We start on the upper floors and wander through rooms strewn with the driftwood of earlier occupants—a roll-top bath beached in the center of what is now the staff bathroom, antique sash windows, a fireplace decorated with what appear to be Delft tiles. One room is set aside as a workroom while another hosts fashion shows for the company's trade customers. "It's a nice introduction to who we are as a brand," says Gohel. "We've deliberately not done much to it. The idea is to respect the building's history, to leave as little of a scar on it as possible."
The same desire to root the brand's identity in local provenance is on display in the retail space downstairs. Laid out to evoke a traditional "local store," the storefront blends references to Timberland's boot-maker roots in New England with nods in the direction of the building's warehouse past.
Furniture and industrial equipment dredged from disused cupboards and forgotten corners serve as mounts for clothes. A reassembled fruit cart showcases a collection of denim jeans; steel rolling racks exhibit footwear; a branched pole, once hung with ripening bananas, has been turned into a prop displaying boots.
The overall effect, for all the painstaking effort to restore or recycle original features, is not so much authentic as artfully contrived—like a meticulously crafted film-set. I wonder, uneasily, if this hint of the synthetic will play well with the Timberland Boot Company's target market. Then I remember that this, after all, is a brand whose customers pay extra for hand-applied dirt and weathering and, suddenly, the shop's theme-park texture seems right on message.
So far, the Timberland Boot Company has opened just two of the stores that it plans worldwide. The second is in London's Carnaby Street. Like the Spitalfields' launch store, the shop uses a place-based theme. But it does so in a less literal and more abstract way, using mirrors as a visual metaphor for Carnaby Street's iconic fashion status.
Some localities—and some businesses—sit more comfortably than others with a place-based approach to retail design. Brands that practice the art instinctively (and some always have) tend to fall into one of two camps: high-end fashion-brands, such as Paul Smith, which confine themselves to prime locations; and small, often family-owned chains that put individuality before growth. This prompts the question of whether a place-based approach can be carried off by mass-market brands, or even niche players once they pass a certain size.
One company wrestling with this conundrum is the up-market casual dining chain PizzaExpress. Founded in the 1960s, PizzaExpress has traditionally eschewed the cooker-cutter approach to retailing, preferring to house itself in properties with local character. Today the chain boasts an eclectic mix of over 300 restaurants ranging from a 60s-inspired branch in Fulham to a medieval building with Grade II listed status (a UK architectural designation meaning "a particularly important building of special interest") in Warwick. Recently PizzaExpress has branched out into shopping centers and retail parks. So, can a brand that's all about the distinctive and varied character of its branches expand into an anonymous trading space without being devalued?
PizzaExpress head of design Belinda Rogers sees the challenge as tough, but not intractable. "It's definitely the case that an old building is more sympathetic to a place-based approach than a retail shell," she acknowledges. "But what you can do is reflect something from the locality in the design." As an example she highlights a PizzaExpress that opened recently in the retail park at Cheshire Oaks.
"What Cheshire Oaks is about is shopping, so we made shopping a tongue-in-cheek theme for the artwork and signage," she explains. "It's a way of retaining local relevance, even in a building that doesn't come with character."
Might we be entering an era of genuine sea change in which monolithic corporations, such as supermarkets and fast-food chains, bend over backward to complement rather than colonize the local landscape? Kindleysides considers this not so much an option, as a commercial imperative.
"With the disappearance from the high street of independent butchers, green grocers, and chemists, there is an emotional and tactile void at the center of communities," he reflects. "People want convenience and they want value. But they also want a sense of belonging. There's an opportunity and the firms most likely to benefit are those with financial muscle."
Eyeing the successes of the Timberland Boot Company and PizzaExpress, the larger chains—the big-box home-improvement warehouses and electronics retailers—may well aspire to similarly fill the space left vacant by local shopkeepers. But only time will tell if high-street titans like these are able to morph into community traders or if the locals will still feel as if encroached by unwanted interlopers.