Boutiques: Are Still A Viable Retail Option
Paul Markevicius discovers boutique gem ‘Lizard’ in West London and delves into its success story spanning 37-years…
Admiring the attractive window display and imagining their Italian designer looks on female friends for many years, I finally popped into the stylish boutique ‘Lizard’ in Turnham Green Terrace, West London. My curiosity to have a more interrogatory chat, prompted by the assistant’s engaging demeanour and fingertip precise brand knowledge, was underpinned by an arguably more significant global economic focus. Or unmitigated retail disaster depending on your perspective.
The commercial reality now for many fashion retailers is brutal. A sector battered into submission by the bricks and mortar revenue-sapping prevalence of e-commerce, now stricken by the exigencies of a pandemic. Scared, footfall-diminished Corona virus-chancers ghost past outlets, disinclined or unable to engage with stop-start-stop-no, wait-stop (!) restrictions on business. Even during fleeting open-door moments, client engagement one imagines is compromised by distracted reduced rail perusal time – the necessary precursor to higher-ticket price purchase decisions for mid–tier boutiques, such as Lizard.
If you are still on the high street as an active, profitable retailer, defying the odds – as Lizard has been for 37-years, you must be doing a lot of something right! Survival is in your DNA, allied to the cultivation of a loyal customer base who have by definition, grown up with you, and been dressed by your carefully selected garments. The senior assistant informs me the regulars aren’t so much checking the rails as waiting to be dressed. ‘What do you have for me?’ And ‘I don’t need anything, but have you got anything new – just in case’, they say, when they come in, she says with a smile, telling me they actually want to be sold to. It’s like a high street equivalent of an atelier, but without the pomp and less eye-watering prices.
There’s a more compelling reason however contradicting the market forces impacting many retailers, that Lizard and I would guess only a small percentage of boutiques are able to negotiate, particularly in this climate. Their highly attuned clothing selection and price points, matched to long-standing clientele buying habits are the prima facie reason for their survival and longevity. It can make them recession-proof and equip them to outlast the pandemic. This unique retail symbiosis exists primarily because of the owner’s astute eye for fashionable, timeless design, supported usually by a more affluent catchment area. Not all Lizard clients are affluent however. Many shun the high prices associated with expensive brands, preferring the quality value proposition for select purchases from Lizard’s designers throughout the year.
Tellingly, Europeans that come in already know many of the lesser-known Italian brands Lizard stocks. As the sanguine founder and owner, Kambiz Hendessi, known as ‘K’ described it, “We side-step the comfort, trainer vogue and the big brand names to focus on tailoring – real clothes. We are not trend led, but we are very contemporary with a twist, for a confident woman willing to try new design ideas. We are very good at styling.” A precise articulation of their target client combined with a confident appraisal of their ability to deliver a more personalised, valued service. Definitely not for the staid suburban fraternity. What’s not to like if you want a superior shopping experience with higher quality talented designers clothing to look at and touch? We lost this sadly somewhere along the way in the race to the bottom with fast fashion.
Lizard was set up by ‘K’ in 1983 with many of the original shop fits since opening still in place. “All my suppliers say I probably take the longest time, for the least amount of purchases. But I have to consider many criteria: the price, texture, personality, design content, the handle, colours, depth of colour, way it is made, where it is made.” K acknowledges there is a movement away from Chinese manufacturing, vis labour treatment, consumer influence and backlash and economic factors – all now considered in his buying decisions. But he is quick to point out “China has also taught if you support your industry it will be successful.”
The story behind Lizard is an engaging name-check of the key historical and pop-culture influences of the day going back to the 70s. K has lived through and used them to inform his design aesthetic and signature styling over a commendably long period as an active, local trader. He picks up a lot of European brands from one of their main agents, Alice & Andre Laufe, (AAL) twice a year, a contact established at Pure 13-years previously. “AAL were fashion veterans from the 60s and 70s who pioneered many European brands. In the mid-70s boutiques were closing down, with a lot of cheesecloth fast fashion from India, post-hippy, bohemian styles hitting the market.” This was when the UK was struggling economically and the government at the time was faced with a decision to support its manufacturing base. We know the demise of UK manufacturing in textiles and fashion was largely from a lack of investment. Seizing their chance, China has not looked back ever since, investing heavily in manufacturing technology.
