Thursday 29 September 2016

Even the clock at Clerys stands still for no man

As well as shock at the sudden closure of Clerys, there has been a wave of nostalgia, but, says Brendan O'Connor, nostalgia doesn't pay the rent

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

AN ICON FOR GENERATIONS: Clerys and its famous clock. But iconic brands need relevance and kids don’t care much for legacy any more. Photo: Gerry Mooney
AN ICON FOR GENERATIONS: Clerys and its famous clock. But iconic brands need relevance and kids don’t care much for legacy any more. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The first reaction to the closure of Clerys was obviously shock at the suddenness of it and concern for the potentially hundreds of jobs lost. There has also been, of course, a predictable wave of nostalgia for Clerys.

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The flipside of the fact that we are hurtling into the future so quickly is an increasing nostalgia for the past we are disrupting and creatively destroying.

Sometimes you wonder if nostalgia will overtake porn and cats as the main purpose of the internet. The more we become connected, the less real intimacy we seem to feel, so we love to indulge in warm, fuzzy feelings about summers past, TFI Friday, crisp sandwiches and whatever childhood throwback you're having yourself. And Clerys was one of those institutions that evokes memories of a simpler time. There was no Tinder when people met under the clock at Clerys. Buns were strictly iced and sticky back then, pastries never Danish.

Our dismay for the staff at Clerys is genuine. In Ireland, we have a huge affection for department store staff. Sometimes a department store can seem like a last bastion of civilisation. The gents who work there usually have a dignity, a decency and a discretion that you don't get much any more. The women have a determined glamour. For them, this is show business, and they take their responsibility to their customers seriously. And the first responsibility is usually to look well put-together, to be a role model of appropriate dress and coiffure, to always have the war paint just right.

Department store staff tend to pride themselves on their knowledge of their product range, their unrelenting cheerfulness, on a capacity for service that doesn't feel like servitude. There can be a slight endearing bossiness too as they gently guide sir away from what he really shouldn't try to wear or nudge madam towards a more age-appropriate maquillage while still making her feel young. A visit to a good department store is a treat in itself, an escape from the bustle of town into a generally calmer environment, maybe even a step back in time, possibly even involving tea and a bun or a light lunch.

I didn't grow up under the eye of Clerys' clock, but I can conjure up warm memories of the Munster Arcade and Cash's in Cork. Cash's was the more voluptuous of the two and would subsequently become the even more voluptuous Cork outpost of Brown Thomas, who provide possibly the quintessential department-store experience throughout Ireland. I remember Cash's for exotic-smelling women in silk scarves, sometimes unmarried, who knew precisely what kind of knitwear your mother liked, and maybe having a cream bun then in the Green Door, while Mam put the bags down and took the weight off her feet and had a cup of tea. These ancient rituals, and how enticingly they pull us back, demonstrate what a powerful experience the department store is, the cornerstone of the trip to town.

Which is all very well, but which won't do much for the staff of Clerys this weekend. Because the truth is that most of the people who will indulge in a bit of hashtag nostalgia for Clerys this weekend probably haven't walked in under the clock for quite some time. Many of them will indulge their sentiment for the rare auld times of Clerys in between surfing around for bargains online and arranging to meet in businesses that have popped up in the last few years, businesses without legacies, but no legacy also means no legacy costs.

I work down on Talbot Street, and when I need to stretch my legs, I can tend to wander up towards Henry Street. I would often detour through Clerys basement, where I might buy the odd pair of swimming togs or goggles, but never much. I would often be virtually alone down there, and I would often be one of the few people under 50. I often felt a bit guilty for not buying there more regularly, and I sometimes thought I detected a slight sadness in the staff, a knowledge that, underneath it all, despite their best efforts, they were on borrowed time. There may have been a vague hope there too, hope that a white knight would come and reinvigorate the place, and make it not a temple of nostalgia but a vibrant 21st-Century experience.

Like a lot of the people who walked through Clerys I would then make my way to the bright lights of Arnotts, where the buzz and energy of the Northside of the city resides now. Arnotts is younger, classier, brasher and brighter. The ladies who lunch between shopping eat in the reassuring clatter of a Clodagh McKenna restaurant and you can move from Gap to Kiehl's to Ligne Roset in minutes. What chance did Clerys have?

The loss of Clerys will be mourned as the loss of an iconic brand and a part of what we are for sure. But iconic brands don't pay the wages any more unless you can pivot them into relevance. You can build a brand on social media now in months. The kids don't care for legacy much any more. Legacy can mean old hat, and the young crowd moves on quickly. They've even turned on Abercrombie. Admittedly, there is a vogue for heritage right now, and notables like Burberry have successfully leveraged a perceived legacy into a premium marketing positioning. But, increasingly, ersatz heritage is being provided by new, agile companies that are firmly rooted in 21st-Century products and services.

I was struck at Taste of Dublin this year that it all felt a bit younger than before. Many of the restaurants which popped up there didn't exist a few years ago but are already huge brands with their young customer base. They are run too by energetic young people who have travelled the world, who are full of positivity and who understand their affluent young customers. I find myself in awe of these kids and their confidence. You watch them and you find yourself thinking that the world is theirs now and they will build the venerable institutions of the future. They are living proof of that old marketing maxim about staying close to your customer. Because they pretty much are their own customers. They happen to be working, but they are just more hip young people hanging out in these joints.

And maybe that was the sad thing about Clerys too. It was its customer too: getting on a bit, not keen on change, and in some way trying to insulate itself from a confusing, changing world. There's no doubt that the right kind of genius could have taken the Clerys feeling and pivoted it into the modern era. Maybe Arthur Ryan across the road in Penneys could have figured out what to do with it. But in the end, Clerys wasn't attractive enough to any retailer. In the end, Clerys was, like so many other things, a property play. And now it will become a shopping centre among other things. And no doubt it will be full of high-street brands and other shops that appear and disappear, with names that you and I will never even know.

And Clerys will exist only in memories of a simpler time, as the wheels of commerce move on, as industrial revolutions turn at a faster speed than ever before, and new young people who understand the world as it is now take the reins of businesses, building and knocking legacies and brands at lightning speed. And we will feel a wistfulness for the simpler times, but we will spend our money embracing the choice offered by the shiny and the new.

Sunday Independent

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