In London, Christmas is King. The Brits take the season very seriously and when the Christmas Lights are switched on, celebrations ensue in every neighborhood. We visited over Thanksgiving and had a fun but hectic few days roaming around the city where we were greeted with glorious weather and blue skies.
Regent Street celebrates its 200th birthday this year. Designed by John Nash, and named for the Prince Regent, later King George IV, the Grade II listed facades are some the most inspiring architecture in London. The gracefully curving street ties Oxford Street to Piccadilly, and is filled with stores, and throngs of people. The Christmas lights are called The Spirit of Christmas, and are based on the first lighting display on Regent Street from 1954. There are 16 suspended Spirits along the street. On a brilliantly sunny day you can see their wings sparkle.
Just off the top of Regent Street you will find the one-of-a-kind Liberty London store. The iconic Tudor style buildings were begun in 1874, and finally finished in 1924. The store was originally created to bring the many goods that ships docking in London brought to the city from around the world (see the boat at the top), and always had an exotic mix of merchandise for us humans and our homes. As I was there over Thanksgiving weekend, I was astounded at how 15% to 20% discounts brought out the shoppers from all over the country. Black Friday sales were introduced to London several years ago, and are hugely popular. Liberty was participating, and it was jammed.
The interior of the store retains its original bones, a soaring atrium, several creaking wooden staircases, and working fireplaces waiting for someone to light them. The original design incorporated wood, like that from huge sailing ships. The main atrium is filled with delightful bonsai tree created from fabrics, and decked with gifts.
At the top of the store, the ceilings are a bit lower, and this is where you will find the collections of world famous Liberty Fabrics for fashion, and for the home. This corner is filled with passamenterie and swags and other things for curtains. There are shops for furniture, home goods, books, and of course, the Christmas Shop.
Liberty is one of the best department stores in London. Its selection of designers for men, women and children is carefully selected and remains both cutting edge and wearable. Not a slave to the major big brands, it offers a singular glimpse of fashion in London.
The West End and Mayfair are the major destination for new designer boutiques and hence shoppers. Mayfair is humming. Walk from Regent Street along Conduit and Bruton Street to Berkeley Square past many new stores. At the top of the Square head to Mount Street, another hive of activity. Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera have opened boutiques here, alongside Christian Louboutin, Goyard and Celine. The Connaught with its Jean-Georges, a Michelin starred restaurant, is right up the block.
Matches Fashion started with 2 stores, one in Notting Hill and one in Marylebone. They were one of the first multi-brand designer stores to harness the power of the web, where a majority of their business is now done around the world, and have seen spectacular growth. In line with their vision, they opened Matches Town House at 5 Carlos Place in the heart of Mayfair. There are several floors of ever-changing installations and collaborations, and floors for events and for meetings with private clients. Their Christmas Bazaar is on the ground floor for the season. I bought my husband a present, and since the web based store does not stock inventory in this Matches Fashion, it was delivered to our hotel several hours later, beautifully wrapped.
Heading back to Bond Street, you see how crowded Black Friday can be. Bond Street is white hot again, and is home to major brands. Azzedine Alaia just opened its first London store, Vuitton did a major overhaul of its shop. There are very few vacancies in this neighborhood, and not many of them were offering Black Friday deals.
There is Old Bond Street and New Bond Street, and where they meet there is a stretch of sidewalk with the iconic statue of Roosevelt and Churchill called the Allies Sculpture, celebrating Peace. The men are surrounded by French stores, including Dior, Chanel, and Vuitton and a Florabunda kiosk selling flowers. The Christmas lights are called the Bond Street Peacocks, using peacock feather theme lights to celebrate the many peacocks who dress in the fashions found here.
Bond Street is narrow, and the buildings are several stories high. Inside the Prada boutique the clothing is carefully displayed.
As the sun goes down, way too early on a beautiful fall day, the Peacock Lights start to glow.
Across Piccadilly you will find Jermyn Street. It is more laid back than Bond Street, and is actually in St. James. There are many shops for men here, including the wonderful bespoke shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser and Crockett and Jones for shoes.
D R Harris, on St. James St., specializes in shaving creams and soaps, men’s and women’s fragrances, soaps and skin care, and a great assortment of fine grooming tools, as well as prescription and over the counter drugs housed in elaborate wooden cases. The business started in 1790, and the shop was recently expanded. The shop and pharmacy hold the Royal Warrants to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and The Prince of Wales. You will be shopping in good company.
