The end of a British shopping era

The demise of Fenwick marks a much bigger moment

A London landmark since 1891, Fenwick department store is closing down

With the recent announcement that Fenwick is to wind up its flagship store in Bond Street, a landmark since 1891, has Britain – America, Europe, the world – finally fallen out of love with the department store?

If we have, it’s been a long time coming. When I was born in 1962, department stores were everywhere: big ones, small ones, positively bijou ones. They swept onto the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, with Le Bon Marché and Samaritaine in Paris immortalised by Émile Zola in The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur Des Dames, 1882). He portrayed them as emblems of the march of industrial and commercial progress – and of decadent consumerism. Palaces of luxury and plenty, they were decked out in wrought iron and gilding, each one a brilliantly lit, multi-storey heaven under whose roof a lady could buy ribbons and hats, have her hair set and her corsets measured, and pause to drink a cup of strong tea.

Instead of visiting a dressmaker in a back street or braving the fearsome vendeuses of an exclusive couturier, customers could enter freely and browse dozens of models in comfort and anonymity. And they were at least nominally egalitarian: a matchgirl might fondle the same gloves as a marchioness, even if she couldn’t afford them.

A 1955 ad for fashion at Dickins & Jones captures the glamour of a bygone time. NEIL BAYLIS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

In London there were dozens: Selfridges and Whiteleys, Bourne & Hollingsworth and Dickins & Jones, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, to name but a few – and every county town boasted its own, from Bentalls of Kingston to Joshua Taylor of Cambridge. The end of our little street in Kensington was home to three behemoths: Pontings, Barkers and Derry & Toms. They were packed with treats and joys: my mother would take us to run between the flowerbeds of Derry & Toms’ roof garden and then head downstairs to order her favourite Fracas scent, buy nametags and Start-Rite sandals, and even choose the sweets for the tuckbox that accompanied my mercifully brief foray into boarding-school. My father-in-law would go to Barkers’ sale every January, to buy his Burberry raincoat; gentlemen went there to buy their socks without being pestered by salespeople. As a child, my beloved grandmother would take me to Harvey Nichols’ top floor restaurant for Welsh rarebit and strawberries and cream.

Twiggy stretches out on a leopardskin bed at the now mythical Biba store in Kensington, 1971. PHOTO: JUSTIN DE VILLENEUVE/ICONIC IMAGES

The beginning of the end might, in fact, be traced to the moment in 1973 when the iconic sixties boutique, Biba, which started life as a tiny, magical cave of a shop in a succession of Kensington back streets, decided to go large, and took over Derry & Toms to transform it into what became known as Big Biba. It had a restaurant called The Rainbow Room, where Twiggy was photographed reclining; it had leopard-print window seats, Egyptian-themed changing rooms and a merry-go-round. It also offered ample opportunity for shoplifting, drug-taking and even copulating in the vast building’s labyrinthine and inadequately monitored nooks and crannies.

Has Britain finally fallen out of love with the department store?

The model began to creak under the strain of a new generation’s rejection of consumerism and insistence on personal freedom. One by one the weaker runners fell by the wayside and in the last twenty years the big beasts such as Debenhams and C&A, who bought up the vast acreage of retail space the weary department stores represented, have gone the same way. The death knell was sounded by the arrival of US-style mega-malls on the outskirts of our great cities, which hoovered up consumers before they could get to the emptying high streets.

But when Fenwick departure from Bond Street was announced there was a real outpouring of sadness and fond reminiscence among my friends. We talked about buying tights and hairpins there with our mothers, and I remembered being treated with maternal tenderness after fainting on the first floor when pregnant with my first child. I mourned the marvellous top floor ladies’ loos and the heavenly lingerie department (always the best in London). Fenwick was just the right size, we agreed, neither too big nor too small but always restful and civilised, and the staff always courteous. Unchanging through the years, it was always quiet… And there we fell silent.

Other independents seem to have hung on through recession and pandemic, at least in London, and I for one am grateful. Selfridges has just been sold to a new owner, and Harrods – which barely counts, being more of a tourist destination than a shop – seems safe. As for Liberty – well. When my third daughter emerged in hot tears of rage and humiliation after a university entrance interview for a certain elitist institution somewhere to the west of London, she had to cross the capital on her way home. “Mum,” she said, “I just went to Liberty and sat down in a window – and after a bit I felt better.”

Because losing Fenwick is bad enough, but when Liberty goes, there goes the neighbourhood. You read it here first.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, March 2023, Style Maven

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