Westfield, shopping for Britain

Westfield’s new Stratford City shopping mall opened on September 13th 2011, welcoming through it’s doors a heaving mass of over-excited consumers, including some who’d queued for almost 20 hours to be first in line for launch-day discounts. Thus primed, Europe’s biggest urban shopping centre took an estimated £4 million in sales, with a prediction of £1 billion in three years time. And at a reputed cost of £1.45 billion, that’s probably just as well.

But, built in the shadow of the Olympic village, the centre is planned such that all visitors to the games arriving by public transport will have to troop through it’s portals to get there. Rather a canny move on the part of Westfield, non? Come to see the 400-metre hurdles and pop into John Lewis on the way in, or out. But what does it say about the state of our nation when you’re directed through temples dedicated to Mammon to get to something that originated as a religious festival honouring Zeus, king of the Gods?

Shopping has become our contemporary measure of success. We shop therefore we exist, and how much we spend is taken as a sign of national prosperity, regardless of where that money comes from. With inflation at 4.5%, it’s highest level for three years, with a predicted rise to 5% by the end of the year, not forgetting our soaring utility bills, I was therefore more than a little disturbed by the tales of imminent profligacy from anticipatory shoppers. A 15-year old from Essex was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying “I’m here with my mum who’s buying on her credit card, she hasn’t said there’s a limit!” Or how about Tasha, a 19-year old student with two part-time jobs who declared she intended to spend “a whole month’s wages”, continuing, “I’ve been saving for ever! I’m going to spend at least £400, or until I drop.” The centre will admittedly have created 18,000 jobs, which is magnificent, but I can’t help feeling it’s a little like employing Peter to bankrupt Paul.

But at least the centre will look spectacular. In fact I was part of an advisory committee brought in by shopping tsar and all round good egg Mary Portas, duly charged with the brief of introducing the in-house Westfield design team to new names and talent in order to imbue the centre with something beyond the usual. Thus alongside Tony Chambers, editor in chief of Wallpaper magazine; Lucy Siegle, ethical living columnist for The Observer, and Lisa Armstrong, then Fashion editor of The Times now at The Telegraph, we each invited another expert in our respective fields to join us. Then, once Tom Dixon, Tracey Emin, Roland Mouret and James Dyson were duly engaged, the fun began. And while Westfield may have been a little dubious at first (let’s just say some of the meetings became rather rowdy with all that creative passion in one room), they must be heartily applauded for embracing the new with vigour. For my part I introduced them to a number of young designers including Lee Broom, a very dapper young man who I had firmly in my sights as one to watch for his rare mix of creativity, professionalism and marketing nous. The lights that he subsequently designed for Westfield’s welcome halls are indeed things of great beauty, and certainly of a calibre rarely seen before in a shopping centre. So, if you’re going to spend all your hard-earned cash, or max out that credit card for the good of the country, at least you’ll be beautifully illuminated as you do so.

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