Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Category: UK

A Perennial Challenge in Retail

A bizarre encounter that the Little Brunette had when she recently visited Harrods with her aunt reminded me of a perennial challenge faced by retailers: how to select and train the front of house staff. With the notoriously high employee turnover in retail, it is difficult enough to recruit, train and retain good staff. Training often focusses on things like consultative selling and product knowledge, but what about tact? I suppose the more fundamental question is whether people can actually be trained in tactfulness at all in the short period prior to sending them onto the shop floor if they have not had acquired the basics prior to coming to the job interview.

Or, is it a case of ‘a pig with a lipstick is still a pig’?

The Little Brunette and her aunt were browsing the Saint Laurent concession when a young sales associate approached her and informed the Little Brunette that the Maharishi trousers she was wearing are fake. Immediately following the declaration, the sales associate dove down to physically examine the trousers and in the process stuck a few fingers inside the trouser waist. Both the Little Brunette and my sister were too deep in a WTF moment to do or say anything.

I am an ex-Harrodian from Mohamed Al Fayed’s days. I like Mo for reasons that the media never mentions. It was never dull to be summoned to his office; it must be said that it helps to take one’s job, but not oneself, seriously when dealing with a personality like Mo. When Mo was chairman, it would have been extremely unlikely that the above episode would have occurred. If it did, he would have found out about it in no time and would have immediately and permanently removed the sales associate from the premises, regardless of whether the sales associate was actually on the concessionaire’s payroll. However, I do not know how the place works these days.

Was it tactlessness or an overwhelming, puerile desire to appear knowledgeable about a product, a product that had nothing to do with YSL? Even if she had been right, what would have been the point of her remark? Did she think that it might lead to her making a sale of Saint Laurent products? Do I hear Yves spinning in his grave, Pierre sneezing?

The Saint Laurent, Harrods episode reminded me of an experience few years ago.

I brought in my briefcase to the Bottega Veneta boutique in Paris to have a repair done. With nearly 2 decades of abuse, one of the handle loops was falling apart and needed a replacement. Considering the abuse it endured for a long period of time, I was actually surprised that it held up so long, having done well over a million air miles with me and being subjected to unreasonable load, dust, dirt, heat, cold, extreme humidity, downpours as well as acute aridity. This was in contrast to their soft-sided suitcase and garment bag that fell apart beyond repair much earlier.

I was attended to by a young sales associate of Chinese extraction who listened to what I wanted. He proceeded to give a thorough examination of my briefcase, clearly in search of a clue of some sort, perhaps for that rather pointless paper ‘certificate of authenticity’ that had been sewn into the seam inside the interior pocket but fell off shortly after I started using it. Perhaps he was searching for some sort of feature that BV implemented after the company was sold to the Gucci Group, now Kering.

‘Where did you buy this briefcase?’

‘In New York, from the Bottega Veneta boutique.’

‘In New York?’

‘Yes, Madison Avenue and 59th Street.’ [Not Canal Street, mind.]

‘When did you buy it?’

‘About 18 years ago.’ [My dear squirt, that’s 1991 or 1992. The Chinese counterfeiters had not even heard of BV yet. Before the Gucci Group. When you were still wearing nappies.]

Still looking into every gusset and pocket, ‘So you bought it in New York about 18 years ago?’

‘Yes.’ [Is that a drop of breast milk behind your ear?]

He shuffled off to consult with his manager, returned, filled out a work order form and took in my briefcase. Needless to say, I did not spend any more time in the shop than I needed to.

Bottega Veneta briefcase

The briefcase came back a few weeks later looking mint, with new handle loops, handle and serrure, the original of which was actually looking a bit tatty from being banged up numerous times. I forget what the repair cost was, but it was a nominal amount, with very little operating margin, if any. It was a happy ending with the briefcase getting a new lease on life, but the episode had an unfortunate start, thanks to some sprout who fancied himself an expert but didn’t know how to handle himself.

The feedback in consumer suverys that come up time after time in various countries is a reason why many consumers prefer to shop online: not having to deal with sales people. Retailers have had this personnel challenge for as long as the trade has existed. The only difference in modern times is that consumers have the alternative of not dealing directly with another human being in order to complete a transaction. The opportunities to build and nurture customer relationship and loyalty are not as abundant despite all that is being said about benefits arising from good online shopping experience.

Ironically, because it is a human problem, it is more difficult to address than overhauling a web site. Commerce has become much more transactional than in the past. Many retailers and brands moan about consumers’ declining sense of loyalty. However, experiences like the above will only serve to accelerate the evolution. There are market segments where this is actually desirable even from the retailer’s standpoint. Whether a venerable maison belongs to one of those segments is a different question.

A Tip for Fathers (and Husbands and Lovers) Visiting a Victoria’s Secret Flagship Store

Victoria's Secret New Bond Street London There are women’s undergarment shops, and there are women’s undergarment shops.

