Where Sloane Street meets Suburbia

The store of choice for the seriously chic is spreading its elegant tentacles. Ruth Picardie goes to `Harvey Nicks'

The location is not promising. Stranded on the wrong side of Knightsbridge Tube ("Harrods this way" explain the exit signs), on the corner of Sloane Street, to the north and west Harvey Nichols is choked by traffic, to the east it is flanked by the monstrously ugly Sheraton Park Tower Hotel.

Step inside the shiny glass doors, however, sniff deeply on the perfumed air, so the legend goes, and you enter a different world. Sleek blondes in black heels are quietly concentrating on the serious business of high fashion shopping. Here is a navy jacket (pounds 480) and trousers (pounds 275) by Ter et Bantine; there a short cream coat (pounds 550) by Barbara Bui; and would Madam like to try the flame suit (pounds 1,025) by Calvin Klein?That white Kelly bag (pounds 325) by Alan Faye is tempting. But Madam is distracted by a vulgar woman in a scarlet jacket who has hijacked the sales assistant. "Lady Di bag," she barks. "Black. How much?" "Harrods," replies the assistant, directing her next door. Instead, our shopper's final purchase is a new body cream by Estee Lauder, price pounds 27. Then she disappears in a puff of perfume into a cab SW-bound, a little tired, several hundred pounds poorer, but what else is a Sloane to do on a Wednesday afternoon?

Such is the reputation of Harvey Nicks - the store's nickname for those in the know, including Ab Fab's Patsy and Edina on a shopping binge. While Harrods is a vast, increasingly tacky tourist mecca; Fortnum & Mason full of little old ladies; Selfridges too big and too bland, Harvey Nicks claims to be simply the most glamorous department store in London. Since its 1991 takeover by Hong Kong-based millionaire whizz-kid Dickson Poon (now 42) from the Burton Group, who had filled it with lots of rather dull carpets and lost money, it has been reinvented as the store of choice for the stylish rich and the seriously chic: Madonna is a customer; Princess Diana is reported to buy her bikinis here; only last week Emma Thompson - the epitome of understated English glamour - was there, searching for an Oscar gown, perhaps.

Otherwise, Harvey Nicks is favoured by the young and beautiful. In the darkly glossy bar - part of the Fifth Floor food and drink emporium - that stays open after the store has closed at night, I found Paula, a graphic designer in her late twenties, wearing leather trousers and a black polo-neck, drinking cappuccino with David, a photographer with long hair and a goatee, a couple of Dolce e Gabbana bikinis by her side. Downstairs, Deborah, 23, a freelance fashion stylist and student at St Martin's, had just spent pounds 79 on a little black bag. "If I could park," said Deborah, "I'd come here every week."

The formula has worked brilliantly: since 1991, turnover has gone up from pounds 54m to pounds 75m, profits from an operating loss of pounds 150,000 to pounds 6.5m in the black; coming this summer is a new restaurant on the top floor of the Oxo tower on London's South Bank; the autumn sees the opening of a store in Leeds. This week the company announced a stock market flotation to develop stores in New York, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere in the UK.

But the true picture is more complex. Why, here in the Fifth Floor cafe are a couple of cosily overweight middle-aged ladies on a day out, in pastel knits, M&S skirts, gilt ear-rings and a nice matching scarf. Next to me in the bar - by 6.30pm, full of wideboys on mobile phones and singles on the make - are Maureen, 39, and Jeanette, 36. Maureen has bought a pair of tights; Jeanette says the cosmetics gifts are excellent. But the fashion? "I like Nicola [sic] Farhi," says Jeanette, uncertainly. "And is it DINKY [sic]?" Maureen is less equivocal. "A hideous mauve nylon shirt for pounds 99," she says, incredulously. "you've got to be kidding."

As for the illusion that Harrods is for herds of tourists while Harvey Nicks is for fashionable Londoners: these days the store is full of foreign money. Today, two heavily made-up Americans, possibly New Jersey Mafia molls, have taken over the Versace concession, clothes strewn across the little velvet couch. "Give me that in the green," snaps one. "Is that a jacket or a blazer?" says the other. "I'll take it anyway. In the green."

If the truth be told, Harvey Nicks is not just an exclusive club for the super rich, but a provider of escapist glamour for everywoman. "If you're depressed, there's nothing better than coming to Harvey Nicks," says Jeanette. Says Linda Grant, whose forthcoming novel, The Cast Iron Shore, is in part a history of shopping: "From time to time we need a bit of mindless glamour to cheer us up."

For most of us, this doesn't mean spending a fortune on clothes. Indeed, only 36 per cent of the store's sales come from women's wear. Thanks largely to the fabulous window displays (memorably a pink seascape constructed entirely from copies of the Financial Times), supercool ad campaigns (including the first homage to the Reservoir Dogs poster) and the glossy Fifth Floor food hall, where customers now spend 15 per cent of their cash, Harvey Nicks has become the chic place for a girls' day out. Once transported via a separate entrance and express lifts to the gastronomic delights at the top of the store, tradtitionally a dead shopping zone, they exit by escalator, passing by all the sartorial attractions at a leisurely browse. Such visitors may, once in a blue moon, consider buying something to wear but they are far more likely to visit the beauty salon (hair repair treatment, a mere pounds 10), or pick up a pair of DKNY tights (fashion accessories account for 12 per cent of sales). Back in the grimy hustle of Knightsbridge Tube station, they may feel a million dollars, but they've spent only pounds 15.

Harvey Nicks is a brilliant trick: in-the-know glamour for everyone, on a scale not seen since Biba in the Sixties. The illusion is contained in the details: the Fifth Floor cafe may have a modish, grilled vegetable- heavy menu, but also serves comforting great platefuls of chips, served with chic (but even more fattening) garlic mayonnaise - an affordable treat at pounds 2.75. The staff are presentable, but not frighteningly fashionable or too thin, as in the dauntingly cool cafes attached to Emporio Armani, or Nicole Farhi's Bond Street store. More importantly, service is quick enough to leave plenty of shopping time - even in a lunch hour.

All this democracy has its downside. (Indeed, a strange old man was buying bottled beer and endless tins of tomato puree when I visited the food hall.) "It's lost its soul," says one top fashion journalist. "These days it's like an airport lounge, predicated completely on the bottom line. For Dickson Poon, fashion is just another commodity. And the clothes are for sloanes who want to be comforted by names." The seriously fashionable now favour Liberty for its adventurousness and the support it offers young designers.

But as we've seen Harvey Nicks isn't really just for the seriously fashionable. It's an escapist day out for you and me, Maureen and Jeanette, and middle- aged matrons in M&S skirts: the new ladies who lunch.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

    £16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

    Day In a Page

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world