LONDON, United Kingdom — It took 18 months for Gabriela Hearst to find the space that houses her Madison Avenue store, but the Uruguayan-American designer, who, last year, raised a small, but significant minority investment from LVMH Luxury Ventures, says she knew after five minutes she’d found the right location in London.
“I was staying at Claridge’s and I saw it on the corner, and I knew this was it. It wasn’t even on the schedule,” she says of the then-empty space on the ground floor of a 17th-century, Georgian building at 59 Brook Street, opposite the landmark hotel. “I like the association with high-service and how we’re connected to Claridge's.”
But despite the proximity to the luxury hotel, which attracts the kind of high-spending international clientele which Hearst says already accounts for 65 percent of her sales, Brook Street isn’t an obvious choice. It crosses adjacent Bond Street (whose southern end is home to deep-pocketed luxury megabrands like Chanel, which can afford the stratospheric rents) at a flashy Victoria’s Secret flagship. Not far from Hearst’s new store are a smattering of second-tier brands like Joseph, Issey Miyake, John Smedley, Aspinal of London and Pretty Ballerinas, which sit in small units, flanked by storefronts left empty by struggling Links of London and now-defunct Sonia Rykiel.
But Grosvenor, the 350-year old family estate owned by the Seventh Duke of Westminster, 28-year-old Hugh Grosvenor, is revamping the area — a long-overlooked corner of Mayfair, bounded by Davies Street, Brook Street and South Molton Street, where rents are significantly lower than neighbouring Mount Street — which it has christened the “South Molton Triangle.” As part of the plan, luxury boutique Browns plans to shutter its iconic South Molton Street location and reopen, in 2020, at 39 Brook Street, on the corner of Avery Row, where it is expected to benefit from higher footfall and more affluent shoppers. The Mandarin Oriental is also opening a second London location on Hanover Square, further east along Brook Street.
The building housing Gabriela Hearst is owned by a Singaporean landlord, not Grosvenor, but the location is sure to benefit from the plan. “The whole of Brook Street and that part of east Mayfair is undergoing a continual refurbishment,” says Joanna Lea, retail director of Grosvenor, which is better curating its tenant mix to include a mix of food, leisure and retail, while using “public realm” investment in initiatives like widening footpaths to drive growth in its property portfolio.
For now, the “South Molton Triangle” remains a work in progress.
South Molton Street, which Grosvenor aims to recast as a destination for accessible luxury, has long lacked polish and is full of empty stores and aggressive salespeople pushing free cosmetics samples. Meanwhile, construction of the long-delayed, high-speed Crossrail train line, which promises to bring thousands of people to the Bond Street area each day, is blocking parts of Davies Street. “At the moment it’s a really under-used back street, it’s not activated, it’s not a terribly attractive part of Mayfair,” explains Lea. “But with Crossrail coming we have huge ambitions.”
They aren’t the only ones. Over 1,000 acres of central London’s prime property market is owned by a handful of aristocratic estates and the Crown. With centuries-old holdings, they are able to take a long-term view on their portfolios, often taking a near-term hit on rents to curate the right mix of tenants.
As for Gabriela Hearst, her new Brook Street store is off to a good start. Open for just over a week, it has already sold out of the label’s £1695 Callas phone case in navy leather and the clientele — composed largely of Middle-Eastern, Russian and American shoppers — have been snapping up the store’s exclusive selection of mini-Diana bags, named after Diana Ross and shaped like the bellows of an accordion, in leather, suede and water snake, according to staff. Hearst’s bags, which account for half of the label’s sales, are sold exclusively in her New York and London flagships, and via her own e-commerce site, though the brand’s UK presence also includes a concession inside Harrods and a wholesale offering at Selfridges.
“One store in the UK is good for now,” says Hearst. “Hong Kong is the next stop next year, and then we stop and focus on operating. I don’t see us as being a company that opens many stores. Seven stores across the world is enough, and a bigger website.”