Out of the ruins: designer frocks

A YEAR AFTER THE BOMB: Catherine Pepinster on a fashion phenomenon
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The Independent Online
The bomb that devastated the centre of Manchester a year ago has had an astonishing effect on the city: the arrival of some of the most famous names in fashion.

The world's leading designers are queuing to set up shop, along a new street carved out of the heart of the city which was blown apart by the IRA.

Retailers say the arrival of the designer stores will make the city centre the Bond Street of the North. Already Armani, DKNY, Vivienne Westwood and Hermes have opened, and Polo Ralph Lauren, Versace and Harvey Nichols are in the queue.

Many top designers havewanted to open in Manchester but most of the shops available have been too small. The bombing gave the city a golden opportunity to provide the space to suit the big names.

New Cathedral Street is to be the centrepiece of the revamped city centre, which was devastated by 1,400 kilos of explosives on 15 June last year. It will be a continuation of St Ann's Square which, together with nearby St Ann's Street and King Street, makes up Manchester's most exclusive shopping district.

Perhaps the biggest pointer to the regard in which Manchester is now held by those in the fashion industry is the interest being shown by Christine Ong, the "Queen of Bond Street". Mrs Ong runs a pounds 45m empire which holds the franchises for some of the top designers, including Donna Karan, Armani, Prada and Bulgari. Estate agents say she is looking for space for stores in Manchester's new centre.

The rebuilding of Manchester is the most comprehensive redevelopment of a British city centre since the start of the Sixties.It includes a new square, a riverside park, remodelling of the much-reviled Arndale Centre, an entertainment complex of cafes, night-clubs and cinemas, a hotel, a cultural quarter, and a refurbished Royal Exchange Theatre. Two Grade II listed buildings will be removed, timber by timber, and rebuilt to make way for New Cathedral Street.

So far pounds 63m of government and European funds have been promised for the rebuilding, together with pounds 350m from landowners and developers. Some of their money has come from insurance payouts following the bomb. Manchester Millennium, the team charged with getting the rebuilding work off the ground, describes the aim as "restoration and enhancement". Its members admit that the bombing gave the city a chance to remedy problems caused by the way in which it was developed in the Sixties and Seventies.

But the designers' decision to move to Manchester is not without its risks. In Bond Street and other London shopping streets, up to 60 per cent of the customers are from overseas. "Will designer stores get that in Manchester?" asks one agent. "It's unlikely."

But retailers seem undeterred. Harvey Nichols, which opened its first store outside London in Leeds last year, is keen to find space in Manchester. And next Sunday, the first anniversary of the bombing, Marks & Spencer lays the foundation stone of its new outlet.

Although it will be built on the site of its previous shop, which was badly damaged by the bomb and had to be demolished, the new one will be its largest store in the world.

"The question was not, should we have our biggest store in Manchester, but that rebuilt Manchester offered us the biggest opportunity we have had," said Marks & Spencer's Cheryl Kuczynski. "But without a doubt, the customers and spending power of Manchester do warrant that amount of space as well."