7 August 2017
A jaunt along Albemarle Street in the early 1800s and you might have witnessed a presentation by the Cornish chemist and inventor Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. Built in 1799, this centre of scientific research gained so much popularity that it led to Albemarle becoming one of the first one-way streets in the world due to the chaos that horse-drawn traffic caused on lecture nights.
On the same stroll you might chance a sighting of Lord Byron or Sir Walter Scott on their way to tea at number 50 – the John Murray publishing house where John Murray II would host meetings with the literary elite. Scott coined these gatherings ‘4 o’clock friends’. After Byron’s death, Murray infamously burnt the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet’s presumably salacious memoirs in the fireplace.
Opened in 1837, Brown’s Hotel – made up of 11 Georgian townhouses centred around number 33 and alleged to be London’s first hotel – became a beacon for the influential. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made Britain’s first successful telephone call from Brown’s to Ravenscourt Park because the hotel’s then-owners, James John Ford and his son Henry, were in possession of one of the only privately owned telegraph wires in the city, which Bell needed to test out his invention. Agatha Christie was also a regular guest: she actually based her novel At Bertram’s Hotel on Brown’s.
Fast-forward to the present day, and London-based landlord Trophaeum Asset Management has started a carefully curated regeneration of the street. Trophaeum intends to lift retailers up to the luxury standards now set by Mount Street and Bond Street, while celebrating its former glory in artistic, scientific and literary circles. Retaining the distinctive architecture is a high priority, too, such as the orange and white Royal Arcade constructed in 1879, the first purpose-built arcade in London.
“Every major city has a luxury shopping district and a lot of them have the same sort of stores, but what is it that makes them different?” asks Matt Farrell, a director at Trophaeum, who played a major role in Grosvenor’s regeneration of Mount Street. “It’s a lot more interesting when there are still places that make it unique: Albemarle Street has a lot of rich history. Much of that is art, which plays a really important part in our strategy.”
Some of Albemarle Street’s most influential galleries include Marlborough Fine Art, which has been there since 1946; Mazzoleni, which has extended into the basement; and John Martin, now on the first floor to make way for Italian shoe brand Aquazzura on the ground floor. The inevitable rising rents can prove challenging for smaller boutiques but Farrell cites the movement of John Martin and the entrance of Aquazzura as a useful solution to keep “the charm of the street” intact. “If the street doesn’t move on then it’s not going to improve,” he adds.
The Aquazzura boutique, which opened in October 2015, makes a striking addition to the streetscape – even if you’re only window shopping. The interiors were designed by Portuguese sisters, Cláudia and Catarina Soares Pereira, the brains behind the company Casa do Passadiço, who have fitted a number of Aquazzura stores. According to Farrell, they designed and built the set-up in Portugal, brought it over and put it together in five days.
Another fashion heavyweight, Alexander Wang, opened his first European flagship on the street at a similar time, in a building that used to be a post office. “It’s a spectacular transformation. The copper [exterior] is still original, which contrasts with the stark white interior,” says Farrell. Paul Smith’s imposing boutique across the road is equally impressive, encased in iridescent metal and engraved with a pattern that has become his signature Albemarle print.
At number 48, glitzy shoe shop Casadei is one of the most recent retailers to move in – it replaced Ryman, the stationer – and was carefully selected by Farrell as an up-and-coming brand. “We love Casadei because they’re a proper Italian heritage brand and still family-owned.”
Thom Browne, the street’s most recent addition and the designer’s first UK outpost, is another surprising acquisition. “Thom Browne’s not a mega brand; it’s quite niche,” says Farrell. “He builds the most beautiful stores that are typically very sleek – fitted with marble and terrazzo – and he has a fantastic stock of vintage furniture, so every store has unique pieces.”
Other developments in the pipeline include the expansion of Bond Street’s Moncler through to Albemarle Street, a trend started by Tiffany & Co. and Boodles. “When we have brands that want to come to the street, we always ask them about their retail strategy,” says Farrell. “Quite often they are driven by Harrods and Selfridges, but some, such as Amanda Wakeley, treat it as a real flagship. For example, they have in-store events and a wellbeing series. Globe-Trotter even has a little museum on the first floor.”
Retail isn’t the only focus for Trophaeum, though. “We’re quite inspired by Via Monte Napoleone in Milan – the main shopping street. What you have there, which places like Bond Street don’t have, is somewhere you can go and have lunch,” says Farrell. “You have to create lifestyle destinations. If you only have shops, people will go on the internet. We say in the office: you can’t eat a hamburger on the internet. It’s a reason to go out of the house rather than just sit there on Amazon.”
One of the street’s latest hot spots is Isabel, the lemon yellow-fronted sister restaurant of Casa Cruz in Notting Hill, ideal for people-watching the fashion crowd that it has begun to attract. “We undertook quite a specific search over about a year,” says Farrell. “We really wanted something that was buzzing all day. Mayfair’s got quite a big breakfast and lunch scene, but also elegant and not too business-like.”
When I meet Farrell, there is a pop-up exhibition on the first floor of number 48 (above Casadei), called The Focusing Room, but Trophaeum has plans to turn the first and second floors here into a more casual all-day style café bar.
Another particularly notable development is Robin Birley’s new wine-focused members’ club, which is set to open next door to Isabel towards the end of the year. “When Robin said, ‘I really love Albemarle Street’, it was like a seal of approval because he is so Mayfair,” says Farrell. “What they found in the club on Hertford Street is that people aren’t drinking fine wines like you would expect. So here they’re going to create a fantastic wine list and let you bring your own, because so many people have really impressive wine collections.”
Farrell tells me he has just received the renderings of the public realm scheme that he has begun to put in motion. He was involved in a similar project for Mount Street, which saw the pavements widened and the laying of York stone paving and granite setts: a look that has become characteristic of the area and has been replicated across London, such as on Marylebone Lane.
For Albemarle Street, Farrell intends to widen the pavements, pedestrianise Stafford Street (subject to much debate with the council), and add planting and greenery at first-floor levels to counteract the traffic pollution. And to help the street ‘move on’? Farrell has proposed pink granite and green terrazzo.
“In the summer on Via Monte Napoleone there is a boat show, where beautiful Italian boats are brought in and shown on the street. All the boutiques open late and everyone has a glass of champagne and it brings a real buzz to the street. We want Albemarle Street to be this sort of space where you get exhibitions or temporary public art, and we can have tables and chairs and lights,” adds Farrell. If all goes to plan, in another 200 years’ time people will surely be talking about the movers and shakers who met on Albemarle Street in the early 21st century.