A new friend in the North

It used to be known for coal and cutlery - now Sheffield is getting a name for cool instead. JAMES SHERWOOD on why designers are heading up the M1
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If a city could visit a psychiatrist then Sheffield's prognosis would be as follows: "Fears desertion, lacks self-confidence and constantly feels inadequate and unattractive when compared to its sibling cities in the North." Sheffield's motto could be "Grim and bear it". Its famous exports are still coal, cutlery and Marti Caine, none of which survive in 1999. Londoners imagine a grim northern carbuncle where Ma is still down pit wi't whippet and Pa's at the working men's club nursing a pint of Tetley bitter.

Cut to Sheffield's Devonshire Quarter. An idiosyncratic pocket of stores, bars and off-centre boutiques is making this district on the edge of the city centre buzz. Sheffield's deserted main shopping street Fargate is like the Marie Celeste in comparison. Mini bottles of Laurent Perrier, recently seen at Donatella Versace's Bond Street party, are being sipped though straws at chi-chi pre-club bar Halcyon. Halcyon's manager, Harold Senior, is the Piers Adam of the North and his bar has been awarded Best Pre-club Venue in the UK by MixMag.

Designer store Frox on Devonshire Street - the main artery through the quarter - is still fielding phone requests for a Whistles green velvet top featured on Channel 4's She's Gotta Have It after Arabella Weir filmed an episode in Frox for the current series. Well-dressed "townies" queue half way down Division Street for Bar Coast, a new Philippe Starck-style bar conversion in Sheffield's old fire station. Across the road, contemporary jewellers Green & Benz has sold its first four-figure diamond and platinum ring since opening a month ago. Within hours Sheffield superclub The Republic will host Gatecrasher, a Saturday club night so key on the "cyber freak" circuit it has already made a guest appearance in London and released three CD club mixes. Diehard club kids are still recovering from Friday night's NYSushi at Club Union.

In short, Sheffield is kicking ass. The Eighties pit closure hangover hit Sheffield harder than its sister cities. Leeds reinvented itself as "the Knightsbridge of the North" with a Harvey Nichols flagship, a Gieves & Hawkes and a glitzy canal-side restaurant district. Manchester's Canal Street quarter, Queer as Folk country, became a mini Las Vegas for the pink pound. Admittedly, Sheffield laughed at its own misfortunes with the 1997 bittersweet movie The Full Monty. Sheffield humour is its greatest export. (Overheard in the Forum Cafe: "Did you see that Laurence and his fantasy bedroom last night?" "The only fantasy bedroom in my house is when some bugger cleans it.") But it takes more than a few gags about flat caps and G-strings to drag a 19th-century industrial city into Y2K.

So what happened? Seven years ago two monumental projects promised Sheffield her long overdue facelift. Meadowhall, a monolithic indoor shopping complex on the outskirts of town, opened with a fanfare and robbed the city centre of its high street crown jewels. The Forum, a warehouse property in Sheffield's student quarter, brought together a grab-bag of indie fashion labels, DJs, hair salons and retro clothes stores under one roof. Ironically, Meadowhall cleared a path for the funkier, spunkier young indie retailers to create a style ghetto in the wasteland that was Sheffield city centre.

"We were the catalyst for the Devonshire Quarter boom," says Emma Pratt, general manager of the Forum. "Meadowhall made Sheffield city centre a ghost town. The Forum gave the new generation a low-rent showcase for entrepreneurs, designers and artists. Since we opened, the Forum has always been 95 to 100 per cent let. Stores like skate shop Sumo started here and moved on as the business grew. We are really a launch pad for fresh talent in Sheffield."

As the fourth largest city in the UK (population 550,000), Sheffield is a vast, sprawling metropolis. Pockets of town are no-go areas, others are retail graveyards for the discount stores and also-rans left behind when the big brands moved to Meadowhall. The owners of the Forum, Charlie Chester and Kane Yeardly, sensibly chose a block of property on Devonshire Street, the student quarter, because rents were cheap and the 52,000 student population would react like moths to a flame if fashion, alcohol and nightclubbing were concentrated in one area. Locals call it "the Greenwich Village of the North".

