M&S: Minimalism and Shopping

Marks and Spencer's long-awaited Lifestyle store opens today in Gateshead, designed to attract a new breed of customer. So will it work?
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The Independent Online

As a brand more associated with sensible knickers, V-neck jumpers and pre-packed sandwiches, Marks & Spencer has earned its position as an icon of Middle England's shopping tastes.

So visitors to the chain's new flagship Lifestore, which opens in Gateshead this morning, will be forgiven for thinking they've gone to the wrong place.

When the drapes shielding the complex fall, they will reveal an M&S quite unrecognisable from its usual high street formula.

This is the chain's first serious attempt to take on the likes of Ikea and Habitat, reinventing itself for a generation to whom M & S means Mies and Saarinen rather than Marks and Sparks. It is home, appropriately enough, to 12,000 new products that the man behind the new project, Vittorio Radice, hopes will revolutionise people's homes across the land.

An attack on all the home furnishing fashions that Middle England hold dear, Lifestore stands a chance of doing as much for our living rooms as Simply Foods has done for our kitchens. The store, 10 months in conception, is the brainchild of the retailer who coined the "shopping as entertainment'' maxim as he gave a new lease of life to the Oxford Street department store Selfridges. Mr Radice, the antithesis of a traditional M&S shopper in his bespoke navy-blue corduroy suit, is like a little boy in a toy shop as he walks round the store on the eve of its opening.

"I wanted the 'wow' factor as you came in,'' he says, showing off what is probably the first retail outlet in Britain to contain a fully functioning house within it. The glass-fronted, two-storey creation was designed by John Pawson, the minimalist architectural legend who has worked for Calvin Klein. The uber-chic house is testimony to how far M&S has come since hiring Mr Radice last year to head its struggling Home arm. Its see-through front wall allows the voyeur to glimpse whichever make-believe family scenario that Ilse Crawford - another of the big names and high design brains that M&S has got on board for this project - has chosen to showcase this week.

Today, Ms Crawford - launch editor of Elle Decoration and designer of the interiors of New York's Soho House and the urbanites' favourite weekend hotel Babington House - is letting Gateshead have a peek at what the house might look like if one of the characters of the cult TV show Footballers' Wives were to move in - hence the black leather daybed in the living room and boudoir feel to the bedroom. White faux fur throws and sheepskin rugs vie for space on the bed with sumptuous velvet cushions and Agent Provocateur-designed underwear. "How to'' sex manuals are scattered on the floor next to the bed as is a pair of Newcastle United slippers. "It started from a chance remark of John [Pawson's]. He saw an episode of the show and wondered what would happen if one of them bought the house,'' Ms Crawford explains. She hasn't decided what look to go for next but says Mr Pawson's design has given her a "blank canvas'' to work with.

(Plans for the house, incidentally, can be yours for just £1,000 - 25 copies of a book detailing exactly how to buy into Pawson's minimalist lifestyle are for sale for those looking for that dream holiday home in Bali.)

The store proper is divided into nine sections that are supposed to sum up our "eclectic'' lifestyles. Sub-headings such as "Relax'', "Rest'' or "Alfresco'' each showcase a selection of the revamped upholstery, crockery, lighting and bedding that Mr Radice hopes will inspire us to update our home furnishings as often as we'd update our wardrobes.

Mr Radice has deliberately played mix-and-match with the new products, pairing a funky orange leather armchair with a traditional wood wardrobe in one corner and a less-than-inspiring cream sofa with a green carpet and a bamboo table in another. "We want to show customers there is a different way of using the same product in a different environment,'' he says, pointing to a sofa that has already been in the group's collection for three years but has been jazzed up for the occasion with the addition of a couple of new cushions. He is desperate for customers to throw caution to the wind and not shy away from buying one of its red Perspex stools, for example, just because they don't think it will go with that hand-carved table they brought back from their travels in Africa. "Most other retailers make everything match. They match brown sofas, with brown cushions, with brown rugs, with brown curtains, it's all matchy matchy,'' he says - later admitting he is very "unmatchy unmatchy''.

Proving that Lifestore is as much about having the courage to update old ideas, he points to a Louis XV-style chair that has been sold by the retailer since time began but is practically unrecognisable in its current guise of white wood trim with plum fleur-de-lys studded chenille upholstery. He denies that the store's ultra contemporary image and products will scare off the group's core customer base: broadly speaking 50-something women. "We had the wrong idea,'' he says. "We thought that by continually selling purple cushions we'd keep our customers happy but they were desperate, saying 'don't give me another purple cushion. I've bought 20 already from you. Give me something different. My God!'" And thanks to Mr Radice - whose own house apparently sports a pink dining room table for 10 - something different is exactly what they've got.

Roger Holmes, M&S's chief executive, is hoping the vast overhaul of its home furnishings division will allow it to grab a bigger share of the country's £20bn market than its current 2 per cent. A smaller store in London's Kingston-upon-Thames will follow on the heels of Gateshead this summer. But then it will be a 12-month wait for the third Lifestore which is not due to open until July 2005 at Thurrock. By then, Mr Radice is hoping the project will have been deemed a success allowing him to roll out the Lifestore concept to the 20 sites he says the retailer has already identified as suitable locations. Mr Holmes, smiling yesterday for perhaps the first time in months, was being coy about how much money the group plans to set aside to fund the roll-out. But considering Gateshead alone set the group back £14m - around £170 per square foot - it isn't going to be a small number.

Mr Radice will be doing his bit for the new store's sales figures when its doors finally open this morning. He apparently has "a shopping list with about 100 things on it" that he has been waiting to buy.

Top of his must-haves is a small round orange lacquer-topped table with a silver stand, that will set him back £99. Then it's off to the "Cook'' section for a set of Japanese ceramic plates at £7 a pop. He has also been eyeing up a bamboo chopping board - "the soft wood is perfect for sushi" - and an art deco-inspired lamp. However his total bill should be quite reasonable; he is adamant that the retailer's price tags pitch it firmly at the affordable-if-aspirational end of the market.

Whether the population of Gateshead will agree is a moot point, but if they don't they can always pop across the park to Ikea.

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