Tag Archives: lexington street

Aesop

Aesop


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“Everything is driven by the product itself and the quest for superior quality…”

Even on a crowded London high street, there’s a certain store that stands out from the crowd. There aren’t many brands that have successfully mixed aesthetically pleasing design with high quality skincare products, but Aesop has done exactly that, and much, much more.

It all started in Melbourne in 1987, when hairdresser Dennis Paphitis launched a small range of hair products that formed the basis of the Aesop brand; fast-forward to today, and Aesop has gone on to create some of the most thoughtfully designed and curated concept stores in the world, including one right here in Soho. Aesop’s brief is to formulate skin, hair and body care products of the very finest quality. With this in mind, they look far and wide to source both plant-based and laboratory-made ingredients, using only those with a proven record of safety and efficacy.

Thomas Buisson, Aesop’s General Manager in Europe, tells me about the serious-minded brand with an eye for design. “I was always captivated by the product and concept. I was intrigued, and it led to a meeting through a mutual contact with Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis and CEO Michael O’Keeffe, all the way back in 2008. I was convinced to join the European team and can thankfully say that it has been a rewarding and enlightening journey ever since.” It’s a role that sees him working closely with colleagues in deciding all aspects of new Aesop products, with everyone in the team giving their own local perspective and suggesting specific developments. “We are all involved in new product development. For instance, fragrances are of particular interest to us in Europe while our Asian colleagues are focused on the development of light serums for their hot and humid climate. Every region is able to make an impact, and new products are introduced only if they make absolute sense within the range and we are able to formulate them in a way that meets our standards of excellence on all fronts: sourcing, ingredients, quality and efficacy.”

The striking and highly individual design of Aesop’s retail outlets is the product of a similarly thoughtful approach. Each location first goes through a carefully controlled creative process, led by Thomas and Aesop’s talented design team. “As we go through this process we take into account the local environment, elements of the space itself, and of course our functional requirements. In this capacity, and depending on our inspiration, we work closely with our design team either in collaboration with external or in-house architects,” he says. In each of the brand’s unique spaces, consultants display the Aesop range to guide customers’ selections and decisions, in a setting as carefully crafted and curated as Aesop’s products themselves. Due to the strong cultural ties that Aesop has always had with the Old World, when the decision was made to open spaces outside Australia, Europe was high on the company’s priority list. “The first store in Europe opened in Paris in 2007, closely followed by London in 2008. When we move into a neighbourhood, our idea is to build something for good, both in terms or architecture but also in terms of establishing links with the community and neighbourhood. The first London store opened in Mayfair on Mount Street and was designed by Ilse Crawford. It was a homage to British elegance and savoir vivre that embodied our desire to build stores that celebrate the city and the area where we build them with a light and respectful touch,” Thomas says.

Aesop’s Lexington Street store opened its doors in 2011, in what was at the time a quiet corner of Soho. “The Soho store opened in a location that was previously occupied by a chicken shop and was stripped back so that we would really be able to reveal the simple and beautiful structure of the building. Located in one of the less touristy parts of the neighbourhood, it found its clientele among people working or living in the area, but at the same time it attracted international customers as well. It’s a perfect example of store that really belongs to the area – which means that people are comfortable walking in for a warm cup of herbal tea, a chat or to top up on their favourite skin care product. This is a good summary of what we are aiming to build with our stores: a place of interaction and discovery for the community.”

 

Thomas thinks of the Aesop brand as a set of ideals and beliefs translated into skin, hair and body care. The best ideas, he tells me, are rarely the ones that happen on spreadsheets or via structured brainstorming. “They’re about blood, sweat and many tears. We began with a small range of hair products in 1987. From there we explored the many variables of body care, and by 1991, we were ready to devote ourselves to developing the best skin care possible. Everything is driven by the product itself and the quest for superior quality. It doesn’t matter what you do; the point is to do it well – with sincerity and conviction.”

Looking to the future, Thomas says that the intention is “to continue to open locations where we see the opportunity to focus on strong, meaningful and respectful retail. This takes time and means that we need to remain flexible and agile so that our development is always consistent with who we are. We will continue to develop innovative new products and will build appropriate capabilities to support our business.” In addition to this, Aesop aims to launch more initiatives and partnerships to further enhance its difference from other brands in the beauty industry. Continuing to support the arts is one avenue through which Aesop plans to inspire, learn and communicate; hosting exhibitions and events, collaborating on film projects and publishing new writing online are just some of the ways that Aesop continues to be about much, much more than just its fantastic products.

