Retail Gems: Marks & Spencer, UK

Retails Gems are my way of describing retailers that I’ve come across and felt were worthy of a mention, mainly because of their certain je nes se quois, perhaps their charm or their service. I intended to only really pick up on slightly less well-known retailers and so it would seem odd, at first, that I would choose to blog about Marks & Spencer, perhaps one of the best known department stores in Britain and one that upholds the brand of “Britishness” in 51 territories throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Well, that’s only if you don’t know about its history, and more specifically about Marks & Spencer’s closely knitted alliance with Manchester, the city where I live.

Firstly though, it started in Leeds, 1884, when Michael Marks opened his first Penny Bazaar. Partnering with Tom Spencer in 1894 Marks & Spencer as we know it today started life. Yada yada yada, by the turn of the century Marks & Spencer had 39 stores blah blah blah and then they both died.

Now, this is where things get especially interesting. After a bit of a to-do between Simon Marks and the Executer of Spencer’s Will, the ownership and control switched back to the Marks household, the company went public and opened its first registered Head Quarters just off Cheetham Hill Road in Manchester City Centre.

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Derby Street during the M&S years.

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Derby Street more recently, within Manchester’s wholesale fashion district.

This is where the multi-national multi-channel retailing juggernaut really got moving, excelling in all thing thrift throughout the war-years, focussing on Christian Dior’s “New Look” with the introduction of ready-to-wear fashion in the 1940s and 1950s, home ware and modern cooking throughout the 70s and 80s and of course, the irresistible Christmas TV adverts throughout the 90s and naughties. 

M&S championed refrigerated transportation and the retail of chilled chickens in a time before Tesco, they pioneered man-made fashion fabrication and were the first retailer in Britain to operate testing laboratories, with the purpose of inventing and discovering new fabrics for apparel. Marks ‘n Sparks were pretty incredible and it seems they want to keep their history alive with the unveiling of their Company Archive.

Marks & Spencer have opened an incredible Company Archive centre in Leeds, the historic home of the brand. Whilst I think it would have been nice to have the archive on my doorstep, in the city where the modern M&S brand took off and where the brand continues to house one of its largest stores, y’know, I’m not bitter. You can find out more about the Archive and the rather amazing work of the volunteers in this short film here:

Although, the affiliation between M&S and Manchester doesn’t end at Derby Street. As I just mentioned, one of the brand’s largest store calls Manchester its home, situated in the city centre. The store is a rebuild after the former store was obliterated in the IRA bomb attack on Manchester in 1996. Along with an estimated £700m worth of damage the Irish Republican Army took M&S from Manchester.

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Marks & Spencer city centre flagship store in Manchester, pre-1996 IRA Bombing.
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Cooperation Street and the fascia of Marks & Spencer in the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bomb.

Still, incredibly Greater Manchester Police managed to evacuate all 70,000+ people in the city centre at the time and whilst many were hurt, no one was killed and M&S were back in business with their new swanky store on the original footprint of their bombed-out shell, within a few years!

Quite the retail gem, don’t you think?

You can watch historic adverts and discover more about your M&S at the Marks In Time timeline here.
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Retail Gems: Hoopers Department Stores, UK

My life can be punctuated with trips to Hoopers. It’s not often people grow up with an attachment to a retailer, and it’s certainly unusual to develop an attachment to one outside of London and without the fame associated with places like Harrods and Liberty. Why do I view Hoopers in this way? Let me explain.

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Hoopers, Wilmslow

Before I lived in Manchester, I lived in Devon and before I lived in Devon, I lived in Manchester.

My grandparents lived in nearby Wilmslow and they regularly visited the local Hoopers store, a gorgeously kitsch old department store catering to all sorts from fashion to fragrence, homewear and beauty. Hoopers was the name in understated class and I loved being taken there for a jacket potato with my Nanna when I was a boy.

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Image courtesy of Jamieson Smith Associates

When my parents moved my family to Devon for a new life, there was Hoopers again, the small independent chain has it’s oldest store in Torquay where it is the home for luxury and high-end labels in the region, the only place you can shop from Vogue in Devon.

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Hoopers, Torquay

Whilst growing up and becoming more and more interested in fashion, Hoopers was a regular browsing spot for me, a place to see those expensive handbags up close and a place to start to understand the different between Burberry and Armani in a part of the world where so few know who Anna Wintour is.

