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Putting the fun in functional: will Arket revitalise the high street?

Rather than fighting online retail, bricks-and-mortar stores are try to bring shopping to life – and H&M’s new brand is leading the way with a Nordic cafe and a haberdashery department

Walk through the door of Arket, the hotly anticipated fashion-and-lifestyle brand that opens its first store on Regent Street in London this Friday, and the first thing that strikes you is the generous expanse of empty space. The tables are laid with individual items, rather than stacked with teetering piles. (Further available colours are stacked unobtrusively in cubes, labelled by size.) The flecked floor resembles cobbles or gravel, while the cabinets and paintwork are in a soft cloud-grey that makes the building feel almost invisible from within. The effect is more like wandering through an open-air market than a fast-fashion hothouse.

Arket calls itself “a modern-day market”. This is not a reference only to the mix of clothes and homeware, of decorative and functional (department stores have been doing that for centuries), but also to the spirit of market shopping. No longer demoralised by the rise of online retail, the high street is on a mission to bring back the joys of the shopping trip.

The 21st-century shopping trip is a new and improved version of what online shoppers left behind when they retreated to their laptops. Experience is the new high-street mantra, but this is nothing to do with dodging the fragrances being squirted as you walk through the beauty hall, nor with the anxiety of trying to remember the names of overly attentive assistants who insist on introducing themselves to you when all you want is to look idly at shoes. Instead, think of the virtual-reality waterslide that Topshop installed to mark the start of summer and John Lewis’s recent announcement that its customers will be able to spend the night in store to test a mattress before deciding whether to buy it. (“We are not just selling you a mattress, we are selling you a perfect night’s sleep,” said Paula Nickolds, the company’s managing director.)

Rather than fighting against online retail, the high street is bringing shopping to life, offering an interactive, fully realised version of what drew consumers to digital. Consumers who love the speed and efficiency of online shopping are being targeted by Arket’s reference-number system: if you buy a navy sweater and wish to replace it two years later, enter the digits from the care label into a terminal in the store (or online) and it will direct you to current versions of the garment and explain any differences in fabrication and construction. The fiercely independent modern shopper who considers brand loyalty archaic will be pleased by Arket’s inclusion of other brands alongside its own products (you can find RM Williams leather boots in the menswear department and Bordallo Pinheiro cabbage crockery in homeware).

The Instagram addicts who live urban lives but feel their spiritual home is a sunny village market – recognise them by their straw baskets and drawstring blouses – are seduced by the airy aesthetics of Arket. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the focal point of John Lewis’s experiential shopping strategy is an open-air “gardening society” on the rooftop of its Oxford Street store. This currently houses a taco pop-up and offers morning exercise classes; last summer, it welcomed 171,000 visitors.

Arket is aimed at the style-conscious, sustainability-aware, minimalist consumer who is already shopping at Cos, which is owned by Arket’s parent company, H&M. During my pre-opening store tour, the team were much in evidence, putting finishing touches to the store, and their look was distinctive: curated facial hair and slightly cropped trousers for the men; messily topknotted Scandi-blond locks and interesting shirting for the women. Menswear is given the prime location – almost the entire ground floor – with Arket creative director Ulrika Bernhardtz describing womenswear as “an evolution of classic pieces from the men’s wardrobe interpreted for women by adding softer textures and elements such as pointelle, embroidery, pleats and gatherings”.

In other words, if you are a slogan T-shirt, glittery dress sort of woman, this is not the shop for you. However, if a rustic knitted sweater in dusty pink, a simple cream silk blouse or a deconstructed black matt-silk jumpsuit are your sort of thing, you will be in heaven. Bernhardtz, who says “a well-fitted pair of trousers represent luxury to me”, describes the womenswear aesthetic as “assertive and easy to wear”.

The style credentials are equally evident in the tiny cafe. “Food offers another mode for expressing our values,” says Bernhardtz. The Arket chef is Martin Berg, a proponent of the new Nordic food manifesto, which is about “quality ingredients and healthy living”. The cafe can do you a salad of goat’s cheese, peas, avocado and mint to eat in, or sell you an elegantly packaged olive oil – to give as a chic hostess gift, perhaps – or a single-origin coffee to take away (I can vouch for the flat white).

Arket’s innovation is its emphasis on functionality. This taps into a deep level of connoisseurship among consumers. Every hardcore retail lover has a soft spot for a haberdashery department, after all. T-shirts come in three weights of cotton, allowing the purist to select a fine layering piece or one with a sturdier shape. Outerwear is sold in interlocking layers, so that a waterproof parka can be teamed with a liner, with or without sleeves, for warmth.

Perhaps Arket’s greatest charm is found in its childrenswear. An oversized fabric name label with the legend “Please Hand Down When Outgrown’” has five rows, with space for a name and a year, to honour the ritual of passing down clothes to siblings, cousins and friends. Alongside the aforementioned Nordic salad, the menu features a kids’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Because a shopping trip is supposed to be a treat, remember?

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