Just in time for Hallowe'en, a retail vampire has arisen. It's set up shop in the wastes of White City, sinking its teeth into the local economy and sucking dry the surrounding neighbourhood. Many's the innocent punter already lured deep into its clutches, their purchasing habits transformed, their conscience drawn over to the dark side. And the name of this merchandising monster is Westfield. London's lifeblood may never be the same again.
Oh my word, it's big. You get some sense of scale from outside, as if some vast aircraft hangar has been erected amongst the backstreets of Shepherd's Bush. But only from inside is it possible to take on board how huge the Westfield development really is. Just when you think there can't possibly be even more shops tucked away up some passageway, more appear. It's as if some ferocious tornado has whisked away the full length of Oxford Street and New Bond Street, lifting them three miles to the west and coiling each up beneath a vastundulatingglassroof. Lakeside and Bluewater may give you some idea of what to expect, but in truth London's seen nothing quite like this before. So long as anyone in town still has any money to spend, Westfield threatens retail domination.
I headed over to W12 just before sunset on opening day. The initial mad rush was over and the crowd control monkeys weren't having to be quite so heavy-handed in their funnelling. My southern approach was up a deep concrete canyon, with not-yet-open restaurants to one side and a long deep Waitrose on the other [photo]. Towering above was one of the four "anchor" department stores, this one a House of Fraser (Wood Lane approachees get Next first instead). Quite a trudge already, and still not yet inside the mall proper. Up that escalator, maybe, or through the main doors up ahead. Getting inside was easy, but leaving might prove rather harder.
Sheesh, big big big, busy busy busy. I'd stumbled on the main central atrium, a vast space where the glass roof appeared to be supported by an artificial frosty forest [photo]. Most of the mall's cafes and restaurants are based around here, and sometimes it was hard to avoid walking through their outer seating fringes. No fried burger takeaways here. The management want you to sit down to eat, partly because it adds an air of cultured refinement but mostly because you'll spend more. A pink-lit stage provided the entertainment focus, with a small crowd already gathered to await the quarter to six fashion show. I moved on quickly.
Turning right, I discovered the first of the 250-or-so stores to have opened their doors within Westfield's virgin portals. Most boasted smart glass frontage, two storeys high, revealing brightly-lit cavernous but thin interiors. These were no ordinary high street shops, these were a little more aspirational. Or, if I turned right again into TheVillage, a lot more aspirational. I can't ever imagine wanting to slip inside De Beers or Louis Vuitton or Versace, and I'm such a shopping pleb I'd never even heard of Daniel Hersheson or Fratelli Rossetti or Zadig & Voltaire. But I'm sure the well-heeled of nearby Holland Park will be super-chuffed to find such top-brand luxury on their doorstep, and they won't be the only upmarket purchasers to be drawn into Westfield's unashamedly luxurious web. The rest of us, we can just gawp at the pink chandeliers hanging from the ceiling like a shoal of alien jellyfish. [photo]
Enough gawping, and on with my tour of the upper mall. No, I'm not interested in shopping in there, or in that, or with them. I'm really not target audience for Westfield at all, am I? I'm the wrong gender for a start, and my fascination for showy accessories never really ignited. Instead I took a chance on the flagship Marks & Spencer, bypassing the lingerie and blouses to explore the store's food-based options. A small cafe out front allowed weary shoppers to sit fenced inside a curved corral and nibble M&S comestibles [photo]. Descending to the basement I entered an enormous supermarket, shelves fully stocked, but not yet rammed with discerning shoppers. Three fast-checkout till staff competed for my single purchase, then returned to gossip to pass the time. I exited across the cavernous underground car park, not yet busy enough to be a danger to short-cutting pedestrians. Saturday might be different, I suspect.
Back up in the main mall there were still three quarters of Westfield's shops to discover. On and on I trudged, down and round and up, negotiating the busy first day crowds [photo]. Half-term families were out in force, as were the local baseball-capped youth (who were especially interested in one particular window display boasting three pouting bikini-clad models). There were plenty of happy shoppers with carrier bags, although outnumbered by first day sightseers without carrier bags. At HMV a queue of excited Saturdays fans spilled out far along the concourse (Westfield will be big on 'event' shopping, I think). Thank goodness for Foyles, otherwise I might have wandered around forever without even the slightest flicker of interest in buying anything. Again the staff seemed under-busy, so heaven knows how tedious their lives will become once the initial rush wears off. Tuesday mornings in February, they're going to be the acid test of this building's long-term potential.
It took a while to notice, but Westfield has been arranged very carefully to separate out different classes of customer. The Shepherd's Bush corner with its jellyfish Village is for aspiring Mayfair types. The upper mall with its photogenic glass ceiling is for the middle classes with money to spend [photo]. And the lower mall, particularly in the Wood Lane corner, is for ordinary folk more used to High Street chains and bog standard outlets. You won't find a Disney Store or a Barratts upstairs, and you won't find a Habitat or a Crabtree & Evelyn down. Westfield is several different malls merged into one, because that way there's bound to be somewhere you'll feel at home.
After my circuit I headed back outside into the chilly damp October evening. How skilfully Westfield had made me forget about the world outside, a bit like a Las Vegas casino but without the garish tack. As I walked back along Restaurant Canyon there were still hordes of first-time visitors streaming the other way, keen to experience their Westfield debut. But I wanted to see the effect on Shepherd's Bush's original shopping mall, the desperately ordinary West 12 centre. Business was not brisk [photo]. Admittedly the place has been fading gently for years, but the paint shop, newsagents and pool hall weren't proving anywhere near as magnetic as their northern counterparts. Were it not for Morrisons at the rear, still by far the most affordable supermarket hereabouts, the place might have gone down the plughole already. And when Westfield's cinema opens next year, the Vue in West 12 may not be quite so successful at putting bums on seats.
I hope the shops and market stalls and cafes and restaurants around Shepherd's Bush Green survive the arrival of an over-sized cuckoo in their nest. They fully deserve to, because they're catering to an entirely different clientèle to Westfield's target footfall. Some of us need value more than pampering, and want personal service more than a personal shopper. And it would be a criminal waste if local livelihoods were extinguished solely to pay the shareholders of some global investment company. But will Westfield be a success? Undoubtedly, because hundreds of thousands of people are going to want to spend their time and money regularly in this cutting edge shopping cathedral. East London be warned - there's something disturbingly similar already being erected on the wasteland behind Stratford station, and it opens in March 2011. I think I can wait.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.