IT was Edinburgh’s – possibly Scotland’s – biggest social event of the year. And when Harvey Nichols finally took the wrappings off its brand new £10m Scottish store in August 2002, celebrating with Ewan McGregor, Jenny Frost and Meg Matthews (well it was the early Noughties), it was also supposed to kick- start the biggest retail revolution the Capital had ever seen.
The Knightsbride-based department store which had become famous thanks to its designer brands and top quality foods – and a household name through the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous – would, it was hoped, transform Edinburgh’s fashion fortunes and put the city on the world map of style. It would shake off Edinburgh’s dowdy dowager image and revitalise the east end of the city centre. Then with the creation of a brand new shopping street which would be bursting with international houses of fashion – Gucci, Prada, Westwood – it would stop the flow of Edinburgh consumers heading west to the shopping Mecca that is Glasgow.
Now, though, Harvey Nichols is ten years old, as is Multrees Walk, and amidst all the birthday parties, fashion shows and commemorative nail lacquer launches this month, perhaps it’s the time to ask whether the gloss has come off, or if Harvey Nick’s is still the destination store which is dragging Edinburgh up the shopping league tables?
One of the latest of these puts Edinburgh at tenth place in the UK when it comes to annual non-food spend, with £634.98m going through the city tills. That, though, was down two places from 2011 and still way behind Glasgow, which was in fourth place with a spend of £805m – and although it has a larger population, the amount of disposable income is supposed to be far less than that available here.
The store itself, though, is one of the top ten in the world, according to Retail Week. So was it too much to ask Harvey Nichols to rescue the whole city centre?
“Undoubtedly Harvey Nichols has had a positive impact on retail in Edinburgh,” says the store’s director, Gordon Drummond.
“Because Harvey Nichols has so few stores in the UK, only six, then I think we do attract people just out of novelty value as well as to shop.
“I think at the beginning we possibly found it difficult to get established as we had brands which were extremely exclusive which people may not have heard of, and a shopping experience people didn’t recognise, but that turned around very quickly. And when you look at the figures we’ve now had more than nine million people through our doors in the decade. It’s been a great ten years.”
Yet while it’s obvious that Harvey Nichols will always attract shoppers, it seems that Drummond believes the whole city centre needs to be as vibrant as his store – and has suggested that trams should eventually be extended, that the revamp plans for the St James Centre need to go ahead and that more pedestrianisation could keep Edinburgh on track as a major shopping destination.
“I am sure that without Harvey Nichols, things would have improved in Edinburgh and kept improving, but we can only have helped,” he says.
“And I think one thing we have done is strengthen other retailers like John Lewis and Jenners as there’s more reason to come to Edinburgh to shop. We get a lot of customers from Aberdeen, from Newcastle, and from Glasgow. We like to think we’ve done something to stem the flow the other way.”
Certainly there are few in the city who believe that the efforts put in to lure the luxury department store to Edinburgh back in the late 1990s weren’t worth it.
It’s hard to remember what the far east corner of St Andrew Square looked like ten years ago, but there was little reason to be there unless you were catching a bus out of town or banking. And you certainly couldn’t have strolled through the green heart of St Andrew Square, the private garden which is now wide open to the public.
So Harvey Nichols physically changed the city. And it did radically altered the retail offering. Before it arrived, Jenners was the only big store offering high fashion names and although boutiques such as Thistle Street’s Jane Davidson were making the pages of Vogue, they weren’t a shopping destination in themselves.
With the arrival of Harvey Nichols, other places began to up their game. Jenners went through a major revamp, bringing in major new labels and transforming its menswear department – but the competition proved too fierce and the independent store was later taken over by House of Fraser.
At the same time, John Lewis spent £25 million refurbishing its store, with particular emphasis on women’s fashions.
And Harvey Nichols had pals, so alongside it in Multrees Walk appeared Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Emporio Armani and Links of London. And if Prada and Gucci haven’t made it, Donald Anderson, who was leader of Edinburgh City Council when the deal was struck – and whose name is inscribed in the pavement of Multrees Walk – says the fault lies with global events.
“Of course it would be wonderful if Edinburgh did have those names, but when Harvey Nichols opened it wasn’t that long after September 11 so there was a lot of reluctance in some parts of the retail world to be taking on anything major in places they didn’t already know, and more recently there have been problems of recession.
“But what was intended to be achieved has happened with Harvey Nichols, and that’s bringing people back into the city centre. It has definitely worked.
“Back in 1999 we lost nearly 20 per cent of the city’s non-food spend to places outside the Lothians – the majority to Glasgow. By 2004 that had fallen to three per cent. Harvey Nichols had an almost immediate impact.”
Anderson says that so vital was it to Edinburgh to attract the store, that its decision to build in the Capital was kept quiet for months until it was signed and sealed. “It was all a bit cloak and dagger, but it was so important we couldn’t let the news get out in case it jeopardised the whole idea.”
He adds: “But it’s not just about Harvey Nichols, the store coming has changed the way Edinburgh has considered developments in the city centre. There’s been a change in the whole approach so that the relationship between the council and Historic Scotland, for instance, is much less confrontational.”
He adds: “The big name to attract now would be Selfridges – that’s who I would be chasing if I were still there. But of course they would need a very large site which would be a real challenge for Edinburgh,
“But to keep up the momentum which Harvey Nichols brought with it, it’s a challenge that the city should be looking at.”
HOW HARVEY WAS NICKED BY EDINBURGH
THE whole idea of attracting Ab Fab’s Patsy and Edina’s favourite store to Edinburgh began in 1996 – six years before the store opened in St Andrew Square.
The retail world knew that Harvey Nichols was looking for a Scottish site after the success of its Leeds store, and the marketing experts told the board of directors of Dickson Concepts – the Hong Kong-based owner of the store – that Glasgow was Scotland’s most fashionable city and that’s where they should put their money.
But chief executive Joseph Wan thought differently. He’d visited Edinburgh and knew where he wanted to invest.
At the same time CIN LaSalle Investment Managers – which manages the portfolio of Coal Pensions Properties Ltd which owned Edinburgh’s bus station and the St James Centre – wanted to build a world-class shopping area with top public transport facilities and they needed a big name to get the idea off the ground.
So when Wan’s company directors were approached by CIN about the possibility of building their own store in St Andrew Square they were extremely interested.
As were city council chiefs when they were told of the idea – not only would it boost city retail but there would be a new bus station into the bargain.
Compulsory purchase orders were madeand an investment of £1 million was also forthcoming from the council to sweeten the deal. But so closely guarded were the plans that the money was still on Glasgow’s old GPO building right up until the announcement that Harvey Nicks was coming to Edinburgh.
• Harvey Nichols has been open for TEN years.
• It has sold 250,000 MAC lipsticks.
• Just over NINE mililon people have been through its doors.
• 24 staff have worked there from day one.
• Around 20,000 pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes have been sold.
• 250,000 mini manicures have been filed at the UK’s first Champagne nail bar.