LONDON — Selfridges is subtly reinventing itself yet again, tweaking its offerings and layout to appeal to customers’ evolving tastes.
The store has invested $20 million in a new project called the Wonder Room, a luxury lifestyle emporium that will offer merchandise such as cult toys, cigars, mobile phones, jewelry and wine. The space, which spans about 20,000 square feet on the ground floor, will open at the end of August. It will take over what is currently the men’s accessories area.
“It will be filled with wondrous gifts,” said the store’s creative director Alannah Weston. “There will be items on sale from 8 pounds, or $16, to 8,000 pounds, $16,000 — wine and diamond necklaces, books and Birkin bags. But it’s not going to be like a museum. I want it to be accessible and to keep that Selfridges energy.”
The room will also showcase its namesake, the Wunderkammer: The walls will be lined with cabinets of curiosities, artifacts, ephemera, and even art projects.
Weston said the concept of the Wonder Room is playing into a new retail model that has emerged over the past few years.
“The retail pyramid has become a figure eight. It used to be good at the bottom of the pyramid, better and then best at the top. What we’ve found, though, is that the luxury end — and the accessible products — are doing well. People are buying Chanel — and Primark,” she said, referring to the mass market British retailer.
Since the mid-Nineties, when Vittorio Radice took over the store management, Selfridges has been a retail pioneer, known for tapping into consumers’ emotions and getting them wrapped up in the retail experience.
Radice turned the ground floor of Selfridges into a luxury marketplace, with shop-in-shops for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci and Dior arranged around a central “courtyard” where items are displayed as casually as fruits and vegetables at a traditional street vendor.
Radice also introduced major, in-store themed events — Bollywood, Tokyo Life, Bodycraze and Brazil 40 degrees. The events featured specialty food, entertainment, merchandise, and showcased new design talent.
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Weston, who took over as creative director in 2004 after her family’s firm purchased Selfridges, has since taken the retailer in a different, more cerebral direction. She has chosen to focus on modern and contemporary art, both as an inspiration and added value for consumers. She also sees it as an engine driving footfall.
Weston put an end to the major, themed events, and has introduced smaller happenings throughout the year. “Luminous,” a sound-and-light installation by Brian Eno, is currently showing in Selfridges’ Ultralounge lower ground floor performance area.
In the past, Weston has commissioned artists including Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood and Antony Gormley to create Christmas wrapping paper, and has called in contemporary Chinese artists to design the store’s windows.
Her next major project at the store revolves around surrealism. From March 16 through April 29, the store will explore the influence of the movement on contemporary art and design. The Selfridges project will run in tandem with the Victoria and Albert exhibition “Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design,” which kicks off on March 29 and runs until the end of July.
Weston has commissioned design houses including John Galliano, Viktor & Rolf, Maison Martin Margiela, and Moschino to create a surrealist world in each of the store’s windows. Swiss minimalist designer Rolf Sachs will also be designing a window and creating product for the Surrealist shop in the store’s basement. Dadadandy, a two-man company that creates and curates exhibitions, will make a gigantic eyeball to hang over the store’s Oxford Street entrance, and come up with surrealist poetry for the cash register receipts.
Weston believes in the power of art within Selfridges’ environment.
“It’s inspiring. It captures the imagination, and makes people remember Selfridges as an extraordinary place to visit,” she said. “It also creates a narrative: People come to the shop and then tell their friends about it. It has a ripple effect and gets us to a wider audience.”
In addition to adapting to the figure eight retail model, and continuing to weave art into the merchandise mix, Weston and her team have been working on other fronts. The new men’s wear department on the first floor will be unveiled in May, and the idea is to make it a one-stop shop, with clothing, shoes and accessories. Selfridges believes it will be the biggest men’s store in the world.
“I think the way men shop in London is probably quite different from the way they shop in any other city. They’re not afraid of fashion here, they’re crazy for bags, shoes, and beauty products. It’s a sector to watch, and the U.K. is leading the way,” Weston said.
The women’s designer floor will be completed in the fall. There, the Selfridges team has been peeling away layers of plaster and carpeting to reveal the store’s original windows, ceilings and parquet floors. The result is a cleaner, brighter space that’s easier to navigate.
The overall idea, Weston said, is to give Selfridges a better organization. “It’s about connecting the dots,” she said, “and helping the customer to flow from one department to the next.”