Demise of London's Feathers store: Embrace the internet or die

Feathers, the biggest family-run fashion concept store in central London, closed at the end of June, becoming the latest retailer to succumb to exponential rent increases and fierce competition online. The Knightsbridge shop, a stone’s throw away from Harrods, shut down after years of arm-wrestling with a landlord that raised rent 110 percent in 10 years – in line with market prices for prime shopping spots in London, Paris and New York.
 
Feathers’ closure is as much a symbol of the rise of internet multi-brand retailers like Farfetch and Net-a-Porter as it is of a passing of generations. Its demise also warns of the perils of pretending the Internet does not exist - as some renegade retailers still do. 
 
 

The Burstein family standing in front of Feathers just before it closed. From left to right: Robert Burstein (youngest son of Peter Burstein, who ran Feathers), holding daughter Annie. Peter Burstein holding grandson Charlie and photo of his father Willy, Adam Burstein (Peter's oldest son), Jean Burstein (mother of Peter) and Suzanne (wife of Peter) - Peter Burstein

Learning of Feathers’ closure, fashion entrepreneur Anne Chappelle, who runs brands such as Anne Demeulemeester and Haider Ackermann, sent Feathers’ boss Peter Burstein a letter in which she suggested it was time to give way to a younger generation. Burstein, whose parents Willy and Jean Burstein founded the first Feathers boutique in 1968 in Kensington High Street during the heady days of Biba and Kenzo, would have carried on if he could. “We were actually put out of business by our landlord,” he said. 

Feathers is the latest fashion multi-brand store to throw in the towel, pummeled by stratospheric rental costs. Only mega fashion and luxury brands can afford to splurge dozens of millions of euros on a flagship – knowing they might never recoup the investment. A boutique is as much a communications exercise and a marketing expense as a money-making enterprise, industry analysts say.
 
By its own account, arguably what killed Feathers – aside from the rent increase – was that it did not have a significant presence on the Internet. While it sold a few items on it Farfetch, it was more focused on what happened in its store, where it sold curated looks and promoted inventive Italian brands such as Antonio Marras, Mr and Mrs Italy and Herno. “The Internet, of course, is important but we always thought that at the end of the day, what really mattered, was what we sold in our store,” said Burstein. “Customers could not believe we were closing down, some were even crying… But the business has changed a lot as well. I think you will see more and more shops closing,” he added. Several central London rivals have shut down over the years such as A La Mode et Koh Samui in Covent Garderns. Major ones left such as Browns and Matches are now run by internet retailers Farfetch and Matchesfashion respectively.
 
High rent combined with poor trading has even made it difficult for Feathers to pay designers for their stock, Burstein said. Some were left two seasons without any payment. Milan’s high-profile concept store 10 Corso Como, run by Carla Sozzani, sister of late Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani, has also had trouble paying young labels for their stock, several industry sources have said. But no designer will publicly complain since they get so much publicity from featuring in the popular Milanese space. A spokeswoman for 10 Corso Como declined to comment and only said that questions about arrears to fashion labels would be investigated.
 
Burstein said trading might have also been held back in recent years by price increases imposed on brands. “I think customers have become reticent to pay such crazy prices for fashion,” Burstein said. If one could find a pair of designer shoes for 250-300 pounds 10 years ago, now they cost more than 600 pounds. Values have changed. Younger generations prefer to splurge on trips and experiences of which they can post photos on Facebook and Instagram than on fashion status symbols such as a Prada 2,800-pound sterling handbag.
 
Burstein said internet had also made it particularly difficult for UK retailers to compete internationally as prices across the Channel were generally 25 percent cheaper, particularly in Italy and Germany, where rents and margins were lower.
 
Feathers’ exit from the fashion scene harks back to the demise of Maria Luisa in Paris, the independent multi-brand retailer that was the go-to place to find out what has happening in fashion. Founded in the late 1980s by late Maria Luisa Poumaillou, in its more than 30-year existence, Maria Luisa never made a profit. It kept going thanks to her husband and business partner Daniel Poumaillou who mopped up losses from time to time by selling a few family paintings and antiques.
 
The Maria Luisa name was sold to Printemps in 2016 after Maria Luisa lost her battle against cancer and passed away. She had moved the Maria Luisa shop to Printemps’ Paris flagship in 2009 after closing rue du Mont Thabor, off the St Honoré fashion strip. While Maria Luisa Poumaillou was a reference, she often carried items customers could find difficult to wear and therefore buy – which explained why she often ended up with unsold stock - a kiss of death in retail.
 
Selling small designers is not a hugely profitable business because they are often disorganized, deliver clothes late in the season, reducing the amount of time retailers get to sell their wares at full price and therefore at full margin. And the money they make on what they do sell, does not always fully cover overheads, which is why so many of them are not profitable or barely break even.
 
Laure Hériard Dubreuil, founder of The Webster in Miami, leads a new generation of concept stores in the United States. She says she “only buys timeless things, things you can keep for a long time and pass on to the next generation.” Hériard Dubreuil, aged 40, now runs five multi-brand fashion shops in the United States including two in Miami, one in Houston and another in New York where she bought the walls. Hériard Dubreuil, a member of the Rémy Martin cognac family, sits on the board of Paris-listed Rémy Cointreau group alongside Chanel fashion boss Bruno Pavlovsky who acts as an independent director. Hériard Dubreuil launched her own brand LHD last year and her second collection on Net-A-Porter this month. “I think customers have become more and more demanding and knowledgeable thanks to social media,” she said. “So, our curating and level of service need to reflect that.”
 
But if service is important, being active on the internet is a make-or-break factor. After selling for many years on Farfetch, The Webster launched its own website two years ago. “We wanted to have our own site to express our point of view and stylistic choices,” said Hériard Dubreuil.

However, others such as 39-year-old French entrepreneur Régis Pennel who founded Parisian concept store L’Exception started online before investing in a physical place. Pennel launched a multi-brand website in 2011, specialized in young, up-and-coming French designers. The store opened five years later. “The only way to survive is to sell on the Internet,” said Pennel. L’Exception makes 90 percent of its revenue on the Internet and only 10 percent in its shop located in central Paris in the popular Les Halles shopping district. It specializes in selling young French brands and counts Zespa sneakers, Sessùn dresses and AMI menswear among its best-sellers.
 
L’Exception aims to become profitable at the end of this year and open more boutiques. “The shop has become a showroom, a place where people get service,” said Pennel. Paris’ famous Colette, which closed in December 2017, epitomized the showroom business model. Colette generated as much revenue showcasing brands as selling clothes. It also owned its own walls – which made it immune to rent increases. After founder Sarah Andelman did not wish to carry on without her mother Colette Roussaux who wished to retire and after whom the store was named, Colette disappeared. A sign of the times: it was replaced by Saint Laurent, one of the strongest growing mega brands, backed by Gucci owner Kering.

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