Thursday, January 22, 2009

"A colony of bats would have been better protected": Antique dealers an endangered species as Anthropologie muscles in

There was the unmistakeable whiff of the sepulchre about Antiquarius this morning following the news that the Grade II listed Arts & Crafts period building on the Kings Road will be occupied later this year by wealthy US fashion giant Anthropologie. (See my earlier story here).

Fifteen minutes after opening time this morning there was barely a dealer in sight, the only activity coming from the on-site greasy spoon that serves the dealers who show here. The handful of traders who had bothered to turn up looked as if their world was about to end as they wearily unlocked their stands. Most were unprepared to talk. Perhaps they fear that publicizing the imminent closure of the centre could dampen what little business is left to scrape together before everyone is finally evicted in a few months time.

The deal that now looks almost certain to go through would allow wealthy US fashion chain Anthropologie, (which also sells antiques and decorative objects from its 100 stores across the US), to acquire the lease from owners retail property investment company London & Associated Properties (LAP). Since acquiring it in 2006, LAP has made several attempts to secure planning permission to develop the building, but all their applications have been turned down. However, this doesn't seem to have stopped them going ahead with internal structural alterations.

Under the new deal, Anthropologie will work under the auspices of English Heritage to fund and execute a restoration of the listed building (right, constructed in the 1920s by the Temperance Movement) before turning the Kings Road premises into its first London outlet.

Before restoration can begin — which insiders say will commence this summer in time for a planned Anthropologie opening before Christmas — permission must be granted by the owners of the building, Cadogan Estates. All the signs are, however, that approval will be granted, particularly now that local residents' associations have approved the plan.

One dealer who was prepared to talk about the imminent closure was ivory dealer Malcolm Simpson who has been trading at Antiquarius for 35 years. "If we had been a colony of bats, we'd have been better protected than we have been," said Mr Simpson. "They don't care about the dealers who occupy the building. We don't matter. We have never been asked or told about anything, or ever invited to a meeting. All decisions have been taken without consulting us."

Mr Simpson, who pays £450 per month for his stand, believes that the centre will have ceased trading in a few months time. "We used to have an annual lease on our stands. Then a year or so ago, when they began discussions to sell the building, they halved the lease to six months. Then recently it was cut to a month. Now we're all on borrowed time."

Mr Simpson remembers when the same property company, LAP, evicted all the dealers from another of its antiques centres, Chenil House just 100 yards down the Kings Road. The building was subsequently let to the Daisy & Tom childrens' toy and fashion company. However, Daisy & Tom soon closed and the Chenil building, like the Mall Antiques Centre in Islington — yet another recent victim of LAP's voracious business plan — now stands forlornly unoccupied.

One Antiquarius silver dealer who asked not to be named also expressed disgust at the way the dealers have been treated by their landlords but accepted that times change. "I've been here 30 years," he said. "Nobody has asked me once what I think or has ever spoken to me once about what's going on. We're all being kept in the dark. Nobody knows what's happening or whether we'll have to leave. That's big business for you. Fashion. It's all money, money, money. You just have to accept it and move on."

Wandering the dark warren of shuttered stands at Antiquarius this morning, one sensed that an era — and another strand of the UK antiques trade — was drawing to an end. Outside one could see further evidence of how antiquated and behind the times Antiquarius had become. The painted sign attached to the wall of the building in Flood Street announces the presence of "over 120 dealers" (today there are barely 50), while the sign still shows the telephone number as 0171, a code that changed almost ten years ago.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Antiques and Anthropologie: Dealers to be evicted from Chelsea antiques centre as US fashion chain acquires Kings Road premises.

Anthropologie, the US fashion and accessories retail chain, has acquired the Antiquarius building on the Kings Road, Chelsea, currently home to around 80 antiques and collectables dealers who will be evicted to make way for an Anthropologie store, trade sources have told Artknows.

This was the main story on everyone's lips at the Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair in Battersea Park today where a mood of cautious optimism prevailed following an encouraging first day's trading. Some business was being done despite the credit crunch and one or two exhibitors were celebrating the fact that the resurgent dollar had even encouraged a few Americans to come and buy.

Just how much this small upward blip in confidence could be attributed to the Obama bounce following yesterday's inauguration was unclear. Certainly it represented a glimmer of cheer in an otherwise gloomy world.

