Ian Stuart’s plush London showroom picked up the Best Instore Design trophy in the recent Bridal Buyer Awards but it was no surprise to anyone who has visited this most elegant of stores, or seen it as the background in the TV show The Posh Frock Shop. Here Ian explains why the building itself is so very special, and what he has been able to do to make it his own
The Blewcoat School House, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built in 1709 on a site leased from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey; the aim was to provide charitable education to underprivileged children.
The detached building of the English Baroque style comprised one room 13m x 10m with a ceiling height of 6m, together with an underground basement. The original interior included a gallery, carried by four Corinthian columns, a coved ceiling, nine recessed windows with seating and panelled wood walls and balustrades.
Over the years the building has had various usages, including an artillery base for the US army in the First World War, and later as a café and gift shop. Owned by the National Trust, the building carries a grade 1 listing.
Noticing that the building was vacant, Ian and Pete approached the National Trust in 2012, to ask them if they would consider them as the ‘caretaker’ of Blewcoat and allow them to create a salon-inspired central London flagship boutique.
“The Trust’s initial response was quite negative but, after tireless meetings with them, and countless presentations with our architect involved and numerous storyboards, they finally saw the vision we had and allowed us to proceed,” explains Ian. However, there were rules and regulations… lots of them!
“We had to restore the interior using specific paints; we had to use lambs’ wool as insulation, the new floor with underfloor heating had to replicate the original floor. In fact, the stipulation was that whatever we did in this room, we had to keep the original interior shell and features as they were in 1709.
“I have always been inspired by Christian Dior and wanted to replicate a 1950s salon-style mood into the Blewcoat.
We were very lucky to have such a beautiful interior, which had already existed for over 300 years (something we certainly can’t take the credit for!) but it was in need of much love and attention as well as extensive restoration.”
Deciding on the décor
Ian and team chose four different shades of grey for the walls. “Grey is such a soothing neutral colour; it is season-less and sits well behind ever-changing collections and colours,” says Ian.
“We sketched out silk curtains and lavish swags and had them made to our specific design and, to soften the room, also to be a silver grey. When the time came, I climbed up a ladder and personally hung and draped all ten of them (it nearly bloody killed me!). The recessed window seating pads and cushions are a mixture of velvet and silk. The oak floor is simple and we added luxurious pale grey wool rugs in the changing rooms and viewing area.”
The majority of the display budget was spent on the mannequins, which are a main feature in the boutique.
“We researched and visited Rootstein – the oldest and most famous of mannequin designers, and chose the mood and position of our seven bespoke ladies, who all have pale grey porcelain skin, glamorous grey hair styles and fierce smoky makeup. I think the expression on their faces epitomise everything that is Ian Stuart!”
Because of the history of the building, rails fixed to the walls were not allowed and bespoke cabinets that had to be built on site because of their sheer size, were the design solution. Being both detached and movable, this has provided so many styling options.
“The National Trust restrictions actually allowed us to use the building in different ways, and for other kinds of events,” says Ian. “We have been able to flip the cabinets around, move the mannequins and furniture and create fashion shows, workshops, presentations and photo shoots.”
Atmosphere is everything
Ambiance is paramount to creating an award-winning interior. The moment a client enters Blewcoat, they are welcomed into a lavish and stylish environment.
“I think the key to successful shop interior design is to keep things simple, and by not using many elements, finishes and colours, we kept the concept simple – grey walls, mirrored cabinets to create the illusion of space, glass, wood floors and silk curtains,” Ian confirms.
“We don’t decorate the shop for Christmas and other holidays… instead we dress the mannequins with seasonal colours and the flower displays, scent and music reflect the season we are in.
“A beautiful interior inspires me and my colleagues to give a good service, and we enjoy working in such elegant surroundings.
Top Ten Tips
1) Establish a clever use of spot lighting, which can be switched on and off to show the clients how their dresses will look at different times of day.
2) Create different playlists of music that can be tailored to the season.
3) Scenting – we have scent
boxes in our store. Scent is memorable and returning customers immediately feel welcome and at home.
4) Candles – everywhere, adding ambiance to any room (we use Prices’ 8-hour tea lights, in crystal tea light holders).
5) Move your stock around frequently and create new looks with existing stock just by placing it in different areas of the store.
6) Powder room – make sure the bathroom is as beautiful and welcoming as the interior of the boutique itself.
7) Make sure to prepare the changing rooms for each new client… plump the cushions, swag the curtains and make sure all the shoes, clamps and modesty panels are neat and tidy.
8) Flowers – fresh flowers are always a beautiful touch to any interior. They are a must in our books.
9) Don’t over crowd your display cabinets – items look more expensive when they are spaced out. You don’t need to display everything you’ve got… customers sometimes feel more important and cherished when you bring them a ‘special’ piece from downstairs, be it a gown or a piece of jewellery.
10) Client Privacy – the client, their friends and family need to feel welcome and special, even if there are others browsing in the store. A clever layout should be able to accommodate two or three different groups of people at the same time by providing them with their own designated seating area, which has a private feel.