Curiously, K studied electronics at Middlesex University, but worked in fashion throughout his studies, in jean stores on the Kings Road and Old Compton Street. “I just related to the people who worked in an industry that changed and kept re-inventing itself. We had a polarisation in society with the punk movement’s revolution in fashion, ideology and music in conflict with the yuppie movement, with strong leaders like Thatcher and Reagan and the arrival of power clothing and shoulder pads. Vivienne Westwood’s fashion definitely influenced me.” He described the dumbing down of fashion that was to follow, with an internal fashion market that had almost collapsed. Uninspired by what he saw in the early 80s being produced in London, he went to the fashion district in Paris and was wowed by the fabric technology and variations in design, particularly around viscose. At the time Italy was still very introverted and weak in the mid tier market. In contrast, Chiswick was very middle class, traditional with no fashion outlook or vision, for a young, 23-year-old would-be boutique owner. He opened with men’s and women’s clothing in 1983, but within the year stopped the menswear range, as “men were not spending money on fashion.”
I asked K what were his guiding principles behind his boutique. “A window display has to tell a story. Without it, it has no spirit. It doesn’t have to be aimed at the 20’s market, but must have a common denominator and must be contemporary.” The story rationale of their boutique is that if a customer picks up a garment from one end of the store it can be matched with anything else in the opposite corner. “But we still have to surprise the customer, we can’t just move from season to season by changing colour.”
Via many enjoyable fashion reference detours, plucked from his many years in the trade, K demonstrates adroitly one of the key differences to his fashion philosophy by showing me a Sarah Pacino jersey fabric vest, (£70), with a truly luxurious feel. “The most important thing is how it feels against the body. Once worn, there is no further decision to be made. The most important connection is there. The longevity of the garment is according to the way it is made. If it is Italian, German, EU manufacturing, it will last.” K drives home the essence of the entire stock choices surrounding us in the store. “Quality is made well and lasts a long time. It is everything – you pay for what you are getting.” This, in a nutshell, is what Lizard and arguably the boutique business, well-managed and orchestrated is all about.
To be boutiqued – I would venture, means being looked after mind, body and soul, in a way that celebrates our being. With clothing that connects with our skin at a deeper, resonating level based on its intrinsic value and quality.
A number of professional women came in, mostly all known as regular clients by first name, for whom Lizard is a welcome drop-in, one stop shop having earned their trust and respect. “These are more mature women who know their own bodies, what they like. And they make decisions on what they want, fairly quickly.” This was evidenced by the ease a banker, a slender built woman in her late thirties, was shown skirts to match the tops she had selected, having been given suggestions on size and styles she accepted and tried on without fuss. It was no accident the styling and colours matched. A floral patterned top was matched with a Beatrice B thin pleated, elegant black maxi skirt that opened out to show camouflage-style powder-blue puffy circles. Worn, it was a pleasure to see the transformation. A classic line, with an attractive feminine silhouette, and complimented without any superficial gushing I noted.
Crucially, as important to notice and absolutely as intended, it could have just as easily been an outfit worn by a woman in her twenties or forties. K’s skilled designer selections cleverly transcend age-bound perceptions. This somewhat rare, dying art is the sine qua non of a boutique: the essential requirement for the unique role they play. Delivering timeless ‘street couture’ (as aptly described by Heymann) is for Lizard clearly the usp that makes all the difference. And they do it well. Not make up your mind (ggrrr!) fast fashion, more congenial-paced collaborative fashion.
It’s important to state that Lizard’s clients are not throwing their money around or they transact in some money-no-object parallel dimension. “They know the value of good design, that lasts and will make less purchases, with higher ticket prices and buy clothes more infrequently perhaps.” Like the minimalist Chanel wardrobe maxim of only having few, well tailored, classic designs that last and accessorise with ease. The mistaken reality paradoxically is the same people will often spend less than their counterparts and peers who shop in lower tier stores, including online throughout the year.
Lizard really is an object lesson in our old friend, KYC – ‘know your customer’. I observed a charming fluency and light-touch servicing of existing client’s requirements yielding satisfied high value customer sales. (And not a single, perma-welded-mobile-phone-locked-gaze, glazed, could-care less, invisible sales assistant anywhere to be seen!) Inside a boutique these ‘known clients’ implicitly expect more couture-leaning, mature handling or they won’t buy and they won’t return. It’s not destination shopping, these are customers from your neighbourhood with lifestyles and preferences you must want to get to know.
In that intimated, highly codified behavioural shopping space, between not enough and too much sales attention, eliciting smiles or winces, the boutique sales assistant is arguably an asset head and shoulders above the rest. Their styling skills stem from finessed product knowledge that superior tailored garments graciously yield in spades. Details they then impart with sensitive professional handling to the would-be wearer, with subtle body and image-focused positive persuasion. It used to be called selling in the old days I believe. It’s unlikely within almost any age range, that older, female professionals willing to spend more on their outfits, would take personalised styling advice easily from someone without these skills. The boutique relies heavily on this understated, informed personal touch. And we could all do with more of this right now.