Then I moved back north, for University and to taste a more cosmopolitan kinda life and where should I land my first graduate job, but Wilmslow, right back where it all started with a jacket potato and pot of tea for two.

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Image courtesy of Jamieson Smith Associates 

If you’re not close by Wilmslow or Torquay you can pop by Tunbridge Wells or Harrogate for the chain’s other stores and travel back in time to the set of Are you being Served for stores where it seems there are more staff than customers at times and where a jacket potato wins over high tea any day.


Retail Gems: Austins Department Store of Newton Abbot, Devon, UK

I love a good mooch around the shops. Then again, it would be pretty difficult to keep up with a blog, predominately concerned with fashion retail, if I didn’t, wouldn’t it? This Christmas shopping period and my break in Devon, away from the big bad city, has allowed for some time to sit back and remember why I became interested in fashion in the first place. The answer: I liked shopping.

As part of a new series of features on this here blog, I will bring you posts on some of the fabulous retail gems I come across in my day-to-day life. First up, Austins Department Store of Newton Abbot in Devon.


Newton Abbot is a medium sized market town in south Devon, where the boyf was born and raised and around a 40 minute drive from where I was raised. Newton Abbot may seem a little plain and is often no more than the point at which most have to change from their southward bound train if they’re to continue onto Cornwall, but this is this the little market town that could. Whilst Torquay buckles under the pressure of the economy down the road, Newton Abbot’s town centre is seemingly bustling away quite happily. 


At the centre of this retail oasis is Austins Department Store. Spread over four separate premises at the far end of the pedestrianised high-street, Austins is the anchor for the entire town, selling everything from BRITA filters in their Home Store and East womenswear in their Fashion Store and carpets in their Furniture Store to James Aubrey coats and Lego in their Menswear and Toy Store. What Austins lacks in the sheer opulence and grandeur of the likes of Liberty in London and Macy’s in New York, it makes up for by being the go-to destination for all things practical and quality. 


Austins has it all. If you need buttons and fastenings for that dress you’re making, head to first floor Haberdashery. Perhaps you want a new Wok, see ground floor Homewear, do you need a model aircraft for the nephew and a scarf for Grandad? Menswear and Toy Store is your place. What I also love about the store is because practicality is their niche, live demonstrations are their theatre. Demos of the latest BRITA filtration systems or the latest ceiling air plane can be seen throughout the stores, with knowledgeable and friendly staff behind every counter. 


Next time you’re passing through either Newton Abbot Train Station or at a jam at the Penn Inn Roundabout, take a moment to stop and take in this retail gem.


A Defence of Retail

Fashion is never without its complications. It’s a drama-queen of a business, throwing hissy-fits and spilling Champagne all over the place. This blog is a bit about this temperamental state of affairs.

I moved to Manchester three years ago and began laying the foundations for a career in fashion straight away. I would spend my days in the library reading Beowulf and Jane Ayre for my English Literature degree and my evenings were spent debating the relevance of social media in the ecommerce sector and about the need for better credit terms for premium independent retailers at industry B2B events. I would attend shop parties, brand launches; you name it, Manchester was throwing a party for it and I was gatecrashing to bring news and reviews on the carnage and canapes for (and long may I continue to do so, amen).

However, all this changed in June of this year when I stepped out into the real world and after three years of internships in media, B2B and ecommerce, successfully landed a job in Communications for an up-and-coming multi-channel retail brand. It’s based in the NW, which suits my current plans to stay oop North and it’s a fabulous company. I was and still am, really excited. I get to learn on the job, plotting Marketing strategies, booking shoots, liaising with brands, meeting and pitching to the fashion press. I get to stick my greedy finger in all sorts of fabulous fashiony pies and I’m being paid for it!

But, not everyone truly understands where this excitement comes from as, for some, retail doesn’t form part of the fashion industry. I was met with questions like: “So, why are you working in a shop when you have a degree?” and “Doesn’t that seem like, a bit of a step backwards?”

