ban. You think it’s never going to happen, then, all of a sudden, it’s happening and everybody is on board and it’s the best thing that ever happened. The End!
Left - The "Posh" end gets the first pedestrianisation treatment in December 2018
No doubt this has been speeded up by the ridiculously poor air quality along Oxford Street and the need to separate people and vehicles due to terrorism, but this is really exciting, nonetheless.
The section of Europe’s busiest shopping street between Oxford Circus and Orchard Street - that’s the corner of Marble Arch M&S & Selfridges - would be the first to become "predominantly traffic-free". However, north and south routes across Oxford Street will be retained after businesses and locals raised concerns about gridlock on nearby side-streets.
The plans would also see cyclists being forced to dismount on the pedestrianised stretch. The plans are designed to address concerns about rising numbers of traffic collisions, pollution and overcrowding. The proposals for the traffic-free Western section include new seating areas and raising the existing street to pavement level to make it more accessible. An 800 metre-long work of public art, acting as a centrepiece along the entire length of the pedestrianised section, could be commissioned. There will also be new public spaces, cycle lanes, improved pedestrian crossings, wider pavements and extra taxi ranks across the wider West End.
The first pedestrianised section will coincide with the launch of Elizabeth line services - and increased visitor numbers - through central London in December 2018.
Let’s be honest, the current Oxford Street isn’t a place you hang about in. You get in and get out. It’s not somewhere you can wax lyrical to tourists about either as it's slightly embarrassing and a busy mess. These plans can transform it from not only the busiest but the most attractive streets in the world. They need to have a contemporary concept and a "vision" - maybe ask Thomas Heatherwick? Or a competition to showcase the best of British architecture and design? - and really think differently rather than a simple repaving and adding extra benches. Let’s make this the centre of British fashion and style. Let’s celebrate our leadership in these areas. Fashion week outside Selfridges? Shopable shows on the retailers' doorsteps? The greenest street in the world? Cafés all along? Street theatres? Christmas markets? A street that comes alive after the shops close? This has so much potential and could be just over a year away. Exciting times.
TheChicGeek weekly magazine vlog includes celebrating his 7th birthday party with a ginger themed party at the Farah store in Covent Garden plus the new summer rooftop opened at John Lewis, Louis Vuitton has an exhibition running until the middle of June of commissions and objects from their archives, The Perfume Society launched their 'Discovery Box' in time for Father's Day plus a review of Natura Siberica, a grooming range made from ingredients from Siberia. If Vladimir Putin used a grooming range it would be this...
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