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December 05, 2016

It’s 11 a.m. in London’s historically well-to-do St. James’s district and I’m about to transform my grizzled appearance. My unkempt beard has been clinging to my face like a bedraggled hedgehog for several weeks – just ask my girlfriend – and it’s about time I smartened up.


But since I’m visiting a celebrated barbershop with a regal provenance -- Truefitt & Hill holds a Royal Warrant from the Duke of Edinburgh – I’m veering towards a blue-blooded approach. “I think ‘the Edwardian’ would look very smart on you,” says in-house grooming expert Stephen Wild as he ushers me into a waiting chair.


Royal Warrants started in medieval times as a way to recognize those providing goods and services to the Royal Family. By the 18th century, these prestigious businesses – including Truefitt & Hill (which was granted its first warrant by George III) – began prominently displaying royal coats of arms, enabling them to proclaim their exalted designations to all.


It’s this ultimate stamp of approval that makes my beard trim extra special. And although Prince Phillip isn’t in the chair alongside me today (a Truefitt barber regularly visits him at nearby Buckingham Palace instead), I’m keen to embrace a regal new look. Royal portraits on the walls here show that ‘the Edwardian’ – tapering the sides to a point at the chin and sharply twizzling the ends of the moustache – was once the only way to sport a beard.


But it isn’t just a look from the past. My highly skilled Truefitt beard wrangler Jason tells me that he’s increasingly asked to fashion this neat and tidy style for younger beardies. Perhaps it’s a reaction against the unwieldy hipster beard that’s been ubiquitous in recent years.


It doesn’t take long for my chiseled new look to emerge. And although my moustache isn’t quite long enough for a full twirly flourish, Jason shows me how to do it myself later with some moustache wax, which I collect from Stephen on the way out.


With my newly-fashioned majestic look in place, I’m ready to explore some of the other Royal Warrant holders that have made St. James’s and its surrounding streets one of London’s classiest shopping districts. First, I nip into bespoke shoe store John Lobb, finding a dark, museum-like interior where dainty shoes for Queen Victoria were once fashioned.


But it’s at warrant-holder Charbonnel et Walker, located in the handsome, aptly named Royal Arcade, where I make my first purchase. This royal-approved chocolatier displays gold-trimmed boxes of decadent treats alongside a glass cabinet brimming with individual temptations. I sample a soft and sumptuous champagne truffle and immediately buy a small box for my girlfriend – although, if she’s reading this, all I can do is apologize that they never actually made it home.


Back on the street, I weave towards Fortnum & Mason. Perhaps the area’s most famous Royal Warrant shop, this 1707-founded department store offers several floors of deluxe retailing. I peruse some charming cufflinks in the menswear department, then descend to the bustling basement food hall with my royal shopping list.


I buy some anchovy-flavoured Fortnum’s Relish in a signature eau de nil blue-green coloured pot. But when it comes to booze, I eschew the US$5,000 bottle of Ne Oublie port and plump instead for a US$450 magnum of champagne to sip on the way home (just kidding).


Next door, though, I open my wallet again. Founded in 1797, Hatchards is London’s oldest bookstore and the holder of three Royal Warrants. I soon find volumes on George III and Edward VII – although no one here seems to notice how much I resemble their cover portraits – but the book I buy is The Royal Rabbits of London. It might not aid my quest to be discovered as a long lost Royal Family member, but I’m pretty sure my girlfriend will love it.


- John Lee