"The past 12 months have made a big difference," says Katie Coyne, owner of Frox. "Within a square mile we've got the Forum Cafe, Halcyon, Bar Coast, RSVP and Lloyds No1. Ask and Vodka Republic will open in the Devonshire Quarter before 2000. It's good for us because people now have venues where they want to dress up and show off. We were much more clubby when Frox first opened. Now the big sellers are Whistles, Ghost and Amaya Arzuaga. The Devonshire Quarter is growing up with us."

Gavin Clarke, co-owner with brother Andy of designer menswear stores Brother to Brother, agrees with Coyne. "The bars are applying for late licences now in a move to make the Devonshire Quarter 24 hours. When we opened Brother 10 years ago, there was nothing like it in Sheffield. I think we started with four pieces of Dirk Bikkembergs. It's been a long haul. Now we have two stores, designer and diffusion, and Sheffield is ahead of London with some of these labels." You would indeed be hard pressed in London to find such a tight, sharp edit of edgy menswear including Sharpeye, Alexander McQueen, Raf Simmons, Helmut Lang, Maharishi and Dries Van Noten.

Owner/manager of Devonshire Street skate shop Sumo, Seb Palmer, is more blunt. "London is wank," he says with a snort. Instead of looking to London's skate scene, Sumo has produced its own video, Through the Eyes of Ruby, put 50 per cent investment into a skate park scheme planned for Devonshire Green and consistently sells out of Stussy, Silas and skateboards from a major prestige unit.

Sheffield's cultural renaissance has initiated a backlash against London. No, northerners never did like the South's superiority complex. But now the antagonism is less inverted snobbery and more genuine competitive spirit. "A year ago, we wouldn't have dreamed of opening a contemporary jewellers in Sheffield," says Julie Benz, co-owner of Green & Benz.

Opened last month, Green & Benz sells exclusive international designer collections in its three-storey flagship. Painted in cool platinum blue, Green & Benz is an exercise in minimal, Wallpaper*-style contemporary design. "We were inspired by jewellers we'd seen in New York and Barcelona," says Benz, "and see no reason why a city with Sheffield's taste levels won't appreciate international design. Some of our designers are exclusive to us so Londoners will have to come and get it."

It is a tribute to the Forum that its endorsement of an area can attract Green & Benz. More impressive is its role as a launch pad which can make a minor skate stall such as Sumo grow into a co-investor in town planning with Sheffield City Council. The council has been pumping money back into the town largely because council alumni such as Frank Dobson and David Blunkett are now in a position to throw a few crumbs. Sheffield has also been awarded Grade I status on the poverty scale; meaning it is down there with Liverpool and deserving of hand-outs.

Unfortunately, the council has invested in dodo no-no schemes such as the National Centre for Popular Music, known to locals as the National Centre of Total Bollocks. The council can't take full credit for the Devonshire Quarter even if it now plans to runway- light the paths on Devonshire Green and renovate slum property into warehouse lofts. But funding will add power to the Devonshire Quarter's elbow.

If the Devonshire Quarter is the epicentre of Sheffield's urban cool, other pockets of redevelopment suggest they have set a precedent. The seedy downtown Sheaf Market is currently being redeveloped as a Warner multi-screen cinema. Close by, the riverside Victoria Quarter is being redeveloped as a Docklands loft-living complex. Already the creaking old Victorian hotels have been modernised and joined by a contemporary boutique hotel, Hotel Bristol.

The Devonshire Quarter is a mere five minutes from Sheffield's Knightsbridge, Eccleshall Road. Home to the glitterati canteen Nonna's, Bang & Olufson and countless clothes stores, Eccleshall Road is finding itself taking second place to the Devonshire Quarter as a retail hot spot. Again, it suffers from being cut off from the city centre by an ugly big roundabout.

Sheffield's gay scene too is sadly stuck out in what used to be a no- go area called Attercliffe, although the Forum Cafe and Halcyon are both chic enough to lure the pink pounds 100 minimum for a top night out. Centralise the gay scene and the Devonshire Quarter has all the potential to be the North's answer to Soho as well as Greenwich Village. Once Sheffield has joined these dots then you can bet it will be glam up North.