Love the old ladies in this shot. (Courtesy of Coop Historian Flickr)

Nothing could be further from the truth, it’s a step in the right direction for me. I remember, when I was a wee nipper, living in a tiny Devonian fishing port with a population of around 15,000 people. I remember catching the train to Exeter or to Plymouth to visit the shops because the closest thing my hometown had to fashion was Coop Ladies and Children’s Wear (which I once modelled for in a charity fashion show) and a tiny Dorothy Perkins (where I worked during my A Levels). I remember the rush of being in a “big” city and the belief that I had to purchase a grande vanilla latte from every single Starbucks I happened to pass. I remember finally being able to buy Vogue because my local newsagents hadn’t heard of it (no, not even when I did the Madonna dance). I remember beginning to get excited about fashion and clothing, this was all because of going shopping. We all come to fashion via the shops and it was at the shops that I made my decision to see what makes the fashion industry tick (and to drink as much Champagne as humanly possible whilst doing so).

Why do some deem retail beneath the fashion industry? I don’t know, but I’m certainly not one of them. People can pretend that commerce, consumerism and business are beneath the raw creativity and exclusivity of the fashion elite but their polished Prada pumps are standing on foundations built from retail. Retail is the back-bone of the fashion industry and without it, there wouldn’t be an industry.

So, because I must consider the ROI of an email marketing campaign and because I map the sales incurred by what I do on Facebook, because I attach worth to something I do at work when it generates a sale and because I happen to spend a bit of time on a shop floor I am not any less part of the fashion industry: I am the fashion industry, baby.


fashion Rambler meets Philip Stephens and Jodie Harsh at Unconditional + Manchester Launch

Unconditional, the clothing brand that loves a bit of male cleavage (heavage if you will) opened their first Northern flagship store in Manchester’s Exchange Square last week. Designer and brand owner Philip Stephens and his posse of Soho club kids, including the infamous Miss Jodie Harsh, came up for the do to introduce the north to sexy clothing for men (and women, but that’s not as interesting to me).
Anna Westerman of Flux Magazine (see my interview with the mag’s founder here), Christopher Hulme (ma +1), Lynda Moyo and Ryan (Senior Sales Advisor for Unconditional)
The store is huge and a great use of an empty unit that I’ve known for years since it used to be a unit that held sample sales and pop-up shops so I was always having a good old nosey. Unconditional took the unit primarily because of the fact that the ceiling consisted of exposed pipe work and the floor was concrete. That’s their thing. Stephens told me it was ‘like a dream’ because it needed so little doing to it.
The store stocks both the brand’s famous menswear and the womenswear collections as well as the company’s latest venture into homeware by way of scented candles and throws. 
Jonathan on the flyer for the last Circus night.
The party was very cool, it had a London androgyny about it, boys dressed as girls and girls dressed… well, as girls but not as convincingly. We met Jonathan, the latest Cover-girl for Harsh’s London club night Circus. He was a size 00 and modeled the latest Unconditional ladieswear perfectly (ouch, size 00 debate) he also danced like a nothing Manchester has seen before.
Unconditional Launch Party
Jodie Harsh, Philip Stephens, Lynda Moyo (see my interview with Lynda here) and Me!
It was pretty cool to be able to hear Jodie Harsh play a set too since an appearance in Manchester during the Ibiza season and Circus’ prime is something of a rarity. I managed to get behind the DJ deck to give her a mwah-mwah-darling welcome to the North and as I kissed her left cheek I got stuck in her hairsprayed weave. Beautiful. I will cherish the moment I peeled my face off hers.
I managed to speak to Philip Stephens earlier in the day about his move to Manchester, you can see the interview here. I have saved this little snippet for fR readers:
Fashion Rambler: How is the new transactional website doing?
Philip Stephens: It’s going well, it is interesting because Unconditional is me, it’s completely financed by me and we’re not part of some huge chain and we don’t have lots of money so we have to do one thing at a time. I don’t have a huge master plan but obviously you can have all these ideas but you need the infrastructure to support it. We launched the site but we’ve not pushed it, it get hits and we sell but without even pushing. It’s a process.
FR: So, the company’s approach to Social Media isn’t strong if you’re not pushing the site?
PS: I started Facebook reluctantly. I think I’m going to start twitter.
FR: You have to.
PS: I know, Jodie (Harsh), well Jay is my friend and he’s busy on Twitter and I have a friend in Social Media PR and he’s telling me I have to do it. I know I’ve got to, you’ve got to embrace these things.
Shop Unconditional here.

Fashion Rambler meets Roland Mouret

So. I’d barely slept since my insane holiday to Gran Canaria with boozy friends (pictures coming soon if you’re good) and I was already back on form.
Roland Mouret, the french man that makes all women weak at the knees and the purse strings, was launching his latest collection at Selfridges Manchester Exchange. I got the chance to ask him a few questions whilst resisting his annoyingly sexy accent.

