Can you tell us about the Estate and your new role?
The Howard de Walden Estate is one of London’s major landowners together with Grosvenor, Cadogan and The Portman Estate. The primary advantage of controlling such a large area is that you deliver placemaking initiatives which benefit everyone in that location. My central focus is Marylebone High Street and the streets that connect to it. We have close to 200 shops, restaurants, bars and cafes on the estate, and we are constantly looking at how to improve the mix. In the 1980s, the mix got too skewed to fashion so that when the downturn came in the early 1990s, the high street really suffered because it did not have a broader retailer base. Today, we have a close relationship with our occupiers and together we look at how to make Marylebone a destination both for Londoners and the millions of tourists who visit the city each year. In this context, our annual food and summer festivals have developed into major footfall generators and bring thousands of visitors into the area. I look at the strategy and configuration of the offer and oversee the leasing in a way which will build upon the extraordinary mix that Marylebone Village currently provides.
How important is food in the mix?
Massively. It has been one of the great growth areas in recent times and London is now one of the best places in the world to find just about any cuisine you could name. Our food stores do much more than just sell fine products. La Fromagerie lays on workshops and special dinners; The Ginger Pig offers butchery classes for instance. We’ve created a food district and this made a ‘destination within a destination’.
What’s your view on how physical shopping areas can compete with online retailing?
For us, it’s about creating experiences that you can’t get online. Of course, great places to eat and drink fall firmly into that category, but it’s also about creating a retail offer that brings excitement, excellence and freshness, for the good of the community and visitors alike. And for us the Marylebone Village mix is all-important. We serve three primary groups: the resident population who live in Marylebone; the thousands of people who work in the area every weekday; and also those who are visiting. You have to think exactly what they want and what that equates to. So, on a certain level, a newsagent is as important to us as a Michelin-starred restaurant as both contribute to the overall mix. We base our strategy around that awareness of what our consumers need. From a property perspective, that means you’re not always chasing the highest rent because that might also mean damaging the mix. Equally importantly, we look at the environment and at how it can be made better. We’ve funded pavement widening, traffic calming and also promoted initiatives to improve air quality. We’ve made the area much more pedestrian-friendly and that means people want to stay longer and spend more in the shops and places to eat and drink. It’s a model which has value in a lot of urban locations.
You’ve recently announced a series of pop-ups to Marylebone, how important are pop-ups to the high street?
Pop-ups are an important component of the retail offer as they allow retailers the means to try out the location and for us to see their brand come to life in a physical space. In doing so, they could launch a new concept and then look to committing to a full-term lease. It’s great for us as it helps to keep the offer revolving which keeps the shopping experience exciting for our customers. We recently had Italian menswear brand Luca Faloni sign a 10-year lease after a successful pop-up run. We have just announced that fashion brand Chinti & Parker is opening a pop-up too, alongside a NYC designer who’s taking space on Marylebone Lane across the month of June.
What would you say is the biggest risk for the UK retail sector, given the current climate?
I’d have to say stagnation. You’ve got to be willing and able to change or adapt in the current retail climate in order to survive, and that applies across many roles throughout the sector. There’s a real opportunity out there to reach an audience who are better connected and more engaged than ever before. By implementing innovative methods for the consumer to engage with a product, you can create genuine, and heartfelt experiences that customers will want to be present physically for, as appose to just via online.
What does the future hold for Marylebone’s retail scene?
We want to continue to attract the best retailers and operators. The past year has seen brands like Koibird, Luca Faloni, Bonnet à Pompon, John Smedley and Harrods/NSPCC collaborative charity pop-up Fashion Re-Told all set up shop on the estate. Within that group, you have a baby wear brand, a concept store based around exotic travel, a new cycle fitness offer and a ‘Best of British knitwear’ brand. So, I hope that illustrates the eclectic but always interesting mix that we’re aiming at. They’re brands that bring with them high quality, energy and variety. Retailing as a whole is in a hugely transitional phase at present. That’s challenging for a landlord but also very exciting. We feel that by offering occupiers a unique environment which is always evolving and improving we can create an environment which will be compelling for shoppers.