By  on May 5, 2008

The iconic London neighborhood has established itself as a destination for spas, salons and edgy brands.

LONDON — If "My Fair Lady" were updated for the 21st century, Eliza Doolittle would likely be peddling lip gloss instead of two-penny blooms in a thriving retail neighborhood near her original Covent Garden haunt.

The area north of Covent Garden's bustling,

tourist-friendly piazza, encompassing streets around the Seven Dials monument, has become a destination for shoppers seeking established and edgy beauty brands, spas and hair salons.

In the last year, Benefit, Jelly Pong Pong and Ahava opened in the neighborhood, joining brands such as Kiehl's, MAC, The Organic Pharmacy, Shu Uemura, Neal's Yard Remedies and Origins.

"Anyone looking for innovative beauty solutions automatically heads north of Long Acre, along Neal Street and its environs," said Nicky Kinnaird, founder of high-end beauty retail chain Space NK, who opened her first boutique in a former banana warehouse in the neighborhood in 1993.

Beauty services also have a strong presence, with Simple and Nickel both running spas in the area, while Windle, Vidal Sassoon and Adee Phelan are among the high-profile hair salons.

"[The concentration on beauty] is an accident of history," said Tom Welton, property director at Shaftesbury Plc, a property investment firm that focuses on the Covent Garden, Carnaby Street and Chinatown neighborhoods.

The area's heritage explains much of its appeal for beauty retailers that want to set themselves apart from brands widely available on high streets and in shopping malls.

"It has a 'faded glory' feel and edginess, which gives brands authenticity by being there," said George Wallace, chief executive officer of the London-based MHE Retail consultancy. "That is a problem with many new retail centers — they don't have any heritage."

Since numerous buildings in the Seven Dials area have been converted from former houses, retail units tend to be smaller than those in other London locales and are therefore ideal for cash-strapped start-up brands looking to open their first flagship.

For instance, Jelly Pong Pong and Ahava, which recently launched stores on Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street, respectively, are among brands to make their store debuts there.Compared with Covent Garden's piazza, rents around Seven Dials are generally more accessible to niche players. While locations in Covent Garden were pegged last year at 365 pounds a square foot, or $724 at current exchange, locations on Monmouth Street, for example, were 150 pounds, or $297. (Neal Street, which links Covent Garden to Seven Dials, was priced at 375 pounds a square foot, or $745.)

With its lower rents, the area to the north of Covent Garden has traditionally drawn brands with out-of-the-box concepts. "If you look back to 20 years ago it was rundown, but very central," Welton said. "Originally, quirky brands were attracted to the area because of affordable rents."

Neal's Yard Remedies, for example, opened in the Neal's Yard courtyard 26 years ago as part of a cooperative, which included a bakery and a dairy. The brand went on to become one of the pioneers of the natural cosmetics movement and its original boutique and treatment rooms are a sightseeing stop for tourists and a mecca for green-beauty devotees.

Neal's Yard's alternative take on lifestyle also has permeated its environs, which are dotted with vegetarian cafes, crystal emporiums and bookshops specializing in astrology, giving the area an atmosphere that's unique and slightly loopy, compared with some high-octane shopping thoroughfares in the city.

"People like Covent Garden as they consider it has a village feel," said Emma Donoghue, senior surveyor at property consultancy EA Shaw.

That's not to say Birkenstocks and patchouli are de rigueur. Although there is a natural shoe store, it's located steps from a Foot Locker. Streetwear brands such as Diesel, Miss Sixty, G-Star Raw, Fat Face and Boxfresh all have a presence, while Mango, Urban Outfitters and Koh Samui offer fashion fixes.

Beauty retailers setting up shop cite the eclectic mix as one of the area's prime selling points.

"It is a great fun location with lots of character, history and fantastic shops," said Margo Marrone, co-founder of The Organic Pharmacy chain of beauty and health stores, which opened a unit on Neal Street in late 2006. "Even though some stores belong to big brands there is still the wonderful feeling of personal shopping, which makes Covent Garden unique.""If we attract the right mix of tenants we'll attract the right mix of customers and everybody benefits," said Welton, adding that when he interviews prospective tenants he focuses on the retailers' products and their points of difference rather than on business plans. "We love quirky one-offs because they give the area a 'local' aspect and make people feel special."

Shoppers in the neighborhood include tourists, residents and employees of local businesses, as well as actors and dancers performing in the nearby opera and theaters.

"During the week there is a strong local customer base, many professionals who work in the media, design and fashion industries," said Space NK's Kinnaird. "This is supplemented by tourists of all ages, mainly from Europe, the U.S. and the Far East. On the weekends, the customer is younger, more transient and we see many more British tourists."

"It's a young funky crowd," said Wallace, who added the presence of multiple beauty retailers in one neighborhood can be a boon for individual brands. "It helps them, it [creates] critical mass. People don't stick rigidly to one brand and will be attracted by the variety and proximity of brands. The stores feed off each other."

"We knew there was an existing cosmetics, beauty and lifestyle customer in the area and that added to the argument [for opening a store in the neighborhood]," said Ian Marshall, managing director of Benefit Cosmetics U.K., which opened a store there in 2007. "We love competition."

Finding a location across from brands with pulling power, such as Neal's Yard Remedies and Benefit, has helped niche makeup brand Jelly Pong Pong find its place on the cosmetics map.

"Opening on Shorts Gardens was a no-brainer," said the brand's founder, Susan Chyi. "I like the fact that it's become a bit of a beauty destination."

Although the beautification of Seven Dials is well underway, Welton noted that Shaftesbury is keen to maintain the area's tony atmosphere without creating a Disney-like effect. While the company works with local authorities to improve lighting and pavements, it uses traditional materials such as York stone for an authentic finish."We don't want to sanitize the area so that it loses its magic," he said.

— With contributions from Lucie Greene and Benjamin Canare

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