Regent Street rejects old kids on the block

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The Independent Online

It may be one of the world's great shopping destinations, but London's Regent Street is failing the fashion test, according to the Crown Estate, which holds the lease on shops in the famous thoroughfare. And for some of its most venerable tenants that means one thing: eviction.

A retail renaissance is needed in the capital, the owners believe, and are looking to top US brands and the hip labels of European fashion to stem a tide of shoppers flooding towards the super-malls dotted around the M25.

That means the end of the road for Regent Street legends such as Dickens & Jones and Laura Ashley, while the arrival of Apple computers and US surfwear giant Quiksilver signals the area's new image.

With rents rocketing as £500m is spent upgrading buildings, it is expected that more stalwarts of "old Regent Street" will be forced out.

Yet, despite the price hikes, emerging giants of global retailing are being lined up to replace stores your grandparents might have frequented. The sought-after swanky new image is represented by the likes of Nike, the US sportswear manufacturer, which set the tone with its Niketown store.

Then Apple, maker of the iPod, last year transformed a 20,000sqft space into its European showcase store. Also arriving as the revamp takes shape are fashion label Massimo Dutti, part of the Spanish chain Zara, which has already established a huge outlet in Regent Street.

House of Fraser recently announced that it would close the 170-year-old Dickens & Jones department store with the loss of 500 jobs. The rent had been fixed in 1957 at £250,000 a year. But following a review it soared to £4.5m. Planning permission is about to be submitted to turn the space into a modern location for three flagship stores. On top will perch luxury residential apartments.

Last week Laura Ashley, famed for its floral skirts and wallcoverings, announced it would also leave the street. Its site is said to have been snapped up by the upmarket nursery brand Mamas & Papas, a favourite with thirtysomething professional parents.

The wind of change is being blown by the Crown Estate, the Queen's £4.5bn property portfolio which owns swathes of prime freehold across the country, including Regent Street.

It has realised that to remain a leading shopping destination, Regent Street has to work with the brands being talked about in cappuccino bars and internet chatrooms.

"We know that Regent Street faces stiff competition from other retail centres, and the West End is a fantastic location, but ultimately, none of us are going to pretend it's ideal at the moment," conceded a spokesman for the Crown Estate. "It wasn't quite a world-class environment. That's what we're trying to work towards."

The Crown Estate only wants international brand names. The writing would appear to be on the wall for the low-end and discount outlets that pepper the street. The spokesman said the Crown Estate's catchwords for the area are "quality, heritage, success and style. Our guys use that when assessing retailers."

He added that prospective leaseholders had been turned away for not meeting the new criteria: "We have a very clear commercial imperative but there have been times when we haven't taken the highest rent. We know what we want."

The next phase in the redevelopment of Regent Street will focus on the lower part, known as the Quadrant. Retailers currently in situ include McDonald's and various cut-price luggage companies.

The Crown Estate hopes to pedestrianise some of the streets leading off the Quadrant and to completely rebuild the block that houses the Atlantic Bar & Grill. The spokesman said the restaurant and its Art Deco fittings would not be affected. Income from the Crown Estate goes to the Treasury, under the terms of a deal struck in the 18th century. In return, the Government agreed to pay the sovereign an annual fee - now known as the Civil List.