We need a reset in an increasingly impersonal, fast-fashion world, negating the humanistic qualities of passion, imagination, skills and labour of all the hands involved. We must get this back by asserting the virtues of quality is better across the whole value chain and as K asserts, letting the fabric make the connection at the sensory level, working it’s magic subliminally if it so wishes.
It’s not all been plain sailing over a near 40-year span for Lizard I imagine. “The biggest challenge is to try to destroy the wall of perception of affordable fashion and create trust, an unbreakable bond between the consumer.” This is set against what K describes as the ‘style-blind’ phenomenon of no vision and no confidence in self-expression. Try visiting America I’m thinking, for lowest common denominator fashion homogeneity mass-myopia.
What’s his take on social media as an active part of his marketing mix I asked? “Social media has a long way to go before I can utilise it, it’s at a superficial level. I’m working on my digital exposure but I’m apprehensive.” It’s a refreshingly honest answer, not just paying lip service to all things social media, me too baby. Yet it’s an intriguing question. At what point does the boutique, if ever, incorporate Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest to attract new customer interest and cultivate the unknown, ‘scaleable-maybeable’ desired sales-generating Follower fan base? Or how even, weighed up against an implicit contradiction in business model and desired outcomes? “People buy my designs to buy it with an experience, to feel it, before they walk away with it and for the service they get in the boutique. Online takes the whole spirit out of fashion and makes it a two-dimensional experience.”
I would like to see Lizard actively gathering new data on some new client demographics, developed via social media to offset the fact that as K well knows, he can’t expect to hold onto the same clients forever. It’s not that he hasn’t already managed the generational mother-daughter, or waves of upwardly mobile resident transitioning trick successfully, countless times before. The difference is how to engage new clients and in particular new generation(s) of clients. Most will be online-literate potential customers whose collective references for fashion, predominantly image-based, will have been shaped by e-commerce since forever. Proactive online positioning also sensibly avails the opportunity to draw from a wider catchment area and attract non-local buyers who use Chiswick to shop and visit.*
There’s a somewhat heartening irony with this observation, Lizard never asked for. While using a more integrated social media marketing mix (to not create potential technological-demographic blind-spots I say to myself), the ultimate mix that Lizard should never confuse or discard is the one that has served them so well. The classic, post modern minimalist 3P’s: Product, Place and Price that K has rocked and made his own for more years than most have lasted in fashion. Or ever will. And I have to say in admiring obeisance, not only if it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it, K should continue to buck the trend(s) and keep Lizard a vibrant, viable and most welcome reminder to what fashion should be all about on the High Street for years to come. Quality.
It’s hard to argue against K’s track record and his intuitive take on what has continued to work reliably for Lizard for so long. His business is not reaching out, or over-extending for ‘scale’ to pander to the demi-Gods, and gurus of online sales. But he does have an active website and online business with many brands he supports online: www.lizardfashion.co.uk
K on-boards two new brands every season, each year, supporting a number of key resident brands, namely: Sarah Pacini, Italian designer, since 1996 (probably my favourite in the boutique for sleek styling yearning to be worn); Religion aUK brand, for 18 years; Bette Heymann, a German brand for last 4 years and Beatte B, Italian designer for 2 years. Plus Elisa Cavaletti , chic 20’s-30s styling with a hint of urban-Chanel about it; Ana Acazar, floral, geometrics, 70s retro, but contemporary and German; and a lithe Lithuanian linen brand, Luel, I’m partial to for some reason, and many more. “I’m constantly looking for new brands via agents who know my style. I’m trying to replace occasional wear with lounge-wear, accepting its limitations and upgrade casual wear with multi-purpose smart-casual wear. “
It’s well worth a visit to the Lizard website to see the depth and range of designers stocked and then to get your gluteus maximus down there, 3 minutes walk from Turnham Green station on the district line. Lizard is a younger accented boutique with a street couture upper twenties++ vibe and a lot more stylish than you might imagine for its broader age range.
Lizard, 49 Turnham Green Terrace, London W41RP.
(*If Chiswick/Ealing council reverses the moronic local planning that has bicycle-lane-banjaxed it’s now grid-locked High Street, combined with punitive restrictions making it nigh on impossible for shoppers to park. And therefore, hello? Shop! A whole other subversive ‘death of retail on the high street’ story sadly.)
By Paul Markevicius