On the Runway
By ELIZABETH PATON
LONDON — The death of the It bag may have been greatly exaggerated.
After years of department store footwear expansion, with Harrods in London opening a 42,000-square-foot shoe floor, Macy’s in New York raising that to 63,000, and the Level Shoe District in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to 96,000, their focus has shifted somewhat further up the body.
Or so it seemed last week when the London emporium Selfridges unveiled the first phase of what it says will be the world’s largest handbag hall.
The redevelopment is part of a 300 million pound, or $374 million, refurbishment of its flagship store on Oxford Street (and what it says is the largest investment ever made by a department store worldwide).
The size of the current luxury handbag area will be tripled to house more than 7,000 different accessories, like sunglasses, scarves, tech trinkets and handbags. The area will cover 61,000 square feet, more than a third of the store’s total ground-level space, and accommodate more than 70,000 items on any given day. Brands will include Hermès, Chanel, Valentino, Charlotte Olympia, Sophie Hulme and Chrome Hearts, with prices from £30 for an Anya Hindmarch embossed leather sticker to more than £20,000 for some bags.
By comparison, the world’s second-largest handbag department, at Galeries Lafayette in Paris, is 53,820 square feet.
“I think it is important to point out that it was actually never our objective to create the world’s biggest luxury accessories hall — biggest doesn’t necessarily mean best,” said Sebastian Manes, the buying and merchandising director for Selfridges. “But we have had this plan in the pipeline for many years now, and once we had packed in the fruits of all our work, research, experimentation and innovation, it took this much space to contain it all.”
The accessories hall will be in the store’s new eastern wing, designed by David Chipperfield Architects. (The architects are also responsible for transforming the United States Embassy on Grosvenor Square, a few blocks away, into a luxury hotel.) A soaring, triple-height entrance will open into the white marble-floored accessories area: a vast vaulted single space with neo-Classical columns and a 14-seat circular cocktail bar at its center.
Mr. Manes said that over the last decade, despite the focus on footwear, the store’s handbag sales have grown rapidly.
“Women began to really see quality accessories as investment pieces,” he said. “More value for money than a clothing purchase in the sense they can be used every day, last for a long time if well maintained, and mixed and matched to suit a wide range of occasions.”
Gone are the days when most women were single-mindedly loyal to a single brand or style of handbag — Prada’s nylon backpack, say, or Louis Vuitton’s Murakami tote — but that does not mean they are not buying bags. Rather, they may have traded the one for the many, not to mention the idiosyncratic and independent. The rise of Mansur Gavriel, anyone?
Indeed, handbag-led accessories sales have rocketed in the past decade. According to analysts at Exane BNP Paribas, bags account for almost 30 percent of the total global luxury market, up 18 percent from 2003. Bags generate high sales per square foot, often without discounts, though those numbers have declined somewhat in recent years as smaller sizes (with smaller prices) have re-emerged in popularity. The trend toward luxury names placing more time and money into their own store network has also changed the dynamics of the market, although Mr. Manes says this could ultimately prove advantageous for multibrand stores like Selfridges.
“Many brands are keen to see a rise in flagship-focused shopping, but many consumers find it an intimidating and slightly claustrophobic experience,” he said. “That’s why we made a point of making the hall as large and airy as possible, full of varied options and with wide, open entrances from branded space to space.” Mr. Manes also pointed to the increasingly social and experience-led component of successful bricks-and-mortar retailing.
Whether he is correct will be seen this holiday shopping season; the entire hall is set to be completed by 2018. The question now is whether other landmark stores (Saks, we know you’re watching) will follow suit, ushering in a new golden age of bags.