You can see my interview with him here, but I saved the more important questions for Fashion Rambler readers (as per).

Shirt, customised from Jaeger
Trousers, my trusty TOPMAN Ltd.

Fashion Rambler: You do Bloke’s clothes too. Love it?
Roland Mouret: Menswear is great, it’s fun and different. I hope that my male customers are the partner of my female customers.
(So the gay only designs for Heteros?)
FR: You told the Guardian that we all dress up to undress. Is this how you dress?
RM: Yes. Less now because I’m a bit older. I think we all dress to undress, to find our long term partner, to be a bit sexy and it is really important. It’s the way we are and we shouldn’t avoid it but we shouldn’t put it in people’s faces like ‘I wanna shag’.
FR: Favourite Spice Girls song? (not so odd, he’s BFFs with Victoria Beckham/probably does her designs for her)
RM: No, I don’t have one. I hated the Spice Girls.
FR: Does Victoria know?
RM: She does, it makes her laugh because we are really good friends now. I hated that they were everywhere, in your face. It was what it was and it was the 1990s. But no, I wasn’t a fan.
It was then time for the fashion show which was my cue to exit to get to my dinner at Harvey Nichols (and you thought I’d dressed up for him?). To celebrating their being chosen as Manchester Cathedral’s main grub provider, Harvey’s threw a dinner party for the Manchester set. Any excuse.

Fashion Rambler Meets Jessica Hart (and Casey Gillespie)

I’m currently sunning my buns as you read. Yes, this is a scheduled post and I’m in Gran Canaria. Feel jealous. Oh don’t be like that… I’ve left you some loveliness….

So, if you follow my mobile ramblings on twitter, you’ll have learnt that I was in the Big Smoke this week. ‘But, why?’ I hear you cry, well, for many reasons. First and foremost I was there to interview Jess Hart the Australian model and next Elle Macpherson who has just brought her own label line to Selfridges London and Manchester Trafford Centre.
Upon arriving at Selfridges Oxford Street I sat outside with an orange Lucozade in the sun and people watched my arse off. The world’s most famous high street was buzzing with the beautiful people, the people and the ugly people. I breathed it all in, coughed out the air pollution and entered Selfridges via Chanel (naturally).
Jessica was waiting in the Personal Shopping department and after being shown the collection I was whisked off to meet her. But, not before ELLE Magazine. Elle had sent their newest staff reporter who was slightly frazzled and very unprepared after being told to get to Selfridges only 2 minutes before hand. Woops. So, as she was rather unprepared I wasn’t waiting long for my turn. Just enough time to order some water and charge my Blackberry.
Jess Hart is bloody gorgeous. Obviously. She’s a model. Some might say a super-model. But she really is that beautiful. A face you can stare at with ease. Not only this but she has enough brains to be modest and coy and all ‘Style Icon, moi?’ which was cute, at first, but then I was all ‘you have a fashion line, own it’.
To see my interview with Jess Hart click here, but I saved the vital and most important questions for Fashion Rambler readers:
Fashion Rambler: London Fashion Week or Rosemount Australian Fasion Week?
Jessica Hart: London Fashion Week.
FR: Savage Garden or Oasis?
JH: Oasis.
FR: Neighbours or Coronation Street?
JH: Neighbours
Tess (Ghost Designer): She had to say that, she’s from Melbourne!
FR: Britain’s Next Top Model or Australia’s Next Top Model?
JH: Have I ever been on BNTM? I was on Australian one, as an example.
Tess (Not-so Ghost like is she…): But Elle is hosting the British one.
JH: Really?
FR: Yes, her first year.
JH: Britain’s Next Top Model. The Australian one is awful anyway.
FR: Menswear?
JH: I’d love to!

After meeting the beautiful Hart I left, gabbed my water from the PR and headed for UniQlo where I bought Lady Gaga’s SAVE JAPAN Tee. As I was paying, I pulled out what I thought was my Blackberry. Fail. It was Jessica Hart’s. The Jessica’s Hart’s mobile was in m hands. I felt like I was on CrimeWatch. I laughed, rather hysterically and scared the cashier.
A giggly phone-call between myself and the PR, who was a little hysterical herself, resulted in the device being returned without problem. Phew. Now onto my next appointment: Casey Gillespie of the newly founded London Confidential.
As you may know I write for Manchester Confidential and Body Confidential, I’m quite the Confidential parasite. So, I had to meet this fine lady. She’s a New Yorker in every sense of the word, funny, opinionated, doesn’t get the Tube or alcohol and likes to offer reading suggestions (I’m about to start her recommendation, Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors). Watch this space LonCon is going to get oh-so-good.
We chatted for a very brief time as I had to dash to Victoria from Hoxton (not easy) for my Brighton bound train. Yes, I do London in style, I stay in Brighton.