The former are found amongst department stores like Harrods or Bergdorf Goodman and boutiques of more established brands like La Perla or that of a relatively new market entrant like Agent Provocateur. There is usually a reasonably comfortable chair somewhere in the corner. We boys can sit down and do some serious people-watching. Witnessing the clientele in all sizes and shapes going through the racks and holding up pieces in all sizes and shapes that pique their interest, one can go through a very broad range of emotions from horror to bemusement to, on rare occasions, delight. Some of the clients are old enough to remember being an 18-year old fainting whilst screaming S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night! at a Bay City Rollers concert.

You walk into the latter, and you think you took a wrong turn and entered a One Direction gig. Absolutely packed with teenagers who have never even heard of Bay City Rollers or seen a rotary telephone. In the middle of New Bond Street.

Bond Street used to be a very different thoroughfare.

But, never mind, you’re there with your own teenager(s). And, you’re being weighed down with sensory overload. The overwhelming scent in the fragrance department near the entrance, the crowd, the youthful energy, the loud clothes they’re wearing… You’d think that seeing all those MAMiLs regularly would have prepared you for seeing all those girls wearing fluorescent clothing, but no, the density and intensity of the visual onslaught are of a different scale. You feel light-headed. A large martini to ease the nerves would be lovely. The bar at Claridge’s is just around the corner, but it might as well be a million miles away.

What to do? Leave the girls to their own devices and head to the top floor. There are comfortable chairs (yes, more than one) and benches. And, the loo. Clean, spacious and walls covered with framed photos of VS Angels with come-to-bed eyes. It’s silent, and there is no crowd. It’s just you (and perhaps another poor sod) and the Angels. Take a deep breath. Splash some cold water on your face. Relax.

It’s the most appropriately decorated boys’ room, perhaps with the exception of one that is decorated with Pirelli calendar images.

Presumably, the girls’ loo is decorated in an identical manner. Over there, the images are inspiring them to wear Victoria’s Secret products in the hopes that the little garments will make them look like the Angels, before they rush back to the shop floor to grab a few more products.

And, we boys can stay on the top floor until the girls are done.

Brilliant. 

Surprised, Delighted, and Impressed at Bravas Tapas

For a long overdue boys’ gossip session, we recently lunched at Bravas Tapas, St. Katherine Docks in East Smithfield. I’m trying to come up with an excuse to return.

Victor Garvey is the head chef and a co-founder of Bravas Tapas. Victor is an affable American who lived in Barcelona and then cut his teeth in the Basque kitchens at the storied Akelaŕe and Mugaritz in San Sebastián. An American whipping up Basque dishes in London: if you are struggling to get your head around that concept, stop immediately. Never mind such details, just head over there, eat and then see if any of it matters. The gossiping boys’ consensus was that it’s an asset to have Victor serving good food in London.

St. Katherine Docks is one of those areas in London that were ‘repurposed’ by property developers in recent years. Like Shad Thames and other pockets in London, it reeks of recent development even if some of the buildings may have some history. By that, I mean that the area is packed with chain restaurants, bars, pubs and shops that you see all over the place. It was the first time that I visited St. Katherine Docks, and my first impression was, same-crap-different-neighbourhood (‘SCDN’). From a commercial standpoint, the location choice made by Victor and his business partner Bal Thind was a stroke of genius because the area has excellent footfall given its strategic location. What that means for diners is that it would be prudent to book your table in advance.

Bravas Tapas is emphatically not SCDN. It’s a one-off. In this digital age, it’s difficult to feel as though you discovered a place, whether it’s a shop, restaurant, seedy cafe, a pretty square, whatever. In a way, the information overflow has robbed us of the sense of discovery. (Ironically, I may be contributing in a small way to this phenomenon.) There is no shortage of Interwebz commentaries on Bravas Tapas. However, given that it physically exists in the midst of all the SCDN establishments, it felt like a discovery when we walked in. (Well, to be completely honest, we had no idea where in St Katherine Docks the restaurant was, so it took us a little while to orient ourselves and actually find it, which probably enhanced the sense of discovery… You do know how boys hate to ask strangers for directions, don’t you?)

When you are there, I recommend that you do what we did: don’t look at the menu, just leave it all up to Victor, including drinks. To be precise, the idea was Victor’s not ours, but the result is equally delightful.

As we waited for a variety of dishes to appear, we nibbled on surprisingly good jamón ibérico. When the helpful staff brought them out, they explained what the dish is made of. Some of the combinations made me think, ‘That doesn’t sound like it’s going to work,’ only for the thought to vanish once the food entered my mouth. It’s a fabulous way to be proven wrong.

