07/04/11

In distress

Categories: GQ, News, Opinion, Store

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As I write, we’ve just opened our new Grenson store in London’s Shoreditch and I’m extremely tense. Not because the shoes haven’t arrived or because the staff are new. No, I’m tense because our shop isn’t distressed.

By distressed, I mean that the walls don’t have fake peeling paint, there are no artificially aged beams, no battered fixtures and, above all, the furniture is actually quite smart. We don’t even have old worn floorboards from a Manhattan warehouse or a stained, tiled ceiling. What will people think?

I went into a shop recently and while I was paying, I noticed a huge crack in the ceiling. In a very sad and totally out-of-touch way, I informed the shop assistant (sorry, “retail customer-experience coordinator”) that a piece of plaster was loose and might fall if it wasn’t repaired. To which she replied that it had actually been created by a set designer who had worked on several Disney films and they were extremely proud of it. It then struck me that the building was 1980 whilst the interior was 1880 and I’d been duped.

The trouble with all this distressing that if it’s overdone, it’s all a bit like visiting an Italian trattoria in Disneyland: you can’t help but marvel at all the tiny details that it feel authentic, but every now and then you catch a glimpse of Chip’n’Dale’s furry outfits shuffling by.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the look – I always have, from when I bought my first pair of Bass Weejuns at J Simons. But I just feel it’s becoming a bit too obvious – fake, even – and it’s filtering down to the big retailers, which means it must be time to move on. In fact, I’ve just come back from New York where at times I felt I was caught up in an episode of Little House On The Prairie.

Where it still really works is where it feels natural and unique in some way.  In New York I stayed at the Ace Hotel which does it very well, I also love St John Bread and Wine and Pizza East in east London, while Polpo and Spuntino in Soho feel like they have been there forever. J Crews’ Liquor Store, Freemans, RRL and Café Felix in Manhattan all manage to stay just the right side of the line and there’s a gorgeous café there called Smile which is done with such a light touch that I think it will actually be there for ever.

The other issue is that for menswear, this look fits with the current aesthetic of selvedge denim, lumberjack shirts and battered pea coats. But what will happen when the look moves more to the territory of smart, slick tailoring with shiny shoes and tie pins? Does everyone refurbish their stores? Time will tell but somehow I predict that interior designers may be very busy in the next few years…

18 Hanbury Street, London E1 6QR.

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