When Harrods celebrated 40 years of its Way In department six years ago, it did so by championing the likes of Karen Millen, Coast and costume jewellery brand Mikey. Apart from a quick hit of fashion nostalgia, such a titbit serves to underline the speed at which a certain level of the industry – the low –moves.
While the cheapest end of the market is branded as “fast fashion”, further up the scale the pace is ever-increasing, not only in terms of trends but those brands which pass in and out of favour. Harrods' Way In department, a radical boutique concept when it launched in 1967, was one of the first to carry both men's and women's ready-to-wear alongside make-up and handbags, but has since suffered from neglect and lack of investment in favour of the show-stealing luxury fashion enclaves.
Now the whole department has been given a radical overhaul and developed into a 30,000sq ft paean to contemporary fashion, the final stage of which opens this week. Designed by architects Found Associates, the aesthetic of the Fashion Lab department, as it's now known, is modern, urban and clean.
To counter the confusion that comes hand-in-hand with a host of logoed “shop-in-shops”, Fashion Lab is modelled with uniform fixtures and fittings – the only variety comes from a choice of colour finish. Branding is kept to a minimum on plain walls, and the floor is of cast concrete to enhance the industrial feel.
Helen David, Harrods' fashion director of womenswear, oversaw this development which it's hoped will revolutionise the way customers shop. “I think people get pre-conceived ideas about what brands are and at this price I think shop-fit really influences the perception of a brand,” says David. Anyone who has been overwhelmed by the jarring decors of cheek-by-jowl brands will understand the sentiment.
David anticipates that any initial disorientation the lack of obvious division may cause will actually be a positive and lead to customers shopping with fewer pre-conceptions and brand prejudices than they might elsewhere. “Take All Saints – its shop fit is quite full-on,” she says diplomatically. “Some people might love that but it might turn others off completely. What we wanted to do was create a clean environment where you notice the product. You're not thinking about your surroundings, you're thinking: 'I love that jacket'.”
A project of this scale has, of course, been years in the making and it's no surprise that the brands involved were initially hesitant when they learnt that they would be expected to blend in with their competitors. But any concerns have been mollified by increased sales and the opportunity to capture organically the attention of new customers, David says: “Trade-wise, it's been a phenomenal success.”
“In the Sixties, the Way In was seen as a pioneer; it was the first time cool, young-women's and -men's clothing had been mixed. Mary Quant launched there – if you saw it in Way In, it was cool,” states David, whose main brief for the development was that the product was centre stage. “In that type of area, where the fashion is fast and something is cool for two years and then it's not, you need to be able to replace brands.
“These aren't going to be the customers who are coming in to buy a £10,000 ball gown. They'll be coming in on a Thursday or Friday afternoon to buy something to wear that night. Or their mum will shop on the first floor and they'll come up to get a couple of things. The vibe is fun much more than luxury.
“Harrods has become known for carrying the best of the best,” David explains, and while the price tags carry significantly fewer zeros in this department, there is still a reassuring sense of selection, and, of course, customer service.
“Exclusivity is important in every department; following the trends and being commercial are more important for our brands at this level,” she says.
There has been something of a Gallic invasion in the new department, as brands such as Maje, The Kooples, Sandro and Zadig & Voltaire have gained a customer base by offering trend-led pieces that warrant their price tag because they will still be wearable two seasons hence – something that is lamentably lacking from a British high street often awash with tepid catwalk copies. David is sure that once again customers will believe that if they see something in Fashion Lab, that means it's cool.