There are two wonderful arcades off Piccadilly. The Piccadilly Arcade above goes from Jermyn St. to Piccadilly and is full of small shops selling clothing and jewelry. The Burlington Arcade across Piccadilly is full of the same plus a new Manolo Blahnik shop.
Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly is a must visit. The ground floor and lower ground floors are packed with edible luxury. Take tea, have a lunch or visit the one of their bars. The store also holds Royal Warrants to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and The Prince of Wales. They also have an amazing home-ware departments.
Fortnum’s is lavishly decorated, the theme is Advent Calendars, a popular theme in London this year. It is owned now by the Weston family, who also own Selfridges, a must visit store that I did not get to on this trip.
Piccadilly is not as lit up as Regent Street, but it is still special.
Our first night in London normally finds us at The Wolseley. Set in a converted car showroom, the restaurant is always buzzing.
I thought a visit to Harrods was in order to pick up goodies from the Food Hall, and take a look around. Knightsbridge was completely mobbed, and the sidewalks were beyond crowded. I went to a few floors of the store, looking for their wonderful book department. Alas it been reduced to a tiny afterthought selling “luxury” gift books. The store itself has become a claustrophobic enfilade of hefty marble boutiques where store design overwhelms the clothes. Not my idea of luxury. Unhappily Harvey Nichols has also been redesigned, and has lost it’s touch and soul. I decided to look for greener fields and head to a part of London I did not know well.
Soho is also in the West End. Sandwiched in between Mayfair, the theater district, sometimes incorrectly called the West End and Covent Garden, it is a colorful neighborhood that is suddenly hot. Once an area of sleazy bars, cafes, cabarets and sex shops, it attracted attention when Carnaby Street became famous in the ’60s and Wardour St. was where film and entertainment companies were located. Soho was also home to many private clubs like the Groucho and of course, Soho House. It is now gentrifying, bringing in new stores and clubs and restaurants.
Many of the stores opening in Soho are street style stores. Carhartt, pictured here, along with Supreme, Stone Island, Palace, Machine A and End, or contemporary brands for men and women. Some locals bemoan the gentrification, and the loss of older buildings to new ones. However the area is a lot less unsavory than it was in the past, even though some sex shops remain. Interestingly, the iconic phone booths all over over town are still all over the city, and many now sell tourist bus tickets, wifi, and other things. In the West End, some booths are still plastered with advertisements for prostitutes. The more things change!
New stores are opening all the time. Scandi, i.e Scandanavian, brands are trendier in London than they are in New York. Ganni just opened in New York and the London store carries the brand identity.
Samsoe Samsoe is another Danish contemporary brand that has opened with a Copenhagen street style look. Rag and Bone is here as is Officine General, Paul Smith, APC, Le Labo, Aesop, Bobbi Brown and many others. Vintage stores have also opened up. Soho has become a destination neighborhood.
Fiorucci has been resurrected, and the store and its cafe are colorful and full.
Some of the older buildings are still standing. These were never grand buildings, but they add character to the neighborhood. Many of the new restaurants are very good. Pulpo, a Venetian wine bar serving cicchetti housed in the building Canaletto lived in when he was in London, is low key with seriously good food. Andrew Edmonds, opened by a print dealer who has a shop next to the restaurant, serves excellent English food and has a big wine cellar that also holds many vintage ports.
Soho and Carnaby Street also do their own lights. This year’s theme was the ocean, and how to support it. There are bubbling whales, jellyfish, squid and other fishy finds all made from recycled and reusable materials. It supports Project Zero, an ocean-centric organization.
The next morning was flawless. We headed across Brompton Road to the V&A, otherwise known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s the leading museum in the world for applied art and design.
Touring the Mary Quant exhibit was fascinating. It was packed. The clothes do not look as revolutionary now as they did back then. They were definitely not couture caliber, but they were lifestyle changers. Contemporary photographs of the new and older generations and the difference in their styles drove home the point of the exhibit. It was arranged by both timeline and category. Ms. Quant and her husband Alexander Plunkett-Green partnered with Archie McNair and started by opening the famous Bazaar on Kings Road in the 1950s when Mary Quant was in her 20s. She was designing for herself and for her generation. The three of them worked in tandem to grow a very large business that flowered in the 1960s and ’70s. The key to their success was that they were among the first to have a business model that licensed all their categories of product to manufacturers, giving Quant the ability to unleash all her creativity over multiple categories. There is also an exhibit of the ultra fantasy photographs of Tim Walker at the other end of the museum.
