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Letter From London

Can life get any more bleak on this chilly island? Gastropubs and restaurants across the U.K. are folding by the day, and divorces are rising.

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LONDON — Can life get any more bleak on this chilly island?

Gastropubs and restaurants across the U.K. are folding by the day, while the likes of KFC, Subway and Dominos plan to open 1,000 new fast-food outlets by next year. Divorces are on the rise: For every 10 percent fall in house prices, an extra 5 percent of couples will break up, according to a recent study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. By next year, house prices are expected to have fallen 41 percent from their peak in 2007, pawnbrokers are doing a roaring trade and shopping has taken on a whole new meaning. Supermarkets are the new outlets for retail therapy, offering cheap thrills and comfort in the form of custard powder and frozen food for locals who are increasingly choosing to hunker down at home.

The outlook isn’t good: The British economy is expected to shrink by as much as 4 percent this year, with unemployment rising to 11 percent by 2010. Forecasters are predicting no economic recovery until the second half of 2010. The newspapers here are running wild with comparisons to Seventies Britain, with its wildcat strikes, banking crises, power cuts and three-day workweeks — and the mood among the natives is subdued to say the least. The Economist recently ran an essay listing possible nicknames for London these days, settling on “Greenland-on-Thames” to sum up the capital’s perilous financial state.

If there was ever a time for tourists to snag a last-minute table at Scott’s, pay 12 pounds, or $17, for lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant, ferret out a fabulous designer vintage dress or land a discounted room at the Ritz, the moment is now.

And yet, as London Fashion Week winds down, there remains a subtle optimism and quiet excitement over what might lie ahead. People in the arts, fashion and finance have already glimpsed a future of a more earnest, grounded Britain driven by grit and creativity rather than cash. According to a recent report by The Financial Times, the country that will emerge from the crisis will be a far humbler place than it was over the past 10 years, with lower house prices, a leaner financial services industry, higher borrowing costs and more manufacturing and exports.

“The great thing about London now is that the answers are all right there in front of us,” said Roland Mouret, who thinks young designers especially have new opportunities at their feet. He believes they should leapfrog over the middlemen and approach their customers directly.

“It’s the concept of a Camden Market for the 21st century. Don’t forget that Mrs. B. [Joan Burstein, the owner of designer retailer Browns] started with a market stall, and Preen began selling its collection at Portobello [Market],” he said. “Young designers could even link together to sell their collections and get support from magazines like Grazia or Elle.”

Julien Macdonald also sees new opportunities in fashion, especially at the vintage level. “I think a new ‘make do and mend’ subculture will evolve, where we’ll be hunting for bargains, mixing vintage with new clothing — and recycling. These times will bring out experimentation and the eccentric in all of us.”

Vintage store Rellik on Golborne Road is currently packed with designer clothes from the Eighties — Claude Montanas, Thierry Muglers, Azzedine Alaïas, Bob Mackies and Halstons. A spokeswoman there said the effect of the credit crunch so far is that “good stuff — and designer labels especially — is selling very, very quickly.”

 

 



Fashion isn’t the only industry that’s headed back to basics. The art world has long been overdue for a reality check, and that’s just what’s happening. These days, many a London gallerist is sighing with relief at not having to throw big opening parties. One gallerist is saving more than $250,000 a year by switching from posh, printed invitations to e-vites.

“I hope I get to see the art again,” said Gregor Muir, director of Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery and the author of “Lucky Kunst” (Aurum), about the wild lives of the Young British Artists in the Nineties, who coincidentally gained their foothold during Britain’s last big recession. “Certain openings and events had become so incredibly social, I hope to see a return to focus on the art.”

Michael Hue-Williams, whose Albion gallery has outposts in London and New York, agreed: “Every time it was a different crowd that came to the parties, and the next day I would think to myself, ‘Who were those people?’ ”

He said he’s also looking forward to a shakeout among the artists themselves. “What we’re going to see is a separation between truly talented artists and the not-so-talented ones who were carried along by the tide,” he said.

Muir is also musing about what will happen to slack space, empty property like warehouses and factories that artists, students or budding entrepreneurs tend to colonize during hard times. Damien Hirst and the YBAs used an empty building in Southeast London to stage their first show, Freeze, in 1988 while the Roundhouse, now a major arts venue in north London, was once an unused former storehouse for steam engines.

“Traditionally, artists have benefited from slack space because it allows them to produce and exhibit cheaply, and it gives them much needed exposure,” said Muir. However, he believes the silver lining can only stretch so far. “Without question, this crisis is going to be painful for everyone — artists, public institutions and galleries alike.”

Part of the entertainment business, too, could be headed for a shake-up.

While theaters in the West End are proving resilient so far — box office takings were 3 percent higher year-on-year in 2008 — there are some who believe change is in the air. “One hopes the theater will be used as a forum for protest, and that it will become the theater of the people,” said the agent and film producer Charles Finch, chairman and chief executive of Finch & Partners. “When there’s no money around, you find alternative ways of performing, turn to smaller venues and deal with subjects that are more political.”

However, Finch believes the arts are quite probably the most robust of all during a downturn. “Literature, independent movies and the theater have such a bloody hard time of it anyway — and they didn’t deserve any of this,” he said. “They never, ever lived high on the hog, so they have a certain resilience to adversity.”