An ethical marketplace: Merrit, Smyth and Seun, the trio behind this concept offers one answer to the problem of smaller labels being shut out of the physical retail space by unfair rents
50m is a fashion concept offering what they describe as an utterly new retail experience for both designer and customer, which is devoted to supporting and showcasing emerging designers, providing them a platform to sell and present their collections. Opening in July 2018, with the aim of giving Central London back to the creative community, 50m is based in the flush 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 highstreets in what seems like mass decline and luxury retailers including the likes of Burberry closing stores globally and Barneys recent bankruptcy filing, it’s no secret that the retail landscape is due a rethink. This trio, however, believe their fashion venture offers one answer to the problem of smaller labels being shut out of the physical retail space by unfair rents.
The traditional wholesale model has also been under much scrutiny recently for the poor deal it gives brands – in particular young designers – and 50m operates on the terms of a rail rental fee and a small commission on sales with prices starting at just £295 per month for a metre-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 new retail experience and naturally we saw it as an opportunity to create a new community within the fashion industry which as an outsider looked difficult and lonely for young talent,” explains Suen, who as well as being a co-founder is also project lead for 50m.
The space is also a contemporary reference to London’s seminal Kensington Market, an indoor marketplace celebrated for the unusual and alternative which provided 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 truly reflected and felt like the designers we work with. Like Kensington Market it has a genuine raw feel to it and we do not try and airbrush everything. We want it to feel real and authentic.” The team also review how designers receive feedback from their stockists, aiming to give details including how many customers tried on a piece but didn’t purchase it, what sizes were requested, what daily footfall is and comments from customers. Having spoken to an abundance of designers, Something and Son found that many were frustrated with vague statements such as ‘it 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, there was due to be a dedicated space for pattern cutting tables, sewing machines and desk space at the back of the store. The hope was that, as well as additional support in the form of affordable studio space, it would help forge partnerships between designers, the store, and customers, who would have the possibility of meeting 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. Unfortunately this aspect is yet to come to fruition. Providing a space for designers who wouldn’t necessarily be able to hold down a standalone store is one way that communal fashion spaces hope to foster new talent in an age when even big 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 big department store buy. The space itself is designed to be flexible to leverage its usability from day to night and weekday to weekend. Mobile furniture 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, while still showcasing the clothing.
“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. So with that in mind we kept our design minimal and put as much as possible on wheels. This is something we want to keep doing and in years to come when we open more spaces in other cities I do not see this changing,” says Suen. Ten designers initially 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.
“For us it is not only about the clothes but the brand, the people behind the brand and what they represent and whether they have something unique,” explains Suen. 50m is also keen to hear from other brands who are interested in being involved with the store to keep a fresh turnover of stock and are open to hearing from 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 strictly made to order, again nurturing a sense of collaboration between the designer and their audience. By slowing down the process of shopping for clothes, 50m not only hope to create a more sustainable environment, they are also paving the way for emerging designers who want to do things differently.
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 a successful 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 ultimately 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. Talking to designers it sounded relentless and gave retailers and buyers all the power. Our direct to consumer model is giving back the designers power and autonomy, it is not only flexible for them but for us too. Allowing us to stock designers at any stage in their career which means we work with designers who make limited numbers of hand-made products to stocking their full collections. Although this way of working is not the norm, we are seeing more and more examples of it and with digital growing and direct to consumer being a popular model for new brands I only see this model becoming more prevalent.”
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. This was not easy. Since opening our doors we have been building our brand and trust with designers, the industry and consumers. Retailers are finding it difficult because the market is oversaturated. You can find everything and anything in any imaginable version possible especially with the digital world growing. So for us, I think the hardest 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 physical spaces – although digital is becoming ever more important, the tactility of a garment or a printed book or zine can never be replaced by it. And this needs to be cherished.
Faustine Steinmetz will be making a comeback after having taken a break and will be launching a new sustainable denim collection at 50m on the 17th of October, along with a flurry of other brands due to make their debuts over the coming months.
Text Daniel Love
Unit 14-15 Eccleston yards
London, United Kingdom