Founders Merrit, Smyth and Seun discuss the problem of labels being shut out of the retail business and network of customers by skyrocketing rents
50m is a fashion concept offering what can be described as a platform devoted to supporting and showcasing emerging designers, allowing them to present and sell their collections. Inaugurated in July 2018, with the aim of giving Central London back to the creative community, 50m is based in the area of Belgravia. The space is the first fashion retail project of art collective Something & Son, led by Andy Merritt and Paul Smyth – in collaboration with Tracey Suen – stocking emerging luxury fashion labels, publications and lifestyle brands within its 2,2420 square feet. Merrit, Smyth and Suen previously headed up Makerversity (a community for creative businesses set in Somerset House), Mission Kitchen (shared workshops for food businesses) and Peckham Palms (a hub for black hair and beauty). With the mass decline of luxury retailers (such as Burberry closing stores globally and Barneys filing bankruptcy), it’s no secret that the retail landscape is due a rethink. This trio, however, believe they are offering one answer to the problem of emerging labels being shut out of the physical retail space by skyrocketing rents.
The traditional wholesale model has been under much scrutiny for the unfairness with which it treats many emerging brands – in particular those of young designers. 50m operates instead on the terms of a rail rental fee and a small commission on sales, with prices starting at just £295 per month for a meter-long rail. «I have been working on community projects for years within the arts and social enterprise, including setting up a community bathhouse in Barking and Dagenham as part of the London Mayor’s Gift of the Games, to creating a new community iron forge in a small town in Wales. We had an opportunity to develop a luxury fashion store and we seized the opportunity to create a new community within the industry, with the hope of encouraging young talents» explains Suen, co-founder and project lead for 50m.
The space is also a contemporary reference to London’s seminal Kensington Market, an indoor marketplace celebrated for the its uniqueness in providing a space for fashion brands, talent and subcultures to sell their collections from the 1960s right up until the 1990s. «We wanted a space that reflected the designers we work with. Like Kensington Market, it has a rawness and genuineness to it – we do not try and airbrush anything». The team also review the feedback designers receive from the staff, aiming to give details including how many customers tried on a piece but didn’t purchase it, what sizes were requested, what comments were made, what the day’s footfall was. Having spoken to an abundance of designers, Something and Son found that many were frustrated by vague statements such as ‘it just didn’t sell’, before being dropped by retailers.
At the outset of the project the idea was for designers to be able to get answers to this first hand if they decided to take advantage of the most unique aspect of the concept; a co-working space. To help build a community of designers, a dedicated space was set for pattern cutting tables, sewing machines and desk space at the back of the store. The hope was that, alongside offering the chance to rent a space at an affordable price, it would help forge partnerships between designers, the store, and customers, who would be able to meet the person who designed the pieces they’re trying on. The theory was that it would also allow designers the increasingly rare opportunity to meet with customers face-to-face, which can encourage a circular economy system. Instead of disposing of clothes after just a few wears, customers may be more inclined to keep, re-sell or gift an item if they have an emotional attachment to it, having been part of its creation.
Providing a space for designers who wouldn’t be able to hold down a standalone store is one way that 50m hopes to foster new talent in an age when even renowned fashion houses are struggling to profit from bricks-and-mortar spaces. It offers a way of curating a physical shopping space without the pressure of a department store’s expectations. The space itself is designed to adapt its appearance and layout from day to night and weekday to weekend. Furniture on wheels allows the space to adapt to levels of footfall while clothing rails are on hoists to make floorspace for events such as designer talks and launch parties.
«Flexibility was our starting point. We knew we couldn’t and didn’t want to be just a store with clothes on rails. That we wanted to throw parties, hold talks, have installations and do as much as physically possible in the store. With that in mind, we kept our design minimal and put as much as possible on wheels. In years to come, when we open more spaces in other cities, I do not see this changing», says Suen. At first, ten designers signed up as the store’s founding members. Daniel Fletcher, Ka Wa Key, Ryan Lo, Faustine Steinmetz, Luke Anthony Rooney, Kepler, Laundry Service, Bethany Williams, Simo by Markus Wernitznig and jewellery studio Räthel & Wolf all joined on a six month basis. Today, the store houses around 50 brands, including menswear and womenswear, as well as work by ceramicists, artists and candlemakers.
50m is also keen to keeping a fresh turnover of stock, and supporting talent that doesn’t come from the traditional background of prestigious fashion schools and British Fashion Council talent initiatives. Alongside the physical space, their online shop which launched at the same time, provides another platform for designers to showcase and sell. Some pieces on the store’s online platform are also made to order, again nurturing a sense of collaboration between the designer and their audience. By slowing down the process of shopping for clothes, not only does 50m hope to create a more sustainable environment, but it is also paving the way for emerging designers who want to do things their own way.
The support offered doesn’t end there though as a number of top industry professionals across all sectors have been enlisted to run a mentoring program for those stocked here. Through internal meet-ups the community interacts with a group of experts including production and intellectual property specialists, accountants and lawyers, and marketing pros – many of the contacts that a designer will need in order to grow as a business. The designers dictate how they want it to run and what areas each feels they need most help with. Mentors include Consultant Nick Dunn, entrepreneur Alison Lowe MBE, photographer Peter Yip, PR Manager for Victoria Beckham Florence Shippey, Executive Director of the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Jeff Skinner and London-based pattern cutter and designer Arena Page.
They’re aware, though, that the best support they can give the labels in the scheme is to make a financially viable business model. «We looked at how the fashion industry works, and started to question the wholesale model and fashion calendar. It strips designers of all spontaneousness and gives retailers and buyers all the power. Our direct-to-consumer model is giving back the designers autonomy. It allows us to stock designers at any stage in their career, which means we work with designers who make limited-edition handmade products and labels who bring full collections. Although this way of working is not the norm, we are seeing more and more examples of it».
Suen also points out that with 50m at just over a year old, they «started from scratch and are coming from outside the fashion industry. Since opening our doors, we have been building our brand and trust with designers, the industry and consumers. Retailers have a hard time operating because of the oversaturation of the market. Today, with online shopping and e-commerce, you can find anything in any possible version – so our challenge is to stand out and to keep standing out. Businesses cannot be static. They have to be constantly evolving with us». She also highlighted the need to reimagine retail spaces – although e-commerce is rising in the hierarchy of the industry, the tactility of a garment or a printed book or zine can never be replaced by their digital image.IMAGE GALLERY
Unit 14-15 Eccleston yards