The interior of the Millennium Dome is now (almost) complete. Took long enough.
Ever since 2007, when New Labour's Teflon tent reopened as an entertainment hub, it's only been possible to turn right on entering. A crescent of dining opportunities curved round to the far side of the complex, past numerous restaurants and the occasional cinema, but the only shopping experience on offer was a tiny newsagents which excited nobody. Now suddenly turning left has become an option, with a lengthy shopping mall finally completing the circuit and giving visitors something entirely different to do.
It was going to be a super-casino, back in the Blair era when super-casinos were the thing, so the O2's owners kept 120° of their circumference empty in readiness of planning success. But London's super-casino went to Westfield in Stratford instead, and North Greenwich was left with a hole nobody's got round to filling until now.
It's called Icon, and looks very much like you'd expect a shopping mall to look. Over on the Dome's restaurant boulevard it's impossible to escape the feeling that you're walking through a cavernous tent with boxy infill, but this new addition is overhung by a chain of illuminated ribs which acts as a suspended ceiling, making it feel more like Bluewater, Westfield or Intu Somewhere instead. Ascend the escalators at either end to enter this brave new retail temple.
The arcade nearest the main entrance is solely at first floor level, and lined by narrow-fronted shops on either side. Many of these are already open but many are not, partly because there's a recession on, but mainly because it's still early days. The shops are almost exclusively of a type - slightly upmarket clothes and accessories - including such non-necessities as Calvin Klein undies and Aspinal handbags. If you're wondering why the shops get micro-thin opposite the artisan coffee outlet, it's because the mall has to bend around the ventilation tower for the southbound Blackwall Tunnel. I counted up the shops along this first section and tallied ten units open and seven closed.
Things got even quieter through the central section, the furthest from each entrance - thirteen units open and twelve closed. Temporary frontage and low footfall meant it all felt a bit dead, even for a weekday morning, but on opening weekend the place was no doubt buzzing thanks to numerous 'brand activations'. Hackett were offering complimentary monogramming, GANT were dishing out a free Duffle if you spent £200 or more, and Cath Kidston had installed a flower wall as a prize-winning selfie backdrop. You may already be getting a sense of whether this place is for you.
Eventually the mall reaches a gaping atrium where one of the Dome's big yellow spikes plonks down, and where one of the entrances to the O2's main arena is located. Beyond this the shops continue at ground floor as well as first floor level, although only the upstairs lot are open at present. Ten open and three closed is a better ratio than we've seen thus far, and the clothing emphasis isn't quite so strong, with tea and perfume and smelly candles thrown into the mix. It's also worth noting that the overhead decor's different at this end, here bedecked with a net of floaty white quadrilaterals which reveals more of the actual roof.
The last shop, or the first if you're wandering anti-clockwise, is the only store to brand itself as an outlet. Everything in the Gap Outlet store is 50% off, which is a pretty substantial discount, with handy ready reckoners above the shelves in case you're no good at halving. Even I was thinking "oh, that's not actually a bad price for a shirt", so will be back, relieved I no longer have to trudge over to Wembley Park for something similar. Apparently the whole of Icon is supposed to offer "a variety of premium brands all at accessible outlet prices", but not one single other store has made this obvious - their racks unflashed and their windows unpostered.
Downstairs is odd, even eerie, with the entire run of twenty-odd shops still covered up. That'll be because this is phase 2, opening 2019, as the retail offer ramps up another notch. For now staff are washing piazzas nobody's using, and plugging in amplifiers on a stage nobody will be flocking to, and wondering what anyone's doing down here when there are trainers and chocolate advent calendars on the floor above.
In summary, Icon isn't a must-visit, more somewhere to spend surplus cash on non-essentials if that's what you enjoy. It appears ideally targeted at parties from the Home Counties here to watch U2 or Andrea Bocelli, if only there weren't rules about taking large bags into the auditorium. It's also hoping to attract eager foreign tourists who don't want to have to schlep all the way to Bicester for cheap designer goods, but the overall vibe isn't yet outletty enough for that to succeed. Icon's certainly a more interesting way to pass the time than the restaurants round the other half of the circumference, and has its moments, but has yet to prove it could become a regular hangout for ordinary Londoners.
And Icon is about to be outshone next weekend by a fresh opening at Granary Square - Coal Drops Yard. This former carbon depository and nightclub to the north of King's Cross is reopening as a 'curated' retail experience packed with snobby brands at unreconstructed prices, aiming at sluicing the plastic of warehouse-dwellers and Eurostar travellers. Icon may be one step down the luxury ladder, but it cements the future of the Millennium Dome, and might even contain something you actually want.