Selfridges and the Art of Shopping
The story on London's famous department storeby Victoria Gill
Emile Zola famously proclaimed that department stores were cathedrals of the cult of consumerism, but Harry Gordon Selfridge ensured they became shining temples to retail theatre, too. The monolithic Oxford Street neoclassical masterpiece, a glittering icon of London’s West End, opened just over a century ago with a manifesto introducing ‘The Pleasures of Shopping.’
From Louis Bleriot’s record-breaking plane – the first to aviate the Channel – which was exhibited in store during the opening year to its showcasing of the first television and vacuum cleaner en route to the centenary celebrations of 2009, Selfridges has always championed the pioneering, the innovative, the extraordinary and the fantastical.
Possessing the largest window space in the world, Harry Gordon Selfridge was the first to arrange goods to tell stories through windows displays, the first to exhibit wares openly across the six floors, his customers the first to freely interact with the items for sale.
From Selfridges’ roof – transformed into everything from a sweeping ice rink to a pop up restaurant – to its basement (today home to the Ultralounge, the only permanent exhibition space within a department store in the world), the talent for curating every corner of this grand, rectangular emporium into curiosity and wonder is outstanding. Selfridges boasts ever-changing concept stores, themes and performances helmed by everyone from Noel Coward to Mario Testino; Mariah Carey to Tom Ford.
Recently unveiled were the Shoe Galleries – the largest women’s footwear department in the world – and the rangiest denim wall in Europe. Prior to these, in 2007, the Wonder Room (dedicated to fine jewellery and watches from Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Hermès and Chanel) launched, alongside the expanded menswear floor, home to the widest selection of men’s brands in the UK. All of which culminated in Selfridges being crowned the ‘Best Department Store in the World’ in 2010.
The carnival atmosphere triumphed when the store was made over to Las Vegas during Spring 2005, featuring David LaChapelle-designed neon windows with Pamela Anderson lounging on Liberace’s diamond-encrusted roadster and top class entertainment including the first performance by The Pussycat Dolls outside of the US.
Over the past decade Selfridges’ enduring spirit of theatre has seen the store transformed into a temple to the next big things – from China to Bollywood and, this year, sustainability, in the form of ‘Project Ocean,’ the May inauguration of which featuring windows devoted to the wonders of the sea, everlasting commitment to only stock sustainable fish and giant balloon installation by maverick artist Jason Hackenwerth in the Central Atrium.
British designer Katharine Hamnett unveils a specially-designed capsule collection for the initiative, while down in the Ultralounge, a series of rare coral-filled fish tanks has been installed, a sublime backdrop to the roster of talks and debates helmed by marine experts and celebrity speakers.
Harry Gordon Selfridge’s mission to “encourage every sign of the true spirit” is still every bit as vivid today as a century ago. The great retail pioneer was also keenly aware that, “The recollection of quality remains long after the price is forgotten.”
Take in the exotic scents of the perfume department, watch TV over a flute of something exquisite in Personal Shopping while an in-house style guru does the groundwork for you, or sample fine vintages from the ‘Wine Jukebox’ of the Wonder Bar. Selfridges is the destination in which Londoners and visitors steal blissful afternoons cosseted by Jil Sander’s billowing silks and beautiful tea dresses by Jonathan Saunders.
Emerging expertly groomed from Cobella’s VIP Express Zone or Gentlemen’s Tonic, furnished with future classics, one never fails to leave Selfridges invigorated, inspired and ready to take on the world.
Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB. Tel. +44 (0)800 123 400
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