George Street is the grandest thoroughfare in the august city of Edinburgh, with much of its length filled with law offices, side by side with retail stores of the kind that only those with a lawyer’s salary could afford to frequent. However, there are a few exceptions, and the latest arrival is one of them.
White Stuff, a fashion retailer out of the edgy London suburb of Brixton, is markedly cheaper than what is normally expected of George Street – but it adds a dash of mid-market fun, making its arrival here something of an event. There are, in fact, two parallel major shopping streets in Edinburgh, George and Princes streets, and the latter is where you’d expect to find a store like White Stuff. The decision by the retailer to open on George Street was in part opportunist (a site became available), but it was also a conscious choice to locate in a more chichi destination.
Lifestyle brand White Stuff, founded in the 1980s by two ski bums, was built around “fun” and “loveliness,” according to Lee Cooper, creative director. The new two-floor, 6600-square-foot store is the retailer’s first “emporium,” more than twice the size of any of the 74 other White Stuff locations.
Here, Cooper and his team have taken an old-fashioned ironmongery shop, Grays of George Street, and opened up the interior to restore much of its Victorian integrity, with everything from the elaborately carved wooden staircase to the heavily moulded ceilings getting attention. “Everything was covered up and had been hidden by 1960s shopfitting,” says Cooper.
But it’s the visual merchandising, which is central to the White Stuff philosophy, that really defines this interior, brought to life by Cooper and Lou Burnett, head of shop interiors for the brand.
Burnett works by collecting suitable props for a new store opening and hoarding them in a Brixton warehouse ahead of the fit-out. So while each of the stores shares similarities, this is not cookie-cutter retailing; every branch is different.
Burnett points out that the sign over the door states “White Stuff of George Street” and that it is a “local response to local people.” It’s the first time that White Stuff has done this, an attempt to show that the new arrival intends to be a firm part of the George Street commercial community.
Standing at the entrance to the store, there’s just so much to look at. The majority of the first floor is womenswear, and the offerings are punctuated by unexpected elements such as a mounted, scarf-wearing antelope head and a cashwrap that looks like Ike’s general store from “The Waltons” (see cover).
Cooper is keen to head upstairs and show off the fitting rooms for women. “They’re designed to be like the wardrobes in [author C.S. Lewis’] ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,’ because when you step into them, you walk into a different world,” he says.
And, indeed, when you open any of the vintage wardrobe doors that form the entrances to the fitting rooms, there’s the curious sensation of walking into a space that’s much larger than you’d expect. And each of these rooms has been themed, including a bathroom, a “Scottish” room and a child’s playroom.
The point about all of this, Cooper says, is to “bring the outdoor and the unexpected into the store.” And, more pointedly, “It’s about making people smile,” he adds. “Not all of the detail will be picked up by every customer, but they may notice new things on successive visits.”
It’s a strategy that puts White Stuff in a strong position. Sales at White Stuff soared 43 percent to £83.7m (roughly $130 million U.S.) in the 52 weeks to May 1. It also stands as testimony to the power of imaginative visual merchandising, as much as engaging store design, to get shoppers through the doors.
Retailer: White Stuff Emporium, Edinburgh, Scotland
Architect: AMD, London
Photography: Melvin Vincent, London