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Destinations · Europe · united kingdom · London · Where to shop · Best Department Store

Selfridges

Author: Anothertravelguide.com1 COMMENT

Selfridges

If you had to name one thing that is discussed as passionately over dinner as the latest Iphone or Ipad model, then that would probably be the shop windows at Selfridges. Regardless of whether a new fashion season or discount sale has begun, the new shop window designs at Selfridges are always a topic of conversation. From the very beginning, they have always told a story that extends beyond the straightforward goal of attracting customers, while simultaneously being effective at doing just that. Since Selfridges is located in one of the busiest parts of London on Oxford Street, millions of people walk past the store's shop windows every week, with many more glancing at them through from passing cars and double-decker city buses. It is hard to imagine a better way to reach the public. In any case, the most widely circulated newspapers and magazines might have fewer readers than the streams of passers-by whose attention Selfridges manages to attract.

Over the years, Selfridges has cooperated with well-known artists, photographers, magazine editors, social movement activists and other prominent personalities in the design of its shop windows. In 2011, for example, the store drew viewers' attention with the pressing environmental question: "No more fish in the sea?" In cooperation with the Ocean Project, the goal was to get people to think about the damage that humans have inflicted upon the world's oceans through their greed and short-sightedness.

On another occasion in 2003, the store marked the beginning of the winter sales season together with American artist Barbara Kruger, who transformed Selfridges' shop windows into an ironic criticism of our entrenched consumer culture, incorporating various wise quotations into the window design. One of these was a sentence written by American author Edgar Allan Poe in The Man of the Crowd: "He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare."

Selfridges is also known for another longstanding tradition, the Bright Young Things project, under which 15 talented youths in the fields of fashion, the arts, design and gastronomy are assigned with the task of designing the store's shop windows. Selfridges' shop windows are meant to inform, entertain, incite one to think seriously or occasionally to smile, and even to provoke. All this, of course, with the ultimate goal of drawing the masses into the store's premises, and few are as skilful at this task as Selfridges.

Selfridges' department store stage antics were initially thought out by the store's founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge, a masterful director in his day and age. He was a passionate American full of crazy ideas who married an English wife and moved to London. Born in the State of Wisconsin, Selfridge was already a rich man when he first visited the British capital in the early 1900s. He had made a fortune by revolutionizing the way that things were done at the famous Marshall Field department store in Chicago. For example, one of his ideas was to light up the store at night, after closing hours.

Strolling through the streets of London, Selfridge was allegedly shocked at the non-descript, badly lit and boring shop windows of London's stores. He founded Selfridges & Co in 1906 and chose to set it up on Oxford Street, a not overly popular location at the time. Three years later, the new Neoclassical edifice that housed the store opened its doors to the public. Among Selfridge's innovations was a beauty department on the ground floor, which worked well at masking the smell of manure from his customers' horse-drawn carriages.

Selfridges' fame spread far and wide. At one point, it housed what was then the largest bookstore in the world, as well as the first store department devoted to dogs. From the very beginning, the store's shop windows played a major role in Selfridge's "sales theatre", featuring all kinds of crowd-gathering attractions, including tango dancers. When French pilot Louis Blériot became the first man to fly over the English Channel in 1909, his miniature airplane was exposed for four days in a Selfridges shop window, drawing 150,000 viewers.

The founder had various ambitious goals, one of which was to ensure that any fresh and new product would be sold at Selfridges first. Selfridge coined up numerous sayings that have since become the stuff of legend, including "The customer is always right" and "I am prepared to sell anything, from airplanes to cigars". During the First World War, when women began to assume positions that had previously occupied by men who were busy fighting at the front, Selfridge simply said: "Business as usual." In other words, the store would continue to remain open and adapt, no matter what the situation.

In 1922, more than 15 million customers made purchases at the store. As a colourful personality, Selfridge was a darling of the local press, supposedly tipping his hat in the mornings to customers who were waiting in line for his store to open. However, the millionaire merchant also had some serious weaknesses, namely a strong penchant for the night life, women and gambling. These led him into massive personal debts, including to his own store. He was eventually compelled to go into retirement in 1939 at the age of 83, retaining the honourable title of President. The man who had turned shopping into a form of mass entertainment died peacefully in his sleep eight years later, aged 91. That was in 1947, when London experienced the coldest winter on record, suffered from frequent power shortages, and when not very many people had shopping on their minds.

In 1951, Selfridges was sold by the founder's heirs and subsequently changed hands several times. A bomb exploded in the store in 1974, wounding several people, but in accordance with one of Selfridge's mantras, business continued as usual. During the 1980s, Selfridges became the first British department store to advertise itself on television, and experienced a second revival when Vittorio Radice took over the reigns for six years, from 1998-2003. Radice was a true sales guru, claiming that "shopping is entertainment. It's not just about the product, but about the smile, the packaging, the whole ambience."

Selfridges' yellow shopping bags practically became status symbols on London city streets, and the store's most flamboyant shop window projects were reported on in all of the news media. Currently Selfridges belongs to the English-born and Canadian-based billionaire W. Galen Weston, who owns an entire empire of luxury department stores. Last year, Selfridges was recognized as the World's Best Department Store for the second time in its history, and despite the recession that Europe is currently experiencing, ended the year with a turnover increase of five percent and earnings of 1.6 billion British pounds.

Incidentally, this January, the TV series Mr Selfridge made its debut in London, to great acclaim. It is the screen version of Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge, a biography that Lindy Woodhead wrote in 2007. The series has enjoyed a record viewing audience, with each episode watched by an average of 8.5 million people. Consequently, filming has already begun for the second season, which is to be aired next year.

In order to demonstrate that Selfridges hasn't lost touch with current events and that it has maintained a healthy ability to poke fun at itself and at us all - the obsessed victims of a mass consumer culture - the store recently opened a Silent Room. Apparently, something of the sort had already existed in Selfridges' time. Customers are invited to take off their shoes, switch off their cellular phones and spend some time in peace and quiet, in a world that - just like Selfridges itself - is overloaded with a cacophony of information and visual stimuli.

Along the same lines, a Quiet Shop featuring "de-branded" products has also been opened, inducing customers not to go overboard with their shopping and deriding society's widespread obsession with brand names. Obviously, this is an intelligently set trap and one might just as well fall into it, because one is bound to do so in any case as soon as one crosses the threshold of this legendary department store.

400 Oxford Street, Marylebone
www.selfridges.com

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