Oxford Blues

Adam Rawls fights his way through the crowds on Oxford Street in the hope of being inspired by its retailers. But bar a couple of exceptions, he is disappointed by the lack of colour and excitement on what is one of London’s busiest streets. Adam Rawls is

A walk down London’s Oxford Street, never a simple task, can be divided into two distinct seasons. Summer madness with crowds of people or Christmas fever with crowds of people. Just getting from A to B in this most famous of high streets is an immense undertaking and we rarely have the chance to stop and consider the language used between retailer and shopper, the signage, the design and communication of the brands.

Be confident

For many people, Selfridges is Oxford Street. It is an edifice to consumerism. Huge and imposing, it dominates the skyline, completely over the top with angels, buttresses, flags and the retail equivalent of Kew Gardens. And we love it. Entering Selfridges always feels like an event. It would be simple for Selfridges to take a complacent pause for breath, but it still strives to address the widest audience. If the store’s reputation, its diversity of products or the magnificent structure don’t tempt you in, the lime green inflatable armchairs currently in the window just might.

Other retailers might not be blessed with such effective retail space, but they should consider the success of Selfridges and try to emulate the manufactured excitement. Top Shop has taken the right steps. Its street-level escalator and huge television wall leave you in no doubt what is inside. Imagine the excitement of seeing this entrance, MTV culture made real, for the first time. And Byrite has splashed out on a new look. Bright yellow front, big bold logo, moving displays and huge doorway. It says “we’re big, we’re confident, come on in”.

Sadly, the flagship Next store near Oxford Circus seems to have taken a step backward. Agreed, the signs are clear, they communicate the brand proposition and are easy to spot in a crowded environment. The window displays are stylish and, on closer inspection, you can see the quality of the fittings. But the design and first impression seem a little tired. It will never compete with the dramatic giant X and revolving door that, until recently, was its best feature and dominated that row of bland shop fronts.

A glazed look

Offering more visual information than the sign, the shop window works to create impact at street level. A good demonstration of signage and window working in harmony can be seen at Monsoon and Naf Naf. Quite different in terms of positioning, these stores have many elements in common. Neither outlet is huge and they both feature a large expanse of glass. The mark is boldly contained within this frame.

Naf Naf is represented by bright, bold plastic letters and the window sports utilitarian chrome light fittings. The Monsoon mark is conveyed in elegant weathered metal. Flowing hand-painted drapes hang the full length of the windows, enhancing the quality and spirit of the brand. These stores demonstrate that, with a little careful styling, a window can help to create a total signage, telling the shopper something about the brand.


If you are seeking brands on Oxford Street, it would be impossible to ignore John Lewis. An institution in its own right, this department store feels beyond reproach, and yet elements of its exterior have been criticised. Simple box signs in back-lit acrylic sit on a sea of dull green. There is one sign on each door and simple, no-nonsense window displays. In truth, this feels like your favourite auntie’s living room. From the signage to the Barbara Hepworth sculpture, everything is familiar, reassuring and comforting. What you see is what you get.

The HMV store, on the other hand, offers conflicting messages. We know about HMV’s heritage, it is there for all to see in the dog and gramophone logo. Modernity, we assume, is demonstrated in the bold sans serif font. The products on offer here are pure entertainment, music videos and games, hence the liberally applied neon tubes. Unfortunately, the colour palette of dusky pink, tired blue and battleship grey dates the brand and undermines the quality of product on offer. HMV has a powerful personality and dynamism, and has the products we want. An opportunity exists here for a celebration of technology, fashion and design, but all we see is complacency. Can we really expect the fickle young consumer to be attracted by this tired brand image and consider it an essential destination?

Another primary destination for the young, fashion-conscious consumer is the sports shop. Sports goods are inherently desirable. They represent excitement, a combination of energy, technology, sophistication, fashion and sexiness. Imagine the design brief – to communicate these factors to the streetwise Nike consumer in one of the most high-profile streets in the world. And all we have as an example are JD Sports and Olympus. In neither case is there a link between the store’s exterior and the exciting products within. The shapes, colours, materials and use of the mark all work to devalue the spirit of sport.

In retailing, as in all areas of selling, there is a huge element of theatre. The high street offers a stage which is sorely under-used by the retailer. And it’s up to the designer to create the drama.

Shop ’til you drop

Today’s special offer on Oxford Street is a mixed bag of convention and conservatism. Budgets may be tight, but as retailers such as Naf Naf, Byrite and Monsoon have demonstrated, it only takes confidence, creativity and an effective use of colour to ensure that any store can stand head and shoulders above its neighbours.

The fundamental problem is that retailers, rather than creating a store which celebrates such a prime location, bodge together a unit which is simply a scaled-up version of the normal high street store, with bigger logos in larger quantities. Consider the relationship between haute couture and off-the-peg fashion. One inspires the other, it makes the exotic accessible. Destination shopping areas should perform the same function, creating a standard which other shopping areas can look to.

Oxford Street is not an area where you just exchange money for goods. Retailers should not have a shop on Oxford Street just because they feel they have to. It’s a place for emotional purchasing, and it is, or should be, inspirational, exciting and fun. Instead, the overriding impression is that retailers are not enjoying themselves – so why should the customer?

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