Saturday 27 June 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 27/6/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Keep the customer satisfied

Non-essential shops have been allowed to open in the UK for the past two weeks. To see how business is faring after the initial rush, I cycled the length of Oxford Street – and the omens are not good. Even at fast-fashion flagships and the big sports stores, there were no queues and the guards there to control the hoped-for throngs looked bored and hot. I headed on to Covent Garden: the Apple Store did have a crowd but elsewhere shops were empty. At Arket I was the only person on the men’s floor and, when I went to pay for some discounted T-shirts, it turned out that the staff had closed the tills early.

As one colleague commented this week, the measures forced on retailers have stripped away the reasons why shopping can be enjoyable – browsing, trying on clothes, getting advice – and left you just able to do the grittiest bit: pay. At Arket someone was found to reopen a checkout but neither staff nor customers can think of these encounters as meaningful brand experiences. Instead, this medicalised world of shopping underlines a sense of potential danger at every turn and all those warning signs are reminiscent of the health warnings on cigarette packs. I hope that retailers are allowed to ditch some of these rules soon and can get back to being employers, neighbourhood-makers and the purveyors of T-shirts that hide any impact of lockdown sourdough.

I am the opposite of an early adopter when it comes to technology. So it was only during lockdown that I finally made friends with Siri. And this was born out of laziness. I’d shout out new musical requests while I was focused on my laptop and, over time, we built up quite the rapport. I don’t know whether it’s because I am now spending more time at the office but she’s definitely got the hump. You can ask her to play French pop, for example, and she’ll test your patience by replying, “Here’s some music I found by Stormzy.” Indeed she seems to be having a Stormzy moment because one morning this week when I asked her to play Monocle 24, she came back with the same reply. But then, some 12 hours later, tucked up in bed, I suddenly awoke thinking that Tyler Brûlé was in the house – and he was: Siri had suddenly acquiesced to play our radio station and the chief himself was presenting. I must ask Siri what I did to upset her but she doesn’t seem to be in the right zone for that chat. Until then, I’ll be singing along with Stormzy.

As lockdowns ease even more, cities are encouraging restaurants to promote their takeaway services and here in London some pubs are now doing takeaway beers served in litre glasses (you pay a deposit to ensure that the vessel is returned). And this is going to be a theme of the summer: alfresco food and alcohol. The missing bit in the equation? Loos. Let’s just say that London’s parks, alleys and doorways are getting an unseasonal downpour. It’s all very Hogarth. Sorry, didn’t mean to put you off your muesli. Perhaps mobile loos would be a good investment tip for The Entrepreneurs – there’s pent-up demand.

Fitzrovia is a central London neighbourhood with an eclectic mix of offices, homes, restaurants and retail. Walking through it this week, I noticed hundreds of white sticky arrows on the pavements. At first I thought it was a clever marketing stunt to get you to the front door of a new restaurant but they seemed to be taking you in all sorts of odd directions. And then I twigged. This was supposed to be a way of getting people to observe social distancing – so depending on which side of the road you were on, they pointed in different directions. But they must have ordered too many arrows because they were everywhere – even on roads that are always empty. It’s both confusing and redundant as the social-distancing edict is about to be dropped to one metre. And there is always another, cheaper, option available: let people use common sense.


Castles in the sky

If there were a grand prize for projects never realised, I think I’d make a formidable entrant (writes Nic Monisse). There’s the knitting I started last winter and a pile of wood at my parents’ place from when I thought I might like to be a carpenter at weekends.

Unfinished, none of these projects offer any value to anyone (except someone looking for salvage timber), which is why Architecture Australia’s plans to relaunch its prize for Unbuilt Work piqued my curiosity. From budget cuts to failed competition entries, architects frequently see their projects unrealised.

The difference between such designs and my woodworking ambition? “Unbuilt architectural works have made a significant contribution to the development of their discipline,” says Katelin Butler, the competition’s jury chair. “Uncovering this work lets us unpack the architect’s research, understand it and apply it to other things that might be built.” For evidence, look to Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid, whose unbuilt projects from their formative years helped to inspire future works.

With this in mind – and an entry deadline of 21 August – I’m thinking about revisiting my own architectural ambitions and whipping up a drawing set. At least this time it won’t gather dust in my parent’s garage.


Comfort: the new cool?

Some Western brands take on a whole new life in Asia, embraced by a different demographic and worn in alternative ways (writes James Chambers). Keen is a recent example of this. The Portland-based outdoor footwear brand – beloved, presumably, by card-carrying US national parks enthusiasts – has become a staple of Hong Kong’s urban jungle. That’s thanks mainly to its curious-looking Uneek model: an airy half-sandal, half-trainer that looks like it was made by a scout master using leftover rope strings from a mountaineering backpack.