Bao

Bao


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“Initially, we weren’t set on it having any longevity…”

I am anything but patient, but to get into Bao I waited for 20 minutes with a can of Taiwanese lager in my hand. I’ve been watching the ever-expanding queue outside for a year now as I’ve gone up and down Soho’s Lexington Street, and wondering: what makes all these people stand in line for a restaurant that only seats 15 people and sells Taiwanese street food? Well, the answer is in the eating, as more and more people are finding out: Bao crossed the border into Fitzrovia last year, with the still fresh-faced venture opening its doors on Windmill Street to yet more acclaim.

Brother and sister Wai Ting Chung and Shing Tat Chung, and Shing’s wife Erchen Chang, are all under 30 and the idea of starting a restaurant came to them while were travelling together. Journeying through Erchen’s home country of Taiwan, they were inspired by the informal street food culture and culinary traditions they discovered – and that was how Bao came to be born. “We’d all just graduated, so we made the decision to travel around Taiwan together. We ate all over, and from there we were inspired to come back and start our own venture,” says Shing. “We discussed the idea of a market stall whilst travelling back to London. We thought introducing some of my home traditions, including the bao itself, on the stall could be a cool idea. It was much less risky for us to start out as a market stall in the beginning, as opposed to starting our own restaurant right away. Initially, we weren’t set on it having any longevity; we never planned for Bao to grow into what it has done. The initial response and attention it received was fantastic, and it was an organic progression.”

In 2013, Bao started out as a market stall at Netil Market in Hackney, and it remains a permanent fixture there on Saturday afternoons. Taking things to the next level, from stall to restaurant, Bao opened their first permanent premises on Soho’s Lexington Street in 2015. Both their Soho and Fitzrovia restaurants offer a relaxed environment, with charming yet efficient service, and the interiors bring the trio’s background in fine art to life with catchy branding. “When we opened our Soho site, we had a keen following at this point, but even on opening we didn’t know what to expect. We adapted the space to the brand, and the brand to the space. It’s a small space, and it seems as popular as ever, with customers still queuing daily to sample the menu,” says Shing. “With our Fitzrovia opening, we liked the idea of diners watching as drinks are prepared, we wanted people to be engaged with the aesthetic of the brand and feel like they’re at the centre of the restaurant. We wanted the basement to have the exact opposite feeling. We wanted to create a completely different vibe, with a tin-clad and spacey feeling to it as you look into the kitchen and watch the food being prepared,” adds Erchen.

The name Bao itself originates from their signature Chinese steamed bread roll, known as bao, which is served with a filling of meat, fish or vegetables. Their menu itself is split into four sections, focusing not just on bao but also chicken, fish and rice dishes, with special Taiwanese rice sourced from Chi Shiang, and vegetable sides. In both branches, diners order dishes via their menus on a tick-style system. But before that comes the long wait – whether on Lexington Street or Windmill Street – that can sometimes last up to 45 minutes. It’s a stretch by anybody’s standards, but there’s something about Bao that makes it all worthwhile. Of course, the food is the thing: the tantalising menu is fresh and innovative, and while it’s based on Taiwanese street fare, the kitchen pushes far beyond those boundaries. At the same time, I can’t think of many eateries in this area of London that have matched Bao’s innovative aesthetic, and the result is a brand identity that will doubtless continue to thrive and grow. Although the three are typically modest about their baby, I suspect they take a quiet satisfaction in knowing they’ve created something really quite special. Bao has certainly added another fine food destination to the already independent-led Lexington Street; and if you haven’t already been to check it out, I can only suggest that you hurry along and join the queue.

Mandana Ruane

Mandana Ruane


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“There is a lot to be said for knowing where the trouble and the danger lie in a city – knowing when to cross the road. The suburbs hide their dangers whereas, in Soho, it comes neon-signed.”

There goes a rumour about the paving stones of Lexington Street beyond the wailing of the John Snow pub which, incidentally, is paired with writing. The rumour goes that, above the Andrew Edmonds restaurant there is a well-kept secret. Mandana Ruane tells of The Academy, one of Soho’s last remaining writers’ clubs and her time in Soho.

