Luxury in store
What drives Selfridges, London?
From selling £105 ($130) Easter eggs to supporting NextGen designers, to creating the world’s largest accessories department – or just throwing a celebration of Shakespeare – Selfridges department store delivers. Managing director Anne Pitcher talked to K magazine about ‘retail theatre’ and how sustainability has become core to its business.
One evening in January, a collection of hip fashion types gathered amid the rails of edgy-looking sustainable clothing, in a beautifully decorated events space, found somewhere between the Muji concession and the Jasper Conran corner, at Selfridges & Co.
The London behemoth, which has been named by IGDS as Best Department Store in the World three years in a row, was celebrating the launch of its ninth annual Bright New Things showcase of next-generation sustainable designers. Designers selected for the showcase included Faustine Steinmetz, whose first collection was created in her kitchen on wooden hand looms; knitwear designer Katie Jones (who was awarded a bursary by Selfridges); and swimwear specialist, Auria which makes sustainable pieces from recycled fishing nets.
Sustainability isn’t a trend; it’s the exciting new standard for the fashion industry.
It’s small wonder that the emporium also won the IGDS World’s Best Sustainability Campaign by a Department Store in 2016. “Sustainability isn’t a trend; it’s the exciting new standard for the fashion industry. In 2016 our Bright New Things have shown us how it’s done, and we want to build on this in collaboration with our brand partners,” says Anne Pitcher who was promoted to managing director in 2011.
“Our aim was to build on our existing ‘Brights’ series with a platform for debate on the future of fashion, and opportunities for our team members and customers to engage on the issue – which they did,” claims Pitcher.
A brand new motor
Witness also the launch of its first sustainable car. Developed in collaboration with the legendary British sports car-maker Morgan, the zero emission electric three-wheeler is being delivered in a limited edition of 19, at a price of £52,500 ($65,000). Launched in September, the UK1909 (the year of birth of both the store and the marque) came with a charter, pledging the shop to become “the most sustainable business it can be.” The car was launched in conjunction with other classic British brands, including an Alexander McQueen driving scarf.
And in other ways, it is generally all go at the shop. This year, it opened a new 37,000 square foot (3,400 m2) Body Studio for lingerie; revamped the watches and jewellery Wonder Room; and even staged a play, as part of its Shakespeare reFashioned initiative (to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.) For this, the shop invited brands from Alexander McQueen which created the Shakespeare silk blouse, to Christopher Kane, to make Bard-inspired fashion designs, currently selling at the store.
The Shakespeare initiative has also inspired a series of window displays created by designers like Gareth Pugh whom the store interviewed about how the Bard has influenced his work. There are also musical events with young musicians reinterpreting his plays to sound.
But who is the biggest audience? “We welcome everyone,” says Pitcher. “This principle, championed by our founder Harry Gordon Selfridge from the very beginning, is the cornerstone of our approach.”
The store regularly welcomes new partners, like London College of Fashion, with which it is working closely on its Buying Better, Inspiring Change campaign, which is Selfridges’ pledge to purchasing more sustainably.
We’ve worked closely with LCF over the last year particularly, sharing knowledge on sustainability across our buying and creative teams.
The campaign began with a training programme by LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion (which Kering is partnering with) to ensure sustainability was “introduced into the buying conversation” and that its partners are ethical.
“With our on-going commitment to being the most sustainable business we can be, we also hope our customers are inspired when they visit our store and are engaged with our sustainability programmes, such as Project Ocean,” she says. She’s referring to an initiative to increase awareness of the harm caused by plastics, and to reduce plastics sold in store, like single-use drinks bottles which have disappeared from the store’s Foodhall.
“We’ve worked closely with LCF over the last year particularly, sharing knowledge on sustainability across our buying and creative teams and telling our customers more about the amazing sustainability stories from the brands and the products,” says Pitcher.
Sustainability is now an integral part of the company’s overall approach. “The role of business in society is changing: sustainability is no longer a bolt-on or a nice-to-have; it is integral to the success of any business. Our sustainability journey has become increasingly aligned with our business strategy and is now a core part of both what we do, and how we do it,” she says.
External discussions are changing. “Our buyers are asking our brand partners where and how products were made. We want to know more about the materials and the production conditions,” she adds.
The patrons are becoming more demanding too. “Our customers expect us to know where, how and who made their clothes and that the products they buy from us are made in a responsible way,” she says. “So we have high expectations to meet and we have an exciting opportunity to drive positive change in collaboration with all of our brands.”
At present the largest building site in London (with the possible exception of Crossrail), Selfridges is not resting on its laurels. Transforming its handbag department into the world’s largest accessories retail space is a case in point. Due to open in 2018, it will measure a whopping 60,000 square feet (5,600 m2), and include over 7,000 accessories.
As for being the best department store in the world, “We pride ourselves in delivering an extraordinary customer experience at the forefront of fashion,” Pitcher says. The shop “also puts retail theatre at the heart of everything we do, from dramatic windows and visual merchandising displays to daring plays. We seek to surprise, amaze and amuse our customers at all times and being located in a city such as London makes our store all the more a destination.”
Retailing the story
Selfridges has a long and colourful history of staging unexpected events and experiences. “Our founder Harry Gordon Selfridge was a pioneer in this area, and we continue to champion this”, she says. “Shakespeare is just one of the many examples of how we use our seasonal themes to making the store vibrant and exciting.”
Creativity is key. “In what other department store could you learn to act a soliloquy with a leading arts school such as RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], or see the latest releases from the cinema? Our store is the heart of our creative ethos and it continues to surprise our customers every time they come and visit us.”