This Swiss army knife of footwear – unisex, utilitarian and unashamedly ugly – has found a second life on the crowded streets of Tokyo and Taipei. Hong Kong wearers tend to have a certain edge, from political activists to fashionable same-sex couples wearing oversized Japanese denim and with slick haircuts. Black is the Uneek colour of choice and Keen has tapped into its Asian pavement appeal by launching crossovers with various streetwear brands, such as Japanese retailer Atmos. Baseball cap brand New Era has added glow-in-the dark toggles to the bestselling black (although it’s hard to imagine anywhere in this electric city ever getting dark enough for them to be seen). Young women, in particular, appear to have a penchant for these comfy camping shoes, pairing them with socks of various colours, from plain white to mustard and racing green.

Keen cemented its Hong Kong fashion makeover earlier this year when it opened its first standalone shop in the city’s plushest new mall, K11 Musea. After trying on a pair, I can confirm that Uneeks certainly have an edge in the comfort department. But the geography teacher staring back at me in the mirror told me to put them back on the shelf.


Vinod Jose

The Caravan bills itself as India’s first magazine for longform journalism, covering a monthly menu of politics and culture (writes Louis Hartnett O’Meara). Though originally founded in 1940, the title was discontinued in 1988 before being relaunched in 2010. Vinod Jose, the magazine’s executive editor, has charted the periodical’s fiercely independent course over the past 10 years, setting the gold standard for rigorously researched journalism in India and picking up a few lawsuits from angry politicians in the process. Here, Jose tells us about his favourite book market in New Delhi and his children’s feats with Lego.

What news source do you wake up to?
Twitter, to hear about reporting on the ground. After that, WhatsApp messages and forwards.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Coffee. No sugar, no milk.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
Radio in India isn’t so big. It’s only Hindi music, which I don’t like so much; Hindi is my third language. Sometimes I listen to NPR or BBC Radio 4 but that’s it.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
Thinking mostly.

Magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I’m reading more online these days, so the sofa-side stack has been taken over by some handmade planter pots. But typically it’s Harper’s, The New Yorker, New Statesman and The Atlantic.

Bookshop you can’t wait to return to?
Book Culture in New York and May Day Bookstore in New Delhi. Also the makeshift Sunday book market on the streets of Old Delhi.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched lately and why?
Virus on Amazon Prime. It’s based on the Nipah virus outbreak that happened in Kerala. The story of how the medical system, elected officers and district administration contained it and finally won the battle is a medical thriller. There are many lessons to be drawn from it.

Sunday brunch routine?
Usually on Sundays I get up late and go to mass with my family. Over brunch I spend time with my wife, Saumya, and our three small kids, who will take us through the ritual of showing us their latest Lego builds and explain their thinking behind it. Then we just make up stories and talk away.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the dining room table?
I read five or six Indian papers, including The Times of India, The Economic Times and The Hindu to keep up with the headlines. Then international papers such as The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps?
I don’t even switch the television on, unless someone calls to say that one of the political goons of the Hindu right is abusing our magazine or one of us personally for a report we published or an opinion we stated. I catch up with BBC World Service, CNN or NBC online a couple of times a day.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
Usually an episode of Peppa Pig with my children. It must be the young parent thing; before that it was always a book.


High notes

‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’, Netflix. This Netflix production stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams playing a duo with a dream to represent Iceland at Eurovision. It’s silly and there’s a little too much toilet humour but its representation of the musical competition is pretty accurate: from deranged Europop tunes to dazzling costumes. Special cameos from former Eurovision winners – and Dan Stevens’ role as the Russian contestant with a sexy Lion King-esque song – make it a must-watch for fans of the song contest.

‘The Ratline’, Philippe Sands. The title of this real-life detective story refers to the escape routes used by Nazis at the end of the Second World War. Sands, a human-rights barrister and author of East West Street, traces the journey of Nazi governor Otto von Wächter through the late 1940s as he evaded the Nuremberg trials by hiding in the Alps. The book is worth reading for the novelistic pleasure of following Sands’ dogged forensic efforts and for the strangely humane way the writer allows Von Wächter’s son, with whom he develops an odd friendship, to hold on to his view of his father as a good man.

‘Women in Music Part III’, Haim. California-based sister trio Haim has an impressive track record in making wonderful summer music that’s more sun-bleached and laid-back than dancefloor-ready. They deliver plenty of the above in their accomplished third album, which is laced with their signature harmonies. But this latest release also takes eclectic tangents into different genres, from the funky R&B of “I Know Alone” to the beat-driven pop of “Now I’m in It”. The late-afternoon vibe of “Summer Girl”, with its saxophone riffs, is a sultry stand-out.


Northern rocks

The 18 volcanic islands in the North Atlantic that make up the Faroes archipelago are home to 50,000 people. Though part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands has enjoyed home rule since 1948, allowing the nation to manage its internal affairs and fishing industry with relative autonomy. A good thing too – the nation has made its wealth predominantly from its fisheries and its economy had been expanding at a rate of knots.