Fashion Rambler meets Charlie Miller of Grazia Magazine

At a recent S/S’11 womenswear show at Selfridgesicon Manchester Trafford, Charlie Miller the Executive Fashion and Beauty Editor for Grazia gave her advice on the latest trends. I managed to corner her for a chat

 Sophie Heldley of Selfridges and Charlie Miller
Fashion Rambler: what value do you place on blogs as a means of gaining experience and as a medium of fashion press?
Charlie Miller: I think it has been a revolutionary thing for fashion. I was reading on Business of Fashion that Suzanne Menkes of International Herald Tribune and she said “The world changed when fashion instead of being a monologue, became a conversation”… Now we have live streaming at shows, we got Brian Boy front row, it all goes hand-in-hand. Street Style is huge too because at the end of the day, that is where the credibility lies. I can show you a beautiful designer dress but sometimes it is a little bit more interesting to see what that girl over there is wearing and how she put it together. We tweet, blog and file reports in the cab between shows and so I think we’re really on it as a magazine.
FR: Do you think that, in order for magazines to stay relevant, social media and multi-platform communications are important?
CM: I do, and I think some are probably not at the moment, as much as we are. We’re new and we’re used to speed so we’re probably a little ahead of the monthly publications. They’ll get there.
FR: There are Magazines with little online presence, those with both and those that are just online. Is the future a balance or is online taking over print?
CM: I don’t think it’s taking over. I think it is very important, particularly with young kids who haven’t found a magazine that has really spoken to them. So, I understand that they are getting a lot of their information online. I don’t think it’ll take over, at least I hope not! What I think print does is give you that luxury of kicking back without looking at a screen and getting into that blue sky world.
FR: Is this a major factor when publishing on the duel platforms, both the faster daily updates of and the equally relevant but weekly Grazia Magazine?
CM: Often at times we can’t take everything onboard in the magazine, so we try to not cannibalise what is happenSing in the magazine. The Grazia Daily girls are really smart and I think it is a great partnership.
To see more of this interview click here
Selfridges & Co Ltd

Fashion Rambler meets Michael Brown of Frater Menswear

Gotta love a newbie. Frater Menswear is a new Manchester brand that has launched online and has big plans for nationwide exposure. The brand suits that guy who care what he looks like without caring much about ‘trend’ or ‘fashion’, the guys that smell good and have floppy hair in the pub. 

I got to quiz Michael Brown, the brand owner, about his career, brand and future.
Fashion Rambler: Would you consider Frater synonymous with Manchester or a Brand with broader roots?
Michael Brown: Frater definitely has deep roots in Manchester due to the fact that I’ve grown up here, being inspired by Manchester’s last creative generation from Joy Division to Peter Saville – there’s so much music and cultural heritage here to draw from. I hope that Frater will be part of the next wave of creativity to come out of the city, and think that Manchester has a really exciting future, but I also take inspiration from places and people all over the world – it’s important for the brand’s development that we’re always looking beyond where we are at the moment.

FR: Who is the Frater customer, who do you design for?
MB: When I put together a new collection or design a new piece, I’m always aiming to come up with something that my friends and I would wear and get excited about. The whole brotherhood of Frater is based on looking at my peer group and designing for them, and I want the Frater customer to be passionate about the clothes and feel something for what they’re wearing. I don’t want to create clothing that’s generic, I want our customers to have an opinion – items like our Liberty and Pierson t-shirts are a good example of this, the bold graphic wartime prints really show how art and fashion can flow together, and the people that wear them want to make this statement.
FR: What are the plans for the future of the Brand?
MB: Our ultimate are aim is to become an established brand in the UK market and continue to push forward, creating something different and unique as we go along, which people will be excited to see and feel proud to wear. We’re conscious of not growing things too quickly, and want to develop the brand personality while building the business over time.

To see more of this interview go here