Having been in England for only a year after fleeing the 1976 revolution in Iran, Mandana first came to Soho as a sixteen year old schoolgirl. Soho immediately felt like home to her in a way no other country, city, or part, had previously. “Soho and I recognised each other and so a lifetime love affair began,” she explains. This love affair started quite appropriately at the renowned French House pub. A friend had been introduced to it in the week before by her utterly glamorous father, the painter Tim Behrens. Mandana and her friend, Fan, returned to the pub on one of a semi-legal excursion after free-range boarding school. “It was very Heaven. Walking into the French felt like crashing a cocktail party that had been going on for decades. And what a party: here were people from every walk of life; some rich or poor, some posh or tramps. Yet everyone spoke to each other and treated each other on their own merits. On a Saturday morning, there were soap stars and writers, pornographers and minor aristos, Getty’s drug dealer and ad-men, all quaffing halves of George Goulet champagne before doing the weekend shop in the market and Camisa’s. When the pub shut at 3, everyone would peel off to do the rounds of the numerous afternoon drinking clubs, up and down rickety staircases. It was an Education,” Mandana explains.

At such a young age, Mandana found herself being educated as to how to negotiate one’s way in the heart of a big city. She notes that, despite being London’s sin bin, Soho was – and remains – safe. “People look out for one another. There is a lot to be said for knowing where the trouble and the danger lie in a city – knowing when to cross the road. The suburbs hide their dangers whereas, in Soho it comes neon-signed,” she tells to me.

Mandana notes the coming of change in the Soho area during the past 30 years; some good, some bad. She thinks it lamentable to see the loss of many small businesses and workshops in favour of the rise of chain stores and chain restaurants. “30 years ago, men were shy of dining a deux together in all but a handful of bars and restaurants,” she says.

18 years ago, Mandana found herself standing in Andrew Edmunds’ print shop, a bag of legal files in one hand, the lead of her dog, Heathcliff, in the other. Andrew began to explain that he had been granted planning permission for the floor above the restaurant to be turned into a club. With the editor of The Literary Review Magazine, Auberon (Bron) Waugh, having asked Andrew to find a home for his then defunct club, the Academy, Andrew had put in an application having never expected it to be granted. “I had been a manager at a restaurant for eight years, but had recently decided to grow up by putting aside my childish husband and embarking upon a career in the law,” Mandana laughs to me. It was an idle fairy that overheard her in the Colony Room in 1981, wishing that one day she would live in Soho and have her own drinking den. Andrew approached Mandana about working with her.

Mandana replied to Andrew that next morning; “I know how we’ll do it. You can’t just be landlord to the club; you’ll have to be proprietor. And I know the way Soho clubs work and how these buildings and the restaurants work, so I’ll have to make the club with you.” This exchange marked the start of a beautiful partnership. Andrew, a man who usually takes several weeks to decide on the shape of a light bulb, said yes. Thus the Academy was reborn, with Bron as the Glamour, Andrew as the Capitalist and Mandana as the Workforce. The Academy opened its doors nine months after their initial conversation.

The club’s membership was to comprise of “writers and their friends” – a remit broad enough to allow for just about anyone with whom staff fell in love with or were tickled by. “Running a club is very much like cooking with people. Some flavours – though delightful in themselves – might not add to the overall goulash and, in a room as small as ours, care must be taken,” she explains on The Academy.

In her early years at the club, Mandana formed a marvellous alliance and friendship with Rowan Pelling, the then editrice of The Erotic Review magazine, who would find suitable candidates for membership, Mandana would reciprocate this service by providing contributors to her magazine. “I would defy anyone to spot the difference between writers for the Erotic and Literary Reviews: in truth, they were the same. The Erotic Review lunches at the Academy were everything one could wish for: a serving General squashed on the banquette in between the infamous rake, Sebastian Horsley, and the former mistress of a cabinet minister. In the interest of club discretion, I cannot say more…” Mandana explains.

Today, Soho’s drinking dens with real wit and a pulse are terribly thin on the ground. This Academy possesses something of a time-machine aspect. It is easy for one to be swiftly swept away from the outer-workings of Soho into this media-friendly watering hole in which true creatives are able to thrive, with each and every character that lurks about this place a decidedly fitting fictional character. These characters count themselves among the fortunate. They alone know of this hidden preservation of creativity in the setting of an 18th century room, dotted with well-read books.