Revamp a triumph for modern retail
Arnotts' huge new-look, cohesive womenswear departments make life easier for customers, says Constance Harris
Deirdre Devaney, the director of fashion and beauty at Arnotts, and I are of that generation in Ireland where the minute school or college was over, everyone we knew emigrated.
Deirdre went to London in the early Nineties and lived there through what were savage economic times, which still seem much worse than what we are going through now. She was lucky and got a job in Harrods.
But Deirdre told me last week -- as we met to discuss Arnotts' metamorphosis -- though the times were hard, her then boss Mohamed Al-Fayed made a bold, charismatic move and spent £25m on elaborate Egyptian escalators. Suddenly, the store was the place to go and its fate was turned around.
"You can't be afraid to change in this business," Deirdre said. "You can't keep looking at the past, something we in this country have a tendency to do. You have to be in the here and now, and believe it is going to be good."
Deirdre could have been quoting from Eckhart Tolle -- the author of The Power of Now -- whose talk in the RDS I had attended the night before. Tolle talked about how constantly referring to the past meant you perpetuated that history into your present and to your future. But by changing that habit, by focusing on being in the present, you can change your world for the better.
And a big part of that strategy for me is believing in the right to be excited by and enjoy lovely clothes.
On our pages today are shots from Arnotts' autumn/winter show, which was a triumph of optimism and colour. The store was celebrating its newly completed, much more cohesive womenswear departments.
"We are the largest department store in the country with more than 300,000sq ft of shopping -- 65,000sq ft of which is dedicated to womenswear," Deirdre said. "It is immense. We wanted to make it an easier journey for the customer. We didn't want them to feel overwhelmed by the size, as can happen, and lose the will to live."
Now, when you go into Arnotts and up its (not Egyptian) escalators, you are in the world of women's contemporary wear, a place of colour, direction, international labels and really wearable brands. There isn't an age limit to this department, though it does feel young and vibrant.
Looks in this section are provided by brands such as Tara Jarmon, BCBG, Anglomania, Nicole Miller, LK Bennett, Boutique by Jaeger, Jaeger, Rockin' Republic, Paige Denim, Reiss and NW3 -- a younger sister of the Hobbs brand which is new and exclusive to Arnotts. I loved it -- it is full of colour and different, while being very wearable, with quality fabrics and a good price point.
"We have some higher-end brands, such as Aquascutum and Marc Cain, which are doing really well," Deirdre said. "We are seeing a return to people wanting investment pieces. Even trends this season; say the camel coat -- you are buying it with a view to having it for a few seasons."
But the development I most admire in Arnotts this season is its new classic ladieswear department in the Middle Abbey Street side of the store's first floor. Ladies of a more classic bent, who know the style that suits them, who take comfort in labels of long standing and worth, have only to go up the short escalator into a really comprehensive floor of fashion for their lifestyle. I am very impressed.
"We call it our Updated Classics area," Deirdre said. "We have a really great, classic customer who is hugely loyal to us. When I first came to the store, her labels were actually split over two floors, which was hard work for her. So now we have what she wants brought into one area.
"There are 18,000sq ft of brands such as Gerry Weber, Betty Barclay, MYBC Basler, Persona -- which goes up to size 24/26 -- Windsmoor, Kaliko, Jacques Vert, Libra and Gold. Plus Personal Choice, Peruzzi and Joseph Ribkoff, which are a softer way of dressing. Then Planet and Precis for the petite lady. And, of course, great labels such as Ann Harvey, Dash, Eastex and Minuet, which are all looking really good."
This is also where you will find the excellent Miraclebody jeans, which are way more forgiving to curvy women's bods.
This season also sees Arnotts' first collaboration with couturier Peter O'Brien on a capsule collection made exclusively for the store.
It is a practical range, made with Peter's signature fabrics -- silk chiffon and crepe, as well as cashmere and wool mixes -- devised by Peter and Deirdre to meet women's needs. "Peter and I met last year at a show and we discussed the idea," she said.
"We decided we wanted it to be quality and made more traditionally, using skilled pattern-cutters and not computers, and have it made in Portugal as opposed to the Far East, with only 70 pieces in each style produced."
As you can see from our pages, it is a very feminine, yet functional, collection.
"One thing I am noticing this season is that even though we are in one of the biggest cash crises we have known, people are still willing to spend for quality. So with our buying, we hope to move into being braver and put a bit more icing on the cake."
That is my kind of living.