London is one of three cities in the world that is so unique it is irreplaceable and survives any kind of disaster or setback completely on its own inverted energy and the people who live there according to this scribe. The other two cities I think are New York and Paris, and that means some amazing shopping experiences for the man or woman who has everything.
I recently returned from a behind the scenes shopping tour in London organized by the Walpole Group, a non-profit company set up to promote elegance and luxury, a plentiful commodity in London today. The city is awash with old and new money, especially from hedge funds, and with the massive flow of cash from around the world, it is not hard to see why the place attracts so many millionaires and billionaires. Here are some of the highlights from that trip that featured some unforgettable behind the scenes tours.
I started out with a lunch date at the venerable Harvey Nicholls in Knightsbridge, made famous by the outrageous women in Absolutely Fabulous. The restaurant is now under the watchful eye of Finnish executive chef Helena Puoloka, it remains one of the must places in London for ladies who lunch. The only problem with the fifth floor restaurant that serves typically progressive English food is that it is so popular every day, that sometimes the wait for the food can be longer than anticipated. However it is also the amazing fashions from top designers that draw the crowds to Harvey Nichols with such hot names as Roland Mouret, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Giles Deacon, Matthew Williamson, Paul Smith and Nicole Farhi.
I you are looking for something special in the area of jewelry, then the first stop on your visit to London has to be Garrard of Albemarle Street. This is where The Crown Jeweler David Thomas resides, and if pressed he will discuss some details about his job as the man responsible for the upkeep of the British State Jewels at the Tower of London. Like many of the stores in this feature, Garrard has a royal warrant, which is basically a seal of approval from at least one member of the royal family. The company dates back to 1735 when founder George Wickes set up in business, and soon after he was appointed goldsmith to the Prince of Wales.
In 1802 Robert Garrard took control of the firm, and the company has been Crown Jewelers since 1843 when Queen Victoria bestowed the honor on them. A visit to the elegant store is like a journey into history, and the assistants will be more than pleased to show you around the Edwardian building. Aside from the showpiece diamond and ruby items that can cost upward of $10 million, there are also more reasonably priced items available such as earrings for $200. One shudders at the thought of how much their insurance premium must be.
Next up came a visit to Smythsons, stationers to royalty, the aristocracy and the noveau rich. Established in 1887, this is the place to come for leather diaries, leather jewelry boxes, travel clutches, embossed personalized stationery and a host more. When a Smythson’s invitation drops in the letter box you know you are going to something special. Smythson’s is also only one of only eight companies in the world to hold all four royal warrants. It is also the only British owned luxury goods company left on Bond Street, but they are also keen on global expansion with outlets currently in Hong Kong and New York. They have one of the best catalogues I have ever seen, which gives you a complete listing of all their outstanding products in their full glory.
Holland and Holland is the place to go if you are looking for sporting guns, most of them with intricate engraving that is still carried out today on the premises. Formed by Harris Holland in 1835, today’s guns make up only about 50% of their business, the other half devoted to sporting clothes for your day of shooting or hunting in the country. With gunrooms not only in London but now also in New York, Paris and a brand new outlet in Moscow, Holland & Holland do seem to be leading the trend. The hot new ticket is the creation of the new 16-bore over and under game gun, and the addition of new .400 and .465 Magnum big game cartridges. A bespoke gun is the dream of every hunter, and at this showroom, the process takes up to two years to complete from inception. They also service and repair guns and rifles, and also have their own shooting range just outside central London.
Alfred Dunhill is the place to go to see the private Dunhill collection of cigarette lighters that are housed in the Alfred Dunhill Museum at their flagship store in Piccadilly. Much material was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941, but there is still enough left to see. The curator is only there a couple of days a week, so best to call ahead, but if you are a collector then some of the items are priceless. Of course Dunhill’s is much more than just lighters, with pipes, tobacco, clothing for the motorist and fountain pens. Dunhill’s has always been home to royalty, politicians and celebrities, and especially during the golden era of 1935-7, culminating in the Coronation of George V1.
Another highlight for me on the trip was a visit to the bespoke tailor Gieves & Hawkes, a fixture in the area of Savile Row since 1771. Here is the place to purchase a personally tailored suit for about $1200 and up or a bespoke suit for $5,500 and up. To be perfectly frank, I could not tell the difference between the two categories of suits, but I was assured by the head fitter that the bespoke version, which consists of at least five fittings, is superior in quality.
The new creative director for the company is Joe Casely-Hayford, and his first autumn collection featured a ¾ length cashmere coat, trenchcoats manufactured by one of the few manufacturers left in the UK, and a range of waterproof coats. Even the ties are unique at Gieves & Hawkes, and a visit here will guarantee a new look for even the best dressed man. In short the Gieves man is known as a sophisticated, confident, creative individual; a confirmed non-conformist, a bitter sweet romantic with a rebellious edge.
Asprey’s is the kind of high end store that you can wander about in so much space, and still not figure out what they specialize in.. The three story establishment covers almost 20,000 square feet and was designed by Sir Norman Foster, who converted six London townhouses with a glassed-over atrium to create the current store on New Bond Street. Everything seems to be sold here from clothing, jewelry, fashion accessories, leather goods, watches, pens, crystal and silver.
Another high end place that I really enjoyed was Liberty of Regent Street, a real iconic emporium and fashion haven, with products unavailable anywhere else in the world. The designer handbags on view in the main lobby are simply amazing, such as the lanthe embossed leather day bag in a striking red color and priced about $700. This is part of a collection called Liberty of London, which also includes stationery, swimwear and bird embroidered cushions.
Designer Tamara Salman leads a 10 strong team hired to take Liberty into the modern era, and move it forward from the outdated perception that the store is just a floral print store. Founded in 1875 by Arthur Liberty, the store has always encouraged its assistants to be fashion leaders, and judging by the progressive outfits and hair styles of the current crew, they are right on track.
It is hard to say anything new about Harrods in Knightsbridge that has not been said before, but a visit to this store can never get old. The longer the visit the better it is, and a great way to break up the day would be the buffet lunch at the exquisite Georgian Restaurant, a snip at $55. Despite the fact that the meat carver on this particular occasion was new and very slow, it would not prevent me from going back. There was also a manic downpour the morning I was there, which prevented me from checking out the famous Food Hall following a flash flood but in true Harrods fashion they continued as if nothing had in fact happened.
Equally impressive is the most famous grocer in the world, Fortnum & Mason, who will be celebrating their 300th anniversary in 2007. Starting out as a tea emporium, the store has been serving royalty since those early days, and is now famous for their hampers, which they can ship all over the world. In fact you can now order from the USA directly.
The Burlington Hamper is top of the line at $650 with so many British delicacies, too numerous to mention. Meats, jams, jellies, tea, biscuits, cakes, puddings, cheeses, mustards, relishes and so much more are all available at this store, which also specializes in every kind of fresh salmon available.The store has recently undergone a $44 million renovation, and now the food hall has been expanded to occupy two floors of the store. Highlights will include rare British fruits from Brogdale Hall, seasonal vegetable boxes, rare breeds of meat and ready to cook gourmet meals. There is also a brand new designed David Collins designed Wine Bar offering an extensive selection of wines by the glass, along with food pairings.
Mike Hepworth October 2006