It’s a short walk from the V&A to Brompton Cross, a chic shopping and dining destination. It sits at the junction of South Kensington and Chelsea. Back in the ’80s, design guru Sir Terrance Conran and his partner Paul Hamlyn bought the 1911 Michelin House, which had housed a garage for changing tires, and other Michelin related businesses.
The garage has been repurposed as a chic bar and restaurant called The Oyster Bar. It’s always a perfect place for lunch, in or outside. Michelin’s tire clad Bibendum points the way to the bar and upstairs to the Michelin starred Claude Bosi at Bibendum restaurant. The building is beautiful. The walls have majolica insets depicting various auto races and rallies. The iconic stained glass windows were hidden away during WW II, and have yet to be found, but they were recreated.
At the back of the building is the style-centric Conran Shop. Two large floors are filled with furniture, rugs, lighting, ceramics, and anything that might make you life more comfortable and better looking.
There are other stylish shops in the neighborhood. Bamford offers minimal relaxed clothing and a large selection of natural and artisan made beauty products from their country estate. The store also has a restfully designed spa. Their Daylesford Organic shop around the corner has a cafe as well as a market selling organic meat, fish, veggies, and other groceries and home products.
The is a huge multi-brand Joseph at Brompton Cross, and a smaller Joseph Men across the street. Both shops offer a wide selection. Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren and Chanel all have shops nearby, as do many contemporary brands.
I always like walking down Walton Street, enjoying its small scale, and checking out all the shops and restaurants. Melissa Odabash and Salt for swimwear, James Perse for tees. The Monogrammed Linen Shop, Chelsea Textiles and Nina Campbell for the home.
A short walk leads to Kings Road, the Duke of York Square and the Saatchi Gallery. It’s currently housing the travelling King Tut exhibit. A very small selection of the boy King’s tomb pieces are being shown outside of Egypt while the New Grand Egyptian Museum is being completed. The lines are long, and the tickets are a bit pricey for the small selection of pieces here, but they are exquisite. The audio-visual-take-you-back-in-time parts, less so.
A short way down King’s Road is Old Church Street and the store for Manolos. A very elegant place to get your fix. He has brought back the men’s range, and the shoes are as elegant as the women’s.
One of the best parts of shopping and dining in Chelsea are the squares and gardens that are on both sides of Kings Road. Paulson Square is just behind the Manolo store. Believe it or not, foxes are to be found in squares like this all over London.
The Kings Road and Pimlico nearby have a lot of fabric, furniture and decorating shops. “Privates” are welcome to walk in and browse. If you find something you love, it can be shipped home. Designers Guild and Osborne and Little, are close to one another. Designers Guild offers custom paints, wallpapers, textiles, furniture, rugs, and cushions.
The shop next door is full of home accessories, as well as more furniture and bedding.
The boutiques on the Kings Road offer more accessible clothing and accessories. The first shops to bring American contemporary designers to London years ago were all on Kings Road.
Head up Kings Road for more shops. Essential Antwerp is a fun contemporary brand for men and women, and not really easy to get in New York.
If you cross Sloane Square and start up Sloane Street you will find more interesting shops. There is one for Red Valentino, the secondary line from the Roman brand. The clothing is full of bows and lovely flourishes. It’s strictly feminine.
Hackett is an updated English men’s wear store. It too is not easy to find in New York. Its casual take on English classics for men and boys is appealing.
Saloni just opened a shop on Sloane Street. Saloni Lotha is Indian, but works in London and Hong Kong, where she lives. Her global aesthetic has caught on in a big way. The boutique is an interesting contrast of glamour dressing surrounded by Scandi mid-century wood furniture and fixtures. I guess opposites attract.
The lights of Sloane Square were inspired by the crown of King Charles II, loosely. The King built the road, which started at Sloane Square and went to Kew and remained a private road into the 1830s. The jewels float over Sloane Square, Kings Road, and Sloane Street.
Needing to get some snacks for the flight home, we headed to the Waitrose on West Halkin Street. As we arrived, a stylish Bentley pulled up. The driver opened the door and followed his passenger inside the store carrying a shopping basket into which she dropped the day’s shopping. This store almost always has Poilane bread flown in from Paris and a great selection of English cheeses and pates. We were set.
The English do celebrate Christmas beautifully in a style that is theirs. This time of year is a perfect time to visit and see for yourself.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn