LONDON — The British capital is flickering back to life — but only just.
With no international tourists, and local office workers reluctant to return to their desks, the heart of town — including Mayfair, Soho, Oxford Street, and Covent Garden — is quiet, with small groups of diehard diners eating at restaurants outside, and a sprinkling of shoppers browsing in a city where social distancing is now the norm.
London Fashion Week, which runs through Sept. 22, is unique — and quiet. There are few out-of-town guests and buyers, as quarantine measures are still in place for arrivals from the U.S. and many European countries, while many companies won’t allow staff to travel.
Rules banning gatherings of more than six people, indoors and outdoors, have further complicated matters, while the British government is now talking about imposing tighter measures on day-to-day life, including a possible curfew in London, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase.
That wouldn’t certainly snuff out whatever little flame there is.
Yet, in the face of it all, London’s business owners are persisting, setting out their tables on the sidewalk, steam cleaning the clothing on their shop floors, rubbing their hands raw with gel, hooking on face masks, and hoping for the best.
They’re confident about the medium and long term, after a vaccine is found, and the tourists return, but for now they have no choice but to strategize for the short term.
“The next six months will be more precarious than the last,” said Jace Tyrrell, chief executive officer of New West End Company, which represents hundreds of retail, hospitality and other businesses in Soho, Mayfair and around Oxford Street.
Terrell said that for London’s West End, the next two quarters will be about “survival,” with a pickup in tourist business in the second half of 2021, and growth bouncing back in 2022.
Workers’ reluctance to return to the office has damaged myriad businesses in the West End — and in other busy business districts such as Canary Wharf and the City of London.
As a result, the upmarket coffee and sandwich chain Pret A Manger revealed 3,000 layoffs last month due to shop closures and shorter opening hours, while other cafés, hotels, restaurants, chains and bars have not bothered to reopen or are closing for good.
Tyrrell said 10 to 15 percent of West End office workers are back, with that number set to rise to 50 percent by Christmas. He said he expects the “new normal” to see one-third of people working from home and the rest back at the office.
West End businesses, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on Christmas, and hoping to sell their wares to locals rather than tourists. Tyrrell said some nine million Brits traveled abroad last November and December, and if even half them decide to spend time in central London, it would be a boon for the West End.
The Grosvenor Estate, which owns property across Mayfair, Belgravia, and across the U.K., is also pinning its hopes on residents — and local tourism — to help revive business.
Amelia Bright, executive director of the London Estate, Grosvenor Britain and Ireland, said that because the West End relies heavily on tourism, “we look forward to seeing the return of international visitors, which will be crucial to the long-term future of these areas. However, in the immediate term, we are focusing on U.K. visitors and Londoners, demonstrating that even now they can have an engaging and memorable experience in central London.”
Grosvenor has already waived rents for hundreds of tenants, subsidized local restaurants, and tried its best to make neighborhoods safe by pedestrianizing streets, widening pavements and installing hand sanitizer stations. It has also installed new street furniture and art to raise the profile of Mayfair and Belgravia, in particular.
Other property owners have already begun readying for the bounce back.
According to Matt Farrell, managing director of Trophaeum Asset Management, which owns much of Albemarle Street in Mayfair and properties on New Bond Street and across other parts of London, real estate deals are already picking up: Ermenegildo Zegna Group is shifting Agnona out of Number 37 Albemarle Street and swapping it for a Thom Browne women’s wear store (Thom Browne men’s wear is at Number 3).
Meanwhile, the women’s wear brand Galvan is set to move onto the same luxury strip.
Farrell is also standing by his original sentiments about the rebound in London. Just after lockdown earlier this year, Farrell said Bond Street and its neighbors should recover faster than any other luxury district in the world, due to London’s super wealthy, international residents who fuel the high domestic spend in the neighborhood.
“London doesn’t have to depend on Saudis, Indians, Russians, Americans and Italians flying in — because they already live here. London has large, wealthy international communities, compared with Paris, Milan and Madrid, which do not have the same advantage,” he said in an interview shortly after lockdown.
Not far from Albemarle Street, there are other new openings afoot, with men’s tailor Thom Sweeney set to move to a new “tailoring townhouse,” on Old Burlington Street, near Savile Row. The four-floor townhouse includes a 3,100-square-foot store and has a bespoke workshop, fitting rooms, a made-to-measure lounge and a ready-to-wear collection on show. There will also be a cocktail bar and barber’s shop.
Daisy Knatchbull, meanwhile, will be moving her women’s tailoring brand, The Deck, to Number 19 Savile Row this month. It will be the first shopfront on Savile Row exclusively for women. The new space spans more than 3,000 square feet, and replaces her current shop in Chelsea.
Knatchbull, whose clients include Elle Macpherson, AJ Odudu, Gillian Anderson and Lauren Hutton, is even planning an opening party in October — per government guidelines. Looking further ahead, she’s hoping to host a series of monthly get-togethers for customers to view her tailored designs in-store, while they have drinks and chat — just like in the pre-COVID-19 good old days.
The Portman Estate, which owns 110 acres in Marylebone, the swanky neighborhood between Oxford Street and Regent’s Park, is trying to help existing businesses — and attract new blood — as it gears for better times ahead.
It has welcomed businesses including the calligraphy and stationery store Quill; the well-being and beauty retailer Anatome, and William Crabtree made-to-measure tailors.
KOL restaurant, from the same owners as Noma Mexico, is opening next month, offering high-end Mexican cuisine with British ingredients, while the new Nobu Hotel in Portman Square is set to welcome guests as of November.
Oliver Fenn-Smith, ceo of the Portman Estate, said that throughout the crisis his teams have been working closely to support the nearly 200 retailers, restaurants, bars, pubs and leisure businesses across the estate’s 110 acres of Marylebone.
The estate offered rent deferrals for the March and June quarters and is looking to ease the pressure of the September rent quarter for tenants with independent businesses. “We will continue to assess the ongoing situation. We are committed to supporting our hugely valuable business community during these extremely challenging times,” he said.
Hugh Seaborn, ceo of the Cadogan Estate, which owns much of Chelsea and parts of Knightsbridge, talks about a “doughnut effect” happening in London right now, with neighborhoods coming back to life quicker than city centers.
That is certainly true for the streets around Sloane Square and the King’s Road, which have been steadily filling up this month, with locals eating at tables on the sidewalk or shopping, at a social distance.
This is because the neighborhood relies on local consumers rather than international tourists, who normally make up less than one-third of footfall.
Almost all the shops and restaurants in the neighborhood around Sloane Square have reopened.
“We’ve been very fortunate compared to other parts of London. Some of the restaurants are doing better than they were pre-COVID-19,” said Seaborn, who was already spearheading a massive regeneration and public realm redevelopment plan on behalf of Cadogan before the pandemic hit.
He said the estate is currently looking for ways to install environmentally friendly heaters in the outside restaurants for when the weather turns colder, and is also offering some businesses rent deals based on turnover, rather than forcing them into fixed payments, “so they can stay open and active,” he said.
The estate is pursuing longer-term plans, too. Next year, the neighborhood is set to welcome the Costes Townhouse, a project by Jean-Louis Costes, next to the Sloane Square Underground station, and another luxury townhouse concept with Beaverbrook.
“The short term is very difficult to predict, but we do have perspective. We’re a family business with a long-term outlook,” he said.