Until 2020 came along nothing in its 111-year history had forced Selfridges to shut its doors, except for World War II. Even then, however, the London department store shuttered for only one day in 1940 due to bomb damage. This March 18, before mandatory government edict required it, the management of Selfridges took the decision to turn off the lights. “Going home that day was very emotional, very hard,” says Sebastian Manes: “it hit me in the guts.”
Tomorrow, 89 days later, Selfridges Oxford Street will open for the first time since. June 15 is the first time “non-essential” stores in the UK have been allowed to operate since lockdown, and most of the biggest names in British multibrand retail—a newly refurbished and rebranded Liberty, John Lewis, Harrods—are poised for restart.
Manes joined Selfridges in 2003 and is now the company’s buying and merchandising director. Today we’re meeting up for a pre-reopening tour. The first big surprise is that the Food Hall is open to customers and has been for six weeks already as an “essential service.” What? This means I could have been eating London’s best Reubens all along! “We kept pretty quiet about it,” says Manes. “We opened to serve the local community and find out how best to operate.”
Seating marked with the advised British personal exclusion zone parameters.Courtesy of Selfridges
Many of the learnings gleaned in food have been translated into Selfridges’ other departments, where team leaders are busy briefing staff. There is plenty of cleaning going on to a soundtrack of George Michael. Hand sanitizer stations are everywhere, one-way paths have been put into place, and reminder signs of the current advised British personal exclusion zone—two meters—are impossible to escape. When customers, whose numbers will be limited to around 2,000 at any one time, begin arriving tomorrow, fragrance spritzing, massages, haircuts, and other close proximity transactions will be off the table. To travel between floors, customers will be directed to stand eight steps apart on newly marked escalators.
We swoosh up one of them and regard something wonderful: an item of beautiful clothing—a fringed Comme des Garçons biker. Manes observes that the “the only silver lining” of lockdown has been the performance of digital—sales have doubled year on year compared to 2019—but there is still plenty of spring 2020 left in the inventory.
As we get to the skate bowl in menswear—where only two-person sessions will be allowed for now—we run through the post COVID-19 changing room policy. If tried on, garments will be immediately steam cleaned. If items cannot be steam cleaned or wiped down they will be placed under quarantine for two days before returning to the shop floor.
Usually this is the week Selfridges puts these collections on sale, but that has been deferred until July 8. “There is a sustainability element to that decision,” says Manes. “You know the manifesto from Dries Van Noten? Well Selfridges was part of that. There is something interesting about the idea of being more aligned with the season. You would have a longer time to sell on the shop floor, which is good for the designers—there’s something healthy about it.”
One of many hand sanitizer dispensers stationed throughout the store.Courtesy of Selfridges
So why not keep spring in store for longer and hold back on the next round of collections—which are beginning to be delivered now, following delay—until they are weather-appropriate? “The challenge with that is that the global retailers are mostly already on markdown, and it is a very competitive world.” Without consensus across wholesale retail, it appears that the lockdown-fueled utopian notion of returning to seasonally appropriate selling will be undone by financial reality and the race to survive. Retail’s need to inject itself with turnover is more desperate than at any point in history.
As we hang by a Land Rover next to Off-White, Stussy, and Rhude, Manes says that while Selfridges’ menswear customers have continued, on lockdown, to demonstrate a keen appetite for streetwear the unsurprisingly dramatic shift amongst womenswear customers has been a collapse of sales of occasion wear—“because nobody had anywhere to go!” In footwear, however, sales have remained strong for fancy styles—apparently Manolo Blahnik has had an excellent run—which is a testament to the consolatory properties of a beautiful pair of shoes.
Tomorrow customers will take their first step back into Selfridges, and this place will start—very carefully—to buzz again.