My three line-by-line visits to Wembley this year have provided the perfect opportunity to keep an eye on what's going on opposite the stadium. In February (for the Bakerloo) I noted a new town hall and retail development under construction. In June (for the Metropolitan) I looked inside the new Brent Civic Centre and its associated library. And now in November (for the Jubilee) I've returned to discover the capital's latest shopping mall. It's the London Designer Outlet, billed as Wembley's answer to Bicester Village, and it opened tendays ago. Umpteen brands have moved in to sell their goods at "up to 70% off", which is a technically meaningless quote but looks great in all the publicity. Throw in a dozen restaurants and a multi-screen cinema and the developers hope they've ticked all the boxes for a commercial-friendly day out.
If you've not been to Wembley recently, I have to warn you it's changed utterly. Developers Quintain have knocked down most of what used to be here, assuming it hadn't been pulled down already, and are busy creating a "destination living" space on a huge scale. 5000 flats are planned, of which a small number are already in place (including some very boxy student accommodation). A lot of hotels have gone up already, because accommodation will always thrive alongside Wembley Arena and the national stadium. It's all a bit tall-modern-ugly, to be frank, thus far in a couple of clusters close to the Jubilee and Chiltern stations. And now there's the London Designer Outlet, a clad stack of retail to the west of the stadium, which fits in perfectly with the general lack of architectural distinction. [8 photos]
The LDO consists of a double decker outdoor mall ending at a small piazza, plus three other shorter arcades, two indoors. The anchor tenants are around the piazza, that's M&S and Superdry and H&M and Gap. This being an outlet venue most of the goods are reduced in price, so appear to be bargains even if they're really hard-to-shift fashion leftovers. The M&S outlet store has chunky discounts on clothes and homeware, most marked down from the usual in-store price and some of the rest made specifically for outlet purchase. Fleecy lounge trousers are the big push for men, while the Christmas gift department is already well stacked. Superdry's shop is darker and edgier, indeed I chose to leave after about fifteen seconds, having not spotted much looking bargaintastic. Gap, however, achieved the unthinkable and actually made me want to buy stuff. Half price shirts, half price jackets, half price woolly top things... I was sorely tempted. And then I saw the tills, which were too few, and the queues, which were too long. Somebody at Gap clearly underestimated how popular their shop would be, so never mind, I left empty-handed.
Footwear fanatics can find stuff anywhere on a spectrum from Clarks to Nike (though I didn't spot much with stilettos, sorry ladies, maybe I wasn't looking carefully). There are also several cookware shops - you know the sort of thing, with nice crockery and cutlery and gadgets you don't necessarily need but are selling fairly cheap. In case you think the whole place is upmarket, not so, there's a Calendar Club for anyone who needs twelve photos of One Direction to wrap for a wayward niece. Indeed there's little high-end here to match the elite selection to be found in Bicester - no Armani, McQueen or Burberry - so the moneyed classes of the Home Counties won't be rushing here fast. Indeed thus far I'd say most of the London Designer Outlet's clientèle are fairly local, which means a lot of Asian families from Brent mixed in with curious shoppers from wherever. A couple of launch events have already reached out specifically to the local Wembley community. Last Saturday a group of Bollywood dancersshimmied appealingly at the foot of the escalators, while this Saturday saw a Sitare Festival with a procession of lights and a stage showcasing Bhangra musicians.
The biggest success thus far, it seems, has been food. Pizza Express looked almost full at the weekend, ditto Nando's. Maybe Wembley's been sorely lacking in dining outlets that serve more than fried chicken, or maybe it's just that most of the other restaurants here haven't opened yet. Various units on the upper mall are still being fitted out with kitchens and banquettes, and whether the LDO can support a dozen family-sized eateries has yet to be proven. It's not all sit-down stuff, there's a Pret and a Nero and a Costa for all those shopaholics who need a rest between purchases. You may have to hunt to find them, though. Neither the website nor the giveaway leaflet feature a map of the complex, only a list of brands contained therein. I suspect that's because stores are opening all the time, not everything was open on day one. And I also suspect it's because a map might, thus far, look woefully unimpressive.
An awful lot of the units at the London Designer Outlet remain closed. The first and second floors have several vacancies, at present covered over by upbeat LDO branding. The arcade leading north to Lakeside Way has no tenants at all, apart from one unit occupied by the Outlet's own Information Centre. Quite a few frontages announce someone's "coming soon", so I know that Lindt and New Balance and Jimmy's World Grill & Bar are on their way. But there's a silent tumbleweed feeling to some corners, which may not last forever, but I bet the developers are gutted they couldn't sell the place out from the start. They may have more luck filling the cinema, although the architects seem to have gone out of their way to make winding your way up from the ground floor to the entrance on the fourth as winding and tortuous as possible.
If you fancy a visit to the London Designer Outlet - probably later when a few more shops are open - it's fairly easy by train. From Wembley Park station you get there by walking down Wembley Way as if going to the football, then diverting right past the Arena. Alternatively Chiltern's Wembley Stadium station is much closer, approached via a windswept charmless piazza. If you live locally, or come by bus, you can nip in direct from Empire Way. But you'll probably drive - that's the intention for luring in those across a much wider catchment area. And if you do drive and you end up in the "Yellow parking" zone, spare a thought for what used to be here. When I visited back in February the last remnant of Wembley's 1924 Empire Exhibition - part of the Palace of Industry - was still standing. That's since been entirely demolished, and now several acres of former heritage have become nothing more than a blank car park. They'll be flats and offices eventually, such is Wembley's march towards "destination living", but I can't say I much like what the area is becoming.