Liberty of London’s Ed Burstell Talks Retailing

In a conversation with Beauty Inc editor Jenny B. Fine, the retailer's managing director shared his favorite off-beat retailers and views on stores as bores.

Ed Burstell wants to banish the banal.

This story first appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At least in terms of retail. He’s using his position as managing director of Liberty of London, and the store as a platform to do just that.

In a conversation with Beauty Inc editor Jenny B. Fine, Burstell shared his favorite off-beat retailers and views on stores as bores.

“Make sure anything you do has some original thought,” said Burstell, who doubled the retailer’s beauty volume from 10 million pounds, or $15.1 million at current exchange, to 20 million pounds, or $30.2 million, in four years. “At Liberty, we try to make sure we have a more democratic allocation of space so a smaller brand won’t get completely overwhelmed. We do a lot of work with a lot of independent parties.”

Burstell’s besties are all located in East London, an area that’s attracted a fair share of artists and designers over the last 10 to 15 years. “If you’re young and cool, you’re in East London doing your own thing,” said Burstell, noting that the artists were followed by several retailers. “The big brands are not there yet. I hope they don’t get there because a big piece of this will be gone.”

Included on Burstell’s list of favorites is Boxpark Shoreditch, a pop-up mall that’s actually a freight container planted in an empty field. Burstell said he appreciates House of Hackney’s nonconformist approach to traditional wares such as furniture, fabric, wallpaper, lighting and clothing. “Everything at the LN-CC store is chosen, curated and presented as if it’s art,” Burstell said of the Dalston shop. “Service is by appointment.”

“So, this individualism and creativity stands in marked contrast to what we’re seeing in the department store model,” Fine said. “The phrase that you like to use is, ‘the culture of sameness,’ especially vis-à-vis the concession model.”

“I certainly understand the argument that a brand wants global consistency,” Burstell said. “I understand the other half of the argument that a store wants to keep its own DNA. Sometimes what happens is a store can’t get these brands so it has to agree to a concession model. What happens is all the boxes start to look the same.

“What really bothers me is when it becomes just a real estate conversation. Are you a store with an edit and a focus or are you just a street with a roof?” he asked rhetorically.

“How do you get the buy-in from brands?” Fine asked. “I do think there’s a hybrid model,” Burstell said, admitting, “I have concessions as well. I had to learn is there’s a concession culture in England. You can either accept it or have the conversation with the brands about creating a hybrid model.”

Examples of Liberty’s unique shops include Diptyque, which has a Sixties feel, and Bobbi Brown, who used a royal crest in the window and created a flag out of lipstick pieces. A living Aveda counter is coming in November. The brand does 750,000 pounds, or $1.13 million, at Liberty.

“Are brands willing to engage in this conversation with you?” Fine asked. “Some yes, some no,” said Burstell. “There have been plenty that said, ‘This is our look, this is the way we do business.’”

Liberty has collaborated with Hermès, Manolo Blahnik and Levi’s, but beauty brands have been late to the game. “We need to be in this business [beauty] in a really big way,” Burstell said. “We have several conversations going on right now.”