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Issue 3 - Jenners of Edinburgh winds of change

Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002

 

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Jenners of Edinburgh winds of change

The oldest independent department store in the world says it's been contemporary since 1838. Kate Patrick went to Jenners to find out how

A personal recollection, to begin. I spent much of the 1980s working at Vogue magazine, during the era when models became supermodels, labels were designer labels and you didn’t just dress: you power-dressed, preferably complete with Cutler & Gross sunglasses. Stores and specialist retailers in the fashion capitals of Paris, Milan, New York and London vied for the hottest names to set their rails alight. Yet on those iconic fashion pages, it was intriguing to see how often the words ‘Jenners, Edinburgh’ cropped up. How could a traditional, provincial department store figure so prominently amongst all this international über-style?

The answer is that the Princes Street store was doing just what it had done since it was founded in 1838: retailing the best of the prevailing fashion. Charles Jenner and Charles Kennington set up their drapery after being sacked for taking the day off to go to the Musselburgh races. They took the lease at 47 Princes Street and claimed they would provide “every prevailing British and Parisian fashion in silks, shawls, fancy dresses, ribbons, lace, hosiery, and every description of linen drapery and haberdashery.” At the time, silks and linens were only available in the great fashion houses of London, so it was an ambitious aim. But 150 years after opening, Jenners was still jostling with Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue for caption space in the glossy magazines.

In Scotland, of course, Jenners is an institution, and an intrinsic part of Edinburgh’s architectural heritage. The building was designed by William Hamilton Beattie in 1893 after a fire destroyed the original, more modest premises. Inside, it was ahead of its time, with open-plan balconies circling a central well, lavish electrical lighting, hydraulic lifts and air-conditioning. Its external decorations included female caryatides carved into columns, symbolic of the woman’s role in supporting the business. Today it’s the first landmark pointed out to tourists on the bus tours from Waverley Station: the oldest independent department store in the world. And because it has resisted becoming a chain, it’s a destination shop: a must-visit for tourists and out-of-towners. It is also fondly patronised by a very loyal local clientele who, despite the fact that it is not the easiest of department stores to navigate, possessively view it as their own.

And therein lies the challenge for Jenners, in the context of a modern Edinburgh that is powering forward with exciting new retail, hotel, leisure and residential developments. How to modernise the look and feel of the place, and retain the X-factor that keeps shoppers interested, without alienating the legion of conservative, faithful customers? The world’s smartest retailers say that it’s possible to lead and educate customers if they trust you; but does this work in canny Scotland?

I turned for some answers to Robbie Douglas Miller, joint Managing Director with his brother Andrew, whose great great grandfather was James Kennedy, the junior partner and business heir of Charles Jenner. “A defining factor for us is the building. It’s a tourist attraction in its own right, and very unusual, if complicated to get around. But we had an image problem: the building made people feel they should be on their best behaviour when they came in. We needed to match what we sold with the environment – so to sell younger, more contemporary merchandise, we needed to make the store more contemporary too. But even as recently as 10 years ago, any changes we made to the interior and merchandise were rejected. There was outrage when we closed one of the restaurants – where has our restaurant gone?‚ went up the cry from customers. We explained that there’d be more restaurants, with different styles of food and a better choice, and although it wasn’t a popular move to start with, the catering is a good example of how we’ve been successful in bringing things up to date. So we keep the programme of change rolling slowly and continuously, with no dramatic moves but enough that’s innovative or exclusive to attract new, younger customers. The pace of this change has speeded up quite considerably in the past five years.”

This year, for example, the old hair salon has been updated as the Hair Beauty Spa – a clear, if prosaic, message that anything hotels and clubs can do, Jenners can do just as well. It isn’t just about shampoo-and-setting Morningside ladies any more. (Coincidentally, this is the year in which Harrods has also launched an in-house spa.) In addition, a Clarins Studio, with five beauty rooms and a full range of treatments, has proved a popular attraction.

A raft of other exclusive tie-ups finds Jenners as the only place in Scotland where you can buy the Mulberry Home Furnishings collection (Mulberry’s founder Roger Saul has long been a supporter of the store); and it is also the only purveyor of Estée Lauder’s state-of-the-art beauty line, Crème de la Mer. The perfumery, always a thriving area, is about to re-launch as an even more expansive operation, to accommodate more of the niche beauty brands that are so popular with the Britney Spears generation.

Elsewhere the store has one of the biggest collections in Britain of Persian carpets, in a department that one customer described as “better than being in a museum”. The staff, who travel out to buy the carpets, are particularly knowledgeable, and it shows in their sales: an £11,000 rug had just been sold to a customer from Cheshire. Then there’s the delicatessen: it was named by the chef Antonio Carluccio, writing in The Independent, as among his top 10 delis in the UK. Bread is baked on the premises and haggis, smoked salmon and nicely packaged preserves are scooped up by the tourists. There’s even a whole area dedicated to selling jelly beans.

The Fashion Lab was set up two years ago to accommodate the designer label (Armani, Versace, DKNY etc) diffusion lines and casual or sport collections for younger, affluent buyers. Other designers featured on the first floor balcony include Nicole Farhi, Marella and Liz Claiborne, and in the designer room Paul Smith, Jean Muir and Joseph. Modern pieces by the traditional knitwear designers Pringle and Ballantyne are given considerable shelf space. And where Ralph Lauren has spent millions on showing collections in vintage, old world environments around the world, Jenners has conversely thrown out the traditional wooden cabinets and replaced them with frosted glass and chrome fittings for menswear.

On the face of it, it’s a very international mix, which in some areas will have to work even harder once Harvey Nichols opens up in the city later in the summer. What Harvey Nichols doesn’t have, however, is a Scottish heritage. “From a tourist point of view this is a strong appeal for us,” observes Douglas Miller. “Our American and Japanese visitors are intrinsically attracted to the scenery, poetry and traditions of Scotland. And this is the local store.”

Gifts with a Scottish theme, whisky, haggis, smoked salmon and shortbread may occupy a relatively small part of the Edinburgh store, but they will play a role alongside fashion and beauty products at the company’s new venture: a sizeable outlet at the brand new Loch Lomond Shores development, 15 miles north of Glasgow. Loch Lomond comes high on most people’s list of visiting priorities: six million people drive the lochside A82 each year, and the area is now the focal point of a new National Park. Loch Lomond Shores, at the south end of the loch near Balloch, is the only retail development that will be allowed there – and this time, Jenners can tailor-make the building for modern shopping. The fashion offering will include more casual and outdoorsy lines from the likes of Mulberry, Ralph Lauren, Gant and Fat Face.

The new opening is an important sign to the outside world that Jenners is not a company trapped inside its own heritage, but ready to face the world, move on and grow – taking its cue from the other great department stores of the world. “There’s no one inspiration above all others,” says Robbie Douglas-Miller, “but the US tends to set the direction, followed by London. Our skill is to pick up on what will work commercially here. Edinburgh is becoming much more cosmopolitan and the similarities greater.”

The final word goes to Charles Jenner. When he retired in 1881, he observed: “Edinburgh ladies are the best-dressed ladies in the kingdom, and thanks to Charles Jenner.” Let’s not forget it.