I came across the history of the Burberry flagship store in a likewise ostentatious setting: the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey. From February to April 2016 its cold, grandiose spaces were filled with what I’d rather interpret as a deliberately purposeless exhibition, History of Nothing. A single video work in the show caught my attention, Solo (2015) by Eloise Hawser. The video is shot inside Westmoreland House on Regent’s Street, from 2012 Burberry’s flagship store. The building has changed several uses since the times it was built in 1820: it has housed a livery station, a church, a cinema, a gallery and finally, inevitably, became a shop selling luxury goods. In Solo the camera lingers on the obsolete ‘cinema organ’, a semi-automated musical instrument installed in cinemas to provide soundtracks during the silent movie era: the one still standing in Burberry’s flagship store is a memento of the building’s past as an art deco cinema. Hawser has an interest in skeuomorphs; objects like the cinema organ that have outlived their functionality and yet are retained for decorative or symbolic reasons. Fascinated by the melancholic cinema organ in the unashamedly luxurious setting of Burberrys’s flagship store, I decided to go there for a visit.
Maybe because of my naiveté regarding luxury branding strategies, I didn’t realise the digital metaphor on which the shop’s interior design is structured until I read a few articles about it. Apparently, the whole Burberry store is organised to be the brick-and-mortar version of the website. So, for instance, the confusing amount of entrances stands for the different entry points of the internet; plenty of sitting arrangements are not there in order to fight the exhaustion of the consumer’s experience, but to resemble the experience of shopping online from the comfort of your living room. The fully automated luxury concept of the shop has its climax in the changing rooms’ mirrors responding to a chip embedded in the items and showing images of how the garment was made and what it looked like on the catwalk. Such deviltries didn’t impress me as much as the predictable hoard of tourists buying the classic trenches symbol of Britishness.
Flagship stores play a crucial role in constructing a brand’s identity: it is where the illusion of exclusivity and limited availability of luxury goods are created, and the core values are displayed. Generally speaking, flagship stores are either stressing a continuity with the past, when housed in prestigious heritage buildings, or affiliating themselves with avant-garde by commissioning extravagant architectures to famous archistars. Burberry’s flagship store, a historical building arranged in a way to resemble the digital architecture of the website, attempts to combine the two tendencies and to portray itself as the perfect blend of power, status, tradition and innovation. Flagship stores’ alleged exceptional architectural qualities are supposed to turn them into ‘open’ and ‘public’ spaces. Entering the Burberry flagship store with no intention of making purchases, strolling and looking around and asking for the cinema organ and the building’s history with student-like zeal is a possible, though nonetheless a rather uncomfortable experience.
The architecture of past grandeur, in the recognisable and familiar shape of Westmoreland House’s decorated facade, imposing space and multitude of staircases, bronze lanterns and timber paneling and flooring, is detached from its original purpose and now only stands for the importance of Burberry’s fashion brand. The building itself is the skeuomorph, not only the cinema organ. The dormant organ is kept hidden behind the tallest indoor retail screen in the world, between two converging stairwells, probably because of some listed building policy, a nosiness to entertain the most curious buyers. A space built for public entertainment as a cinema is turned into a deeply exclusive and exclusionary retail experience, and a charming building has become merely a building that symbolises charm; a skeuomorph for commercial purposes.