Oxford Street was built for lunchtime. At least it was for me. When I worked in the West End, if I wasn’t having a fancy lunch, at one o’clock I’d nip out from my office and spend the best part of an hour wandering up and down it, dipping into WH Smith’s, Virgin, HMV, Borders, Waterstones and the like, shopping for newspapers, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, boxed sets and vinyl on a kind of cultural quest, curiously hoovering up anything new or interesting and systematically filling those gaping fissures in my post-modern academic education.
It was the same with clothes, toys and gifts, as I’d nip in and out of Selfridges or John Lewis or Debenhams in search of something my wife/daughters/mother-in-law would think had been bought with due care and consideration.
Only 10 years ago, Oxford Street reminded me of one of those busy midtown cross-streets in Manhattan, or a shopping hub in Tokyo’s Ginza. It was crowded, electric, cross-generational and reflected well on the city.
I would suggest it needs a new purpose-built theatre, a cinema, a food hall and some public sculpture
But then shopping changed, the internet killed retail, magazines largely died and the entertainment industry changed its distribution methods without so much as a by-your-leave. Most of the shops I used to frequent either closed or stopped trading altogether (including Debenhams and House of Fraser), leaving London’s biggest thoroughfare looking like a disused dual carriageway in the wrong part of Eastern Europe.
Oxford Street isn’t really for shopping anymore, although no-one really knows precisely what it is for. I still end up walking along it most days, as I live near Marble Arch, but recently it’s become the kind of place you avoid. Too much litter. Too much crime. Too many dodgy sweet shops and beggars. And Covid killed it just a little bit more, sucking the life out of the street and allowing it to reinvent itself as an example of what happens when WFH becomes a lifestyle option rather than a necessity.
It’s about to get a lot worse, too. IKEA have just announced that their new store on the site of the old Top Shop Grade II listed building won’t open until next spring, Michael Gove recently told Marks & Spencer that they can’t adapt their building in the way they want to, and there are very strong rumours that John Lewis boss Sharon White wants to ditch Oxford Street completely. The only department store that appears to be still punching above its weight is Selfridges, but increasingly it looks like a beautiful, bejewelled buckle on a tatty leather belt covered in jelly-coloured paste.
Fifteen years ago HMV hired me as a retail consultant; they knew their business was going south and didn’t seem to know how to pivot. I told them they needed to embrace the experiential. “You need theatre!” I remember saying. “Concerts. Films. Events. Fun!” But they ignored my advice, just as they ignored everyone else’s, and look what happened.
Just a few months ago, Westminster finally signed off the first stage of funding for a £90 million revamp, with wider pavements, redesigned crossings and more trees and plants. That’s all very well, but will it work? I would suggest that Oxford Street needs a purpose-built West End theatre, a new cinema (Everyman, where are you?), an Eataly-style food hall, some public sculpture, some alfresco dining, a decent cycle lane, some proper Soho overspill (and all the transgression it brings with it), and serious private policing. Move it upmarket, make it chic, make it European. Have street theatre, have installations, have anything. Copy Shoreditch. Jeez, copy Marylebone.
And open the place up to the kind of investment that wants long-term success. For months the Evening Standard has been working with the Outernet at St Giles Circus, at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road; they have successfully mixed outdoor media with restaurants, entertainment, art, a hotel, and the kind of regimented open spaces that are actually a joy to use. They understand that Londoners want more than they bargained for, understand that we deserve a celebration when we come up west, understand we want to be surprised. They also understand that if we all don’t start enjoying Oxford Street soon then we might stop coming to the West End completely.
Dylan Jones is editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard