Using the Principles of the Liturgy and Beauty in Retail

High Shelf Esteem! When James Woodward, owner of Woodward Menswear, decided to open a second high-end men’s clothes shop he wanted to model it upon the principles he had read about in the Way of Beauty. He had already started to put some of the principles into practice in his first shop, in Oxted in Surrey, England and had been encouraged the results. Because he was beginning with a blank page in this new venture, he saw the opening of his second shop in Banstead, also in Surrey, as an opportunity to use them more fully. I received a telephone call from him earlier this year asking for ideas about the layout and decoration of the new place. He had already been trying some of these things out in the first shop, but hadn’t been able to implement them properly because a lot of the things were already set differently when he had thought about introducing them. Nevertheless the changes that he was able to make had made an impact he thought. The local bank manager had told him at one point, in the deepest part of the recession, that his was the only business on his books that showed any significant signs of growth. ‘I had been making money and I felt that this had contributed. The growth of the business is helping to fund the investment in this new shop. But it isn’t just the money,’ he told me. ‘The principles that I had been able to try seemed to show me a way of having the values of my Catholic faith penetrate much more deeply than before the everyday activities of business.’

James is a Catholic convert of about 10 years. I had known him for several years because we both attended the London Oratory when I lived in London. We had had conversations about the Way of Beauty over the years, just as a result of staying in touch and his curiosity about what I was up to over here. At some point he started to ask me how he might introduce into what he was doing in his first shop. Even so, I was surprised to be asked recently to contribute so much to the new project.

So what has he done? As a starting point I suggested that whatever he does he constantly ask himself the question, is this beautiful? And to be prepared to go against the trend of modern design if necessary. I did offer some specific points:

  • The general layout is one that gives a general impression of symmetry and order. I suggested that he introduce some details of asymmetry. If it is too rigidly symmetrical it would be cold and sterile. He went directly against the advice of his retail designers here, who were recommending more sweeping and turning curves in the layout; and asymmetry ordered to the personal intuition of the designer. I suggest that the colour scheme should be based around natural earth colours if possible.
  • The clothes are presented on shelves and I suggested that the spacing of the shelves should not be even, but should vary so that the largest spacing is at the bottom and smallest at the top, mimicking the proportions of storey size in traditional architecture.
  • He has the natural beauty of plants in the shop too, either pot plants or cut flowers. Because there are people walking around the shop, this meant that he had to design into the layout spaces and shelves just for this purpose so that the arrangements could be placed without impeding the flow of people or the views of the clothes he was selling.
  • I told him to try to avoid pop or rock music and again, if you have music to opt for something that is beautiful. I am not completely against all pop music per se, but even good music that is designed for dancing at midnight is unlikely to promote calm and peace, which is what we were aiming for here. In the end James opted for no music at all. He was really sticking his neck out here. Almost all retailers install music systems and have background music constantly. The outfitters cite scientific studies that prove that when you play such music, people stay for a shorter period of time and buy more quickly. Also the staff initially wanted it too for their own entertainment. He is not certain he wants to maintain the silent vigil and is considering using classical music.
  • I felt it was important to have the face of Christ as a focus in the décor (a good principle for all main rooms in a building). In the end he bought a small icon of the mandylion and put it on the wall behind the till. This meant that every customer who went to the counter would see it. In his previous shop James put also a nativity scene in the window every Christmas and he intends to the same here. Aside from any thoughts about décor, he wanted to bear witness to his faith in an open, but quiet way.  Again, the advice of the professionals on this one was the exact opposit! It would offend and put off non-Christians he was told. He has had no complaints from customers since he did this, and several complementary remarks. Small children were pulling their parents into the shop as a result of the nativity in the window.
  • Finally, I had suggested that he pray the Liturgy of the Hours as part of his spiritual life and even if he couldn’t pray all the hours, try to mark each Office with a prayer of some sort. He might, I thought, consciously dedicate this prayer as a sacrifice for the well being of his employees and customers.

The photographs of the shop and are shown, so you can make your own mind up about the look. The shelves are solid oak veneer and the flooring is solid oak coupled with pure-wool carpeting.  The paintwork is all natural-pigment traditional paint (produced to re-create eighteenth-century decorative schemes). What strikes me is that although traditional proportions and materials have been used, it has a clean-cut modern look. This is not trying to recreate and Italian villa or a Georgian town house. The modifications are subtle.

Clearly,  using these high quality materials involves a greater outlay than the usual materials. He has now been going for about three months and when I spoke to him recently I was interested to know: did he feel the extra investment had been worthwhile?

‘The look of the place has had an impact. Several customers and other local retailers have complimented the shop actually using the word “beautiful”. For example I was at the local newsagents and the lady behind the till engaged me conversation. When she realized I was from the new Woodward Menswear she immediately told me that people had been saying to her how beautiful the shop was.

‘Many customers have told me how comfortable and inviting the shop is and one top-notch fellow fashion retailer said it was a really beautiful shop and “very calming”. What I find so interesting is that they can't really tell why it is. they respond to the overall look but they can't say why. I haven't made it look like a Victorian shop or anything, the look is similar in many respects to other shops, but the modifications are subtle. I think that unless it was pointed out to them, for example, they wouldn't know that the shelves are spaced differently to other places.’

And the bottom line?

‘It’s early days of course, but I am very pleased. We are already making as much money as my first shop, which I bought as a business of 30 years standing and have been running for several years. This is better than I had expected. Of course, these beautiful features are not the only thing that will be contributing to the business.  I have learnt a lot about retail while running my first shop and so have put many lessons in to practice in this second. I still had to get the location and the stock right along with all the other business variables. However, if it’s only for the comments and my own pleasure at working in such a lovely environment, I definitely feel that it has been worthwhile.’

What about the future? James pointed out to me that this was done on the basis of reading blog articles and an hour’s telephone conversation. He wants to know more about the Way of Beauty.

‘I am impressed by the impact that this has had and I get the feeling that I am scratching the surface here. I do my best but I don’t know much about the Liturgy of the Hours or how to pray it and I definitely could learn more about how these proportions are linked to the liturgy. I am planning on coming over to the creativity retreat at Thomas More College in New Hampshire in August. And I will probably pay a visit to the menswear shops in Boston while I’m here too, just to see how they do it over there!’

Clothes fit for a Church Father - Boethian proportions were used for the shelf spacing.