Jan 13, 2015 Urban design
Haven’t they scrubbed up well? Auckland now has a genuine men’s fashion precinct.
There was a time, back in, oh, about 1999, when the dense little blocks around High St felt like the centre of the planet. We drank flat whites at Rakinos. We bought hoodies at Supreme, upstairs on Vulcan Lane, and “motorcycle” jeans at Workshop. We drank Long Island Ice Teas and ate French fries at the late, great Rosinis, and then we headed to The Box and stayed until the sun came up.
After a few years away, I’ve come back to High St — though I don’t stay until dawn. These days, I drink single-origin coffee at Chuffed. I like dinner at O’Connell Street Bistro, I buy my books from Unity — and I drink beer at Vultures Lane.
It’s always been a bit like that. The city’s hacks once met in the house bar of DeBrett’s hotel, though before that they drank in the Queens Ferry on Vulcan Lane, which was originally called Vultures Lane because of the prostitutes, bookies and lowlifes you could find there. A century later, the Coffee Bean Lounge was the centre of “youth culture”. DeBrett’s was once the city’s smartest hotel, and then it was a backpackers, and now… You see where I’m going with this, right?
Downtown Auckland was first mapped out by Felton Mathew in 1841. The government established itself up the hill around Princes St, though everything came in and out by ship down in Commercial Bay, which was later reclaimed. Shortland St linked the two and became the commercial centre for lawyers and traders; High St, O’Connell St and Vulcan Lane developed as service lanes.
Auckland grew. The great fire of 1858 destroyed most of the wooden buildings — they were rebuilt with their frontages onto Queen St, which was no longer an open festering sewer. There was another burst of building in the 1920s — mainly on O’Connell St — and since then… nothing. By one count, just 10 new buildings have been built in the area since World War II: the cheap rent and gracious buildings made it an ideal incubator for Auckland’s fledgling fashion industry.
Through the 90s, many of the city’s smartest names moved in, and they stayed through most of the 00s. In 2007, Michelle Deery and John Courtney bought DeBrett’s; they took two years to rebuild it, filling it with mid-century furniture and fragrant Ecoya candles. “We saw it all from a guest perspective,” says Deery, who had never worked in a hotel before she owned one. “And then we thought: what do we want in a city?”
Predictions of High St’s demise come often. Kate Sylvester, Zambesi and World moved to Britomart in 2011 and for a while the place felt a little forlorn. The southern end under Metropolis and the Victoria St carpark — council owned — is looking horrid. But at the northern end, Crane Bros with its delectable suits stayed, and so did Workshop with its divine denim. Three Wise Men and Nicholas Jermyn turned up to sell shirts, and Megs is there to shorten your trousers. There’s a very good cobbler just inside the door of Little High St. Overland has opened Merchant Man in the old Barkers premises and around the corner in O’Connell St, Strangely Normal is bursting with clothes of idiosyncratic flair.
Auckland found itself with a genuine men’s fashion quarter — and this year the precinct put a lock on the idea. Working Style, with its eye-catching off-the-rack and bespoke services, moved from the Chancery into a new flagship store on Shortland St, while Barkers moved its own HQ a few doors down High St and across to Number 1, where the clothes are complemented by a barista, barber and other services. Both shops have risen beautifully to the elegant challenge of the Georgian stonework in which they are housed.
Civic planning, to a degree, has followed right along. O’Connell St, our new favourite urban space, is now bustling with streetlife. True, High St remains jammed with cars, courtesy of the obstinacy of those shopkeepers who think their customers need to drive to the door. But that will change, because this precinct is too good not to keep improving.
It has intimacy and human scale. The light bounces off the sandstone façades and lands on the pavements in a particularly pleasing way. In these streets, you can see the kind of city Auckland was, and the kind of city it is on its way to becoming again.
Elsewhere: Can High St Be Saved? From 2012, Simon Wilson talks to retailers, landlords and councillors, all united in the aim of making High St cool again. The trouble is, they’re unable to agree how.