Dimmalaetting – the Faroes’ oldest paper – has been covering the news on the islands since 1878 and is today printed exclusively in the Faroese language. Though reduced from a daily to a weekly after a year-long hiatus in 2013, its circulation stands at an impressive 4,000 copies an issue. “It’s funny to say it but we have actually made progress this year in sales, advertising and the number of copies we sell,” says Sveinur Tróndarson, the paper’s editor in chief, one of two permanent staff. “If we can stick with that, I’ll be happy.”

What’s the big news this week?
In 2010 one of the biggest banks in the Faroes went bankrupt and was taken over by Danish authorities. The general manager and chairman of the bank were ordered by the courts to pay huge fines for mismanagement. But this week, after 10 years fighting their cases, both were absolved by the High Court of Denmark. Because everybody knows everybody in the Faroes, a bad reputation sticks – so it was important for them to clear their names.

Do you have a favourite image from a recent issue?
After coronavirus landed in the Faroes, our tourism industry was hit very hard. So we ran a special edition of the paper that was designed to encourage Faroese people to travel within the islands. We ran an incredible photograph of the terrain – huge volcanic mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

And a down-page treat?
An island resident recently wrote in to tell his story. He had built a house but failed to get any planning permission from the local government and so he almost lost the property. It’s a tragedy for him and he wrote the piece as though the council were the bad guys. There’s some irony for the reader here as it’s obvious that he should have requested permission first. It caught our sense of humour.

What’s the next big event?
Our public health system has stopped testing for coronavirus since the islands stopped recording new cases. Instead, the government has handed the task over to private companies, who we have to pay to receive our tests. The money isn’t such an issue – it’s DKK40 (€5) or so – but people are concerned because these companies could be keeping our biological data on file. Over the next few weeks, the prime minister is going to be facing some difficult questions about why he has allowed this to happen.


Three and easy

Recent upheavals have put pressure on brands to make value statements. And many companies feel obliged to get involved by explaining what they are about and what they are doing for clients, customers and the greater good. But how do you say all these things in an effective and engaging way? On this week’s episode of Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs Karl Wikström, senior strategist at Swedish brand agency Åkestam Holst, offers three tips.

Be useful
Brands who focus on customer service and satisfaction through challenging economic times succeed both during and after a recession. On a local level, businesses that have been hampered by the crisis have found unique ways to achieve this usefulness and connection. For example, garden centres in Sweden collaborated with taxi firms to deliver plants and seeds to people stuck at home. The garden centres created a new client group of people who had maybe not tried gardening before.

Be specific
A mistake that a lot of brands have made is to make grand announcements that can sound insincere. Some US car-makers have released adverts where they simply say, “We’ll get through this together,” or “We’re here for you” – it is meaningless. It’s better to focus on one specific problem resulting in detailed outcomes. This is a great way of gaining traction as people can see an immediate plan and results.

Be impressive
When the world goes back to normal, people will again look for the cheapest and easiest purchases available. But if you can create a feelgood factor around your product, even if customers have consciously forgotten what you did during the pandemic, that positivity can still very much affect buyer behaviour.


Change of a dress

As Londoners venture back into shops, they would do well to visit a particular corner in Soho where Brewer Street meets Wardour Street (writes Jamie Waters). A pair of fashionable clothing stores have joined the array of gay bars, burger joints and neon-fronted sex shops – so consumers can now come away with a rather different kind of leather outfit than on previous visits to this smoky stretch of the city.

JW Anderson, the agenda-setting London brand helmed by Northern Irish designer (and Loewe creative director) Jonathan Anderson, has opened a striking flagship. Designed by 6a Architects, the space is spread across two levels and a medley of surfaces. Corner shop-like strips of chequerboard floors give way to plush carpet; leather handbags shaped like baseball caps are displayed in mahogany cabinets; flowing dresses and striped knits hang from aluminium rails; and chunky Converse-collaboration trainers sit on metal-capped steps. As well as being one of fashion’s greatest talents, Anderson’s work is rooted in British counterculture and challenges gender stereotypes. This shop, with its fusion of grit and glamour, perfectly captures his world.

A minute’s walk away, Swedish multibrand menswear retailer Très Bien is tucked into a quiet side street. The pint-sized, gallery-like space launched in March and will reopen on 1 July. Très Bien has a booming online business and this shop shows us why, with its compact but thoughtful selection that includes fashion-forward brands such as New York’s Bode alongside understated pieces by Tokyo’s Auralee and Paris’s Lemaire. Apart from anything else, these two new Soho outposts are timely reminders of the joy that physical shops can provide – something that many of us have been missing. JW Anderson, 2 Brewer Street, Soho, London; Très Bien, 23A Meard Street, Soho, London


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