As US homeware giant West Elm prepares to open its first London branch next week and cult store Anthropologie spreads the upscale-boho vibe out-of-town to straight-laced Surrey, it seems we British are having a fling with all-American ‘décor’ brands.
Post-recession, American brands are flooding to the UK and making waves on British high streets. Well, not always making waves. Fashion label J Crew made more of a ripple with a deliberately low key (and effortlessly cool, natch) entry to the country by nestling in discreetly among the independent boutiques on London’s trendy Lambs Conduit Street. Those bearded J Crew dudes don’t even have a sign, they’re so darn keen to blend in.
Meanwhile, across town, there was a much louder fanfare; Regent Street is still strewn with banners from the experiential ‘all-American block party’ (complete with cheer leaders) that was held earlier this autumn to celebrate the NFL International Series games at London’s Wembley Stadium.
We are, it seems, enjoying ‘The Special Relationship’ – and nowhere is this more evident than in the interiors sector.
The love affair has been brewing for a few years now, since trend-setting Jonathan Adler caused a stir in notoriously-not-that-groovy Chelsea back in 2011 by opening his ‘Happy Chic’ boutique on Sloane Avenue with the slogan: ‘YOUR 24-HOUR POT DEALER’ plastered across the windows.
Others soon joined in. Since arriving on these shores in 2009, US hipster brand Anthropologie has sold so many ‘quirky teacups’ and ‘whimsical knobs’ on King’s Road and Regent Street that it can afford to open a new Guildford branch in a shop formerly occupied by Habitat – just saying. Even New York designer John Derian has paid us a visit to introduce his new Provincetown candle collection to Liberty, so our homes can smell of the East Coast…
Perhaps the recovering economy, combined with the power of online influencers – bloggers, websites, digital magazines – and the increasing might of social media, has boosted brands’ confidence. It’s no longer a leap in the dark; Now, companies can test the waters in advance and prepare customers before making the scary jump across The Pond. West Elm, for example, got us salivating last year by teaming up with British designers such as Sarah Campbell and introducing international shipping on their American website.
On Tottenham Court Road, West Elm’s new neighbours will include Habitat and Heal’s – British brands that are both trying their hardest to be fashion-forward during difficult times. The appointment of Polly Dickens at Habitat (fresh from being Design Director at Anthropologie, incidentally) means the focus there is shifting to more affordable but increasingly-exciting design season-by-season, while Heal’s has been pulling every trick imaginable out of the bag to remain relevant, including a recent in-store Silent Opera* evening. (*which Gok Wan attended. Honestly.)
It’s going to be tough. Feathers will be ruffled. West Elm is Williams Sonoma’s coolest kid and these guys mean business. The brand collaborates with top bloggers and cutting-edge designers such as Shanna Murray and has a knack of scooping up the trendies before they themselves even realise they’re ‘in’. As if that wasn’t enough, the new shop even has, like, a totes-on-trend living wall (a la Anthropologie Regent Street).
Does this mean that UK brands will have to up their game? Let’s hope so. I write this at a time when ‘top designer’ Holly Willoughby has just launched her debut home collection (think shabby-chic, frills and lace and yawn) at BHS. Say. No. More.
The move across The Pond doesn’t always work of course. US brand Dwell Studio (hastily renamed ‘Living by Christiane Lemieux’ after UK shop Dwell complained) – popped across last year but is struggling to sell via House of Fraser according to insiders, despite designers shrinking all the furniture to fit smaller UK homes and an impressive PR campaign. ‘Most people in the UK just don’t know who Christiane is,’ one leading retail expert told me.
Meanwhile, some industry old-schoolers haven’t even heard of the new kid on the block yet. ‘West what?’ asked a senior interiors PR manager at a recent meeting when the subject came up, adding, dismissively: ‘Never heard of them.’
So, perhaps we’re not all ready yet, but the younger, pin-happy-snap-chatting generation is clamouring for US style. This is not an invasion – it’s more of a rescue. The British high street’s home collections have been painfully safe throughout the recession, but now’s the time for change. Surely we can do better than bulk-buying cushions plastered with owl motifs and ‘keep calm’ crap from China again and again. Somehow, it all feels so five years ago…and has done, for about five years.
Even Terence Conran – who was once at the helm of the Habitat revolution – has jumped ship to design a sell-out capsule collection for US high street department store JC Penney this year. But it works both ways, too – some British brands that have their finger on the pulse are bravely making the move in the opposite direction, such as Sofa.com which has just opened a shop in New York, thanks to building up an American fan base online in advance.
So, watch out, Holly. It’s a global game these days, baby.