One notable surprise for me was the gazpacho. It’s virtually impossible to find decent tomatoes in northern Europe (my pet peeve), so I tend to cringe whenever someone mentions gazpacho. You’ll see that it is poured into the sideway claret glass at the table. When you have it, you will understand why Victor has chosen to pour it at the table although I found that the reclining glass distracts from the soup. The gazpacho took me by surprise. It was lovely.

Victor brought over a couple of dishes from Amaru, the adjacent Japanese-Peruvian (‘Nikkei’ in a more fashionable parlance) restaurant that he and Thind started earlier this year. I understand that Victor had a stint at Park Hyatt in Tokyo during which time he picked up a few ideas from the streets of Tokyo. I suppose that fusing some of that with Spanish bits would put one on a path to the Japanese-Peruvian realm. The result? They reminded me of some of the interesting dishes that Nobu used to serve before they became a global franchise that one cannot seem to avoid in big cities and descended into SCDN hell, serving heavy-handed concoctions in overdesigned venues. A separate visit to Amaru is in order.

The pink bubbly went splendidly with the diverse food. In hindsight, it was the ideal choice. Of course, Victor had the courses in his head so he could choose the right tipple for us before we even realised it.

One inevitable question is whether Victor’s creations are authentic Basque. (To ask a similar question about the Japanese-Peruvian seems somewhat misguided.) To be honest, I haven’t a clue. And, I don’t care either because it’s good food.

I did not take any photos of the food because the light at our table would not have allowed me to take decent photos using my phone, but here’s Victor in action:

Bravas Tapas and Amaru are located at Ivory House, St. Katherine Docks, East Smithfield, London E1W 1AT.

Savage Beauty

Alexander McQueenIf you have not yet been to the Alexander McQueen exhibition titled Savage Beauty at the Victoria & Albert Museum, then I recommend you make the time to go. If you have ever heard of the name Alexander McQueen, go. If you are even remotely interested in fashion but somehow managed never to have heard of his name, then go. There is a limited number of tickets available, so buy them soon. (You will need to buy tickets even if you are a paid up member of V&A.)

The immensely popular exhibit is sold out on most days for all time slots. They even issued extra tickets to supplement the original allocation. Therefore, I had expected a crowded environment that made viewing difficult, particularly on a Saturday. However, my concern was completely misplaced. My time slot was sold out, but it wasn’t overly crowded. I was able to view each piece without any problems. V&A got the ticket allocation size right, a refreshing change from a typical blockbuster in major cities where it feels more like an effing bazaar than an exhibition.

Viewing a piece of work by a given creator is, in a sense, a very two dimensional experience because it rarely gives one a glimpse of the creator’s mind. When a broad collection of oeuvres over a period of time is presented upon skillful and caring curatorship, then it can not only show the depth and breadth of the creator’s genius but also a peek into his mind. Or, at least I felt as though I was able to get a glimpse of McQueen’s complex, intense and stormy mind, thanks to the outstanding curatorship.

One minor downside was that it did not include pieces from his days at Givenchy. It’s not that I expected LVMH to offer help, and for Kering to accept help from LVMH, but it would have been a small triumph for all concerned if Givenchy pieces were included because it was not an unimportant chapter in McQueen’s life however unhappy he may have been in Paris.

Savage Beauty is based on the 2011 exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged. Those who have seen both think that V&A have done a superior job. I had not seen the Met show, but I can easily imagine that to be the case. Even when the Costume Institute at the Met was run by the late, indefatigable, talented and immensely knowledgeable Richard Martin, their shows usually fell a bit short in the way pieces were displayed even though the selection, grouping and sequence of the pieces were the stuff of supreme curatorship. V&A have done a superb job in displaying the pieces.

We can bemoan McQueen’s untimely death, but we can also celebrate his creative genius. V&A’s Savage Beauty does the latter beautifully and does justice to his genius.

Go see it.

125 ml

Fentiman's Cola

I suspect that this won’t be a huge hit at food concessions in US cinemas…

Made Great in Britain

By hand, not by machine. By artisans, not by equipment operators. In a Georgian house, not in a factory. In London, not in a town whose name you can’t pronouce with the correct intonation. For you and only you.

A Jolly in Hampshire

Over Easter weekend, we had planned a 90 km loop from Dogmersfield, Hampshire, towards South Downs and back. This being a SpokeCC club ride, perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that the spoken word took precedence over causing the spokes to go round and round. We ended up doing only a bit over 50 km, but a very pretty 50 km, it was.

Four Seasons Hampshire

Somehow reminiscent of Tuscany… Chiantishire?

Hampshire

And as a departure from the usual view of the Lycra-clad posterior of a middle-aged male directly in front, we spotted a much sexier, delicious posterior of a 60 year old dame…

Aston Martin DB2/4

It is a bit of a shame that we did not have more time to discover a few dark secrets hidden in some of the villages along the route…

Children in road, Blacknest

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