I say gloomy, because while some Americans were exercising their credit cards in Battersea, other US business interests were having an altogether less positive impact on the antiques trade elsewhere in London as word quickly spread that the cult American fashion and accessories retail chain, Anthropologie, had acquired the Kings Road premises of Antiquarius (right) and is poised to evict the dealers based there.

Coming so soon after the recent eviction of dealers from the Mall Antiques Arcade in Islington, the last thing the London antiques trade needs right now is the demise of yet another iconic antiques centre. But clearly fashion retail is now king.

Only last week, top-drawer English furniture dealers Mallett announced their imminent departure from their Bond Street premises on the grounds that they were no longer prepared to pay the extortionate rents. But they also confided that another reason for moving is that the once classy ambience of Bond Street has been besmirched by an invasion of multi-national fashion brands like Gucci, Armani and Versace, all of which require massive architect-designed flagship stores from which to sell their tacky merchandise.

As if this downbeat news were not enough, long-established Knightsbridge furniture dealers Norman Adams has decided to cease trading altogether after witnessing a change of taste in recent years that has dealt a body blow to the market for English period furniture.

The UK antiques trade — enfeebled, superannuated, and desperately out of touch with the modern world — had it coming. Cocooned in complacency date-stamped 1975, it has consistently failed to reinvent itself in the face of changing tastes while luxuriating in a refusal to embrace the digital age. (I recently requested from a leading UK trade association a digital copy of a letter it had written to the BBC and was sniffily told that only a hard copy existed. Er, scanner?).

Now desperately rearranging the deck-chairs as the water level rises, the antiques trade perhaps deserves to be muscled out of prime locations where consumers want a different form of shopping experience. Quite how the trade will reinvent itself in the face of these setbacks, to say nothing of the credit squeeze, is anyone's guess. But don't expect any great innovation from such a sleepy cultural backwater. Just get settled in your wing chair, switch on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow and float peacefully off into a catatonic state.

Meanwhile, by way of contrast, Anthropologie has been an amazing success, not only in offering consumers appealing fashion lines, but also in selling decorative antiques from the same outlets. This isn't a case of a sprat to catch a mackerel. With sales reaching $400 million in 2006, it's marlin-fishing on a grand scale.

The business began life in 1992 as a single store operating out of Wayne, Pennsylvania, at that time under the auspices of parent group Urban Outfitters, Inc. In 1994, the brand was taken over by Long Island entrepreneur Glen Senk and his business and life partner Keith Johnson, who together saw a gap in the women's fashion and accessories market. In a relatively short space of time they turned Anthropologie into a US-wide cult brand patronised by film stars and other celebrities, with flagship stores in Los Angeles and New York, including a 12,000 square foot branch that opened last year in the Rockefeller Centre.

Keith Johnson, spotted at this week's Decorative Antiques Fair in Battersea, is Anthropologie's antiques buyer. Each Anthropologie store is notable for its glamorous interiors fitted out with unusual decorative antiques and historical objects sourced by Johnson on his frequent trips to Europe and elsewhere. At first the antiques weren't for sale, but pretty soon buyers who called in for a new dress began asking the price of the decorative objects on show.

Clearly the ambience conveyed by the antiques promotes the core business of fashion and accessories, but all the evidence suggests that it's a reciprocal pull. According to House & Garden magazine, Anthropologie is not only one of the most popular fashion brands in the US, but also America's No.1 purveyor of decorative antiques.

Now it seems it won't be long before Chelsea shoppers are sampling the Anthropologie experience, albeit at the expense of Antiquarius (left). Whether the presence of one of America's leading designer fashion outlets will make up for the demise of the antiques centre in the minds of London shoppers remains to be seen. The Antiquarius building at 131-141 Kings Road, Chelsea, began life in the 1920s as a gentleman's club and pool hall before becoming an antiques centre in the 1960s. It is regarded as the oldest and most famous of the capital's antiques centres, home to around 80 dealers in decorative antiques and collectables.

"It won't be Keith's decision to kick out the dealers from Antiquarius," said one dealer at the Battersea Decorative Antiques Fair. "After all, Keith's a dealer himself in effect. But it will happen."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Antiquarius management were not answering the telephone when I called today for a comment. Doubtless they were too busy reading the writing on the wall. However, one dealer at the centre did confirm that the premises had been bought.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Anthropologie confirmed that the company will be opening stores in Europe in the near future, but said that a date and location "has not yet been released."

Watch this space.