A year and a half on from Harvey Nichols' appointment of Stacey Cartwright as CEO, the luxury retailer has today unveiled its new store concept in Birmingham under her leadership. The flagship was designed in collaboration with retail specialists Virgile + Partners, an arm of the Imagination Group, and sets the bar for the brand's London refurbishment, which broke ground this month and is expected to be completed in 2017.
It's a game changer, not only for the Harvey Nichols brand, but for department stores internationally. 'The idea is to have the feel and spirit of a boutique,' says Virgile + Partners director, Carlos Virgile, during a tour of the impressive mono level site. 'There's no walkway, it's all free flowing.'
Housed within the newly refurbished Mailbox mall that the brand first inhabited in 2010, the 45,000 sq foot space has been doubled in size for this reincarnation. The city of Birmingham (where cranes and scaffolding are currently de rigueur) is itself in the midst of a major period of growth and regeneration, also staking claim to more Michelin starred restaurants than any other English city outside of London.
Working with an open-plan layout, the store's design is centered around the concept of 'controlled disruption', and is therefore dominated by a wealth of contrasting materials, textures and shapes. 'It's about redefining luxury with a new palette of materials,' says Virgile + Partners director Ewald Damen of the trapezoid shaped concrete tiled floors that segue into geometric water-jet cut Calacatta Vagli marble, merging women's accessories with beauty. 'Shapes and forms are very varied to create a soft flow throughout the store, because traditionally department stores have very hard walkways,' he adds of Birmingham's soft transitions. 'And that's the other big difference in that there are no brand concessions here, even in beauty.'
Just as the store mannequins are composed of bespoke components of varying materials (stone and metal included), Virgile + Partners worked with a company called Mass Concrete on made-to-order terrazzo for its display cases. The ceiling is another dynamic feature, composed of semi translucent polycarbonate panels (usually used in industrial settings), which bounce natural light about the floor, giving an open, airy feeling without actual mirrored reflection. 'There is a gradient of rough textures to very smooth,' adds Damen of a metal mesh curtain that discreetly leads shoppers through to the rest rooms. 'Because it's a one level store we wanted to have lots of variation on materials,' he adds.
Similarly unique are the store's furniture groupings of modern and vintage design pieces: 'Every item of furniture was designed or chosen to create an effect of individuality,' reinforces Virgile, referencing a vintage Baccarat chandelier, Mae West Salvador Dali red lips sofa and an assortment of Moooi chairs and rugs. 'There is no sea of merchandise or repetition,' he explains of the store's varied product displays.
Also new is the concept store's use of technology. Cash registers have been banished to the back room in favour of the roaming Apple store model. And on a technical note, the VIP change room within the Style Concierge section debuts a 360-degree 'magic mirror', which captures video that can be emailed instantaneously for a second opinion.
Similarly, out-of-the-box is The Harvey Nichols Restaurant, in partnership with Purnell restaurant owner and Michelin starred chef Glynn Purnell. The tapas-style, all day dining spot features an open kitchen, private chef's table and cocktail bar. It wil also be open outside of retail hours, accessible via its own sweeping staircase. Design wise, it would look right at home in a 5-star hotel.
'This was very much an experiment for all of us,' says Virgile of the integrated concept. 'Now everybody feels really confident about the next stage in Knightsbridge.' One of the features that the pair are most excited about is a feature wall within Birmingham's menswear section: 'It is something that we will continue to explore in Knightsbridge; in the feeling of movement that it has,' says Virgile of the brick slips that have been inserted at angles to create a textural wave. That said, 'it would be really boring to repeat,' grins Virgile, 'It's not going to be a straightforward repetition like a chain of stores.'