Simpson of Piccadilly opened in April 1936 as the largest menswear store in the country. The company had successfully launched its luxury DAKS brand in 1934 and wanted a central London location from which to sell their entire range. The site at 203-6 Piccadilly became available in 1935 when the former Geological Museum premises were offered for sale at auction. Alexander Simpson purchased the site for £11,000 and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton to design a new store.
Simpson of Piccadilly was to be the height of modernity and Emberton did not disappoint. The ground floor concave windows at the front and rear were the first in the country and still surprise passers-by today. A steel frame supports the building and the front is clad in Portland stone, divided by windows that run the full length of the facade. Inside, a Travertine marble staircase is the star of the show, with its low 1930's bannister and glass wall running from top to bottom of the stairs. And as if this wasn't enough the original internal display and storage features - sadly long gone - were designed by none other than Bauhaus hero Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. This included three aircraft being exhibited on the fifth floor, a marketing idea designed purely to bring in more potential customers. The Simpson logo and advertising were also influenced by the Bauhaus School and were designed by Ashley Havinden. The 90 feet long chromium light fitting that still hangs in the stairwell was designed by Emberton. As well as menswear, the store had a restaurant, barbers, dog shop and other retail offers. However, clothing remained the main attraction and customers were able to see tailors at work in a bespoke section.
The high level specification and the size of the site - a total of 11,000 square feet - resulted in a very large bill for the Simpson Company and Alexander Simpson warned that it would take a number of years before a profit would be made. Sadly he was not to enjoy the building for very long, dying of leukemia in 1937 aged just 34. Emberton had earlier designed the former Austin Reed building in Holborn. Completed in 1925, it too is a striking modernist building but Simpson's was to be his masterpiece.
The Second World War commenced just three years after the store opened. General retail operations were suspended and replaced by production of uniforms whilst the top floor became a club for off-duty soldiers could sleep, bathe and make telephone calls. Normal service resumed at the end of the war and there are stories of queues stretching the length of Piccadilly and tailors being sent out to measure people in the street in order to have a selection of trousers to offer them once they reached the shop! That's what I call service.
The DAKS company was acquired by a Japanese firm in 1999 and the shop was sold to Waterstones Booksellers who have made to their flagship store. Alexander Simpson's vision and Joseph Emberton's design eventually resulted in their building achieving Grade l listed status - the highest possible. The Simpson store is sadly no more, but it is still possible to enjoy this beautiful building today...and to browse thousands of books at the same time. What a combination.
More London Art Deco items here.