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Retail shops dress up to attract customers

The revamped City Centre, Liverpool, December 1984.
The revamped City Centre, Liverpool, December 1984. Photograph: Alamy

There’s a frenzy abroad from High Street to Sloane Street. Here, there, everywhere shops are opening and re-opening, tarted up from their former dowdy days or zapping the floating customer between the eyes with Completely New Concepts.

In the front line of the battle for the consumer is the interior designer, no longer a peripheral figure brought in to do something clever with the carpets, but now truly a big gun without whom the retailing campaign cannot begin. As Fiona Humphreys, business development manager at the successfully revamped Richards puts it: “Customers are terribly discerning these days. They tend to discount you if you are not re-fitted, they won’t bother to go in and look at the clothes.”

Thanks mainly to the hotting up of competition in design for shops, Britain’s ten major design consultancies have been booming – since 1979 their combined turnover has jumped from around £10 millions to £30 millions. Nowhere is the excitement keener than in fashion retailing, where the opening of a new shop or restyled chain will draw not only fashion people on the lookout for ideas but also interior designers eyeing up the fittings.

At the mass-market end of things, the look of a shop is now arrived at with scientific precision – no messing with undisciplined flights of creative fancy. Brand leaders in the business are design consultancy Fitch and Co, responsible for the look of Top Shop, Top Man, Principles, Fenwick, Salisburys and many others.

Principles, in particular, was an object lesson in the new approach, where interior designers work with market researchers in strategies akin to the methods of advertising agencies. The senior designer, Carlos Virgile, put forward his ideas for Principles not in terms of nice colours and fittings but in the language of psychology. His presentation talked about the aspirations of the shopper, about how she really reads Woman’s Own, but fancies herself as belonging to the world of Vogue.

He played on her desire for glamour, dropping in references to Dallas, Princess Di, and Harrods’ Food Hall.

He analysed her need for warmth, cosiness and reassurance, and only then turned to matters of design. It was all so clear: the draperies outside the changing rooms equalled theatrical glamour; the little squares with the fleck in the centre for the Principles logo equalled nouvelle cuisine, the seats and the tables with the witty lamps equalled comfy homeliness. Not a detail without its subliminal message.

Fitch design may be clever, but it cannot lay claims to originality. Virgile openly admits to plagiarism – the 1982 plan for the re-fit of Top Shop, for instance, was a bowdlerised version of the output of Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis studio.

If Top Shop’s watered-down trendiness could be judged a success, no one at Fitch could afford to rest on laurels. “We always knew we’d have to think of a new corporate identity in a couple of years,” says Virgile. “By the time Top Shop was finished at Oxford Circus, Chelsea Girl was already copying it. The competition is incredible.”

The competition ferments hot debate in the studios. Who copied what from where and who thought of it first is the subject of some delightful inter-designer bitchery as the shelf-life of interiors becomes ever shorter and everyone dreads ending up looking like someone else.