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LONDON — Three hundred years ago, when America was a part of the British colonies and tea had yet to be shipped to Boston harbor, the legendary London food emporium Fortnum & Mason was opening its doors on Piccadilly.
It sold such goodies as butter, fruitcake, stuffed roast chicken, cheese and meat pies. Thanks to its co-founder William Fortnum’s position as footman in the household of Queen Anne, the grocer even supplied goods to the royal family’s kitchens.
So it was only fitting that Prince Charles was guest of honor at the private anniversary party Fortnum’s threw last month to mark three centuries in business and a 24 million pound, or $50.4 million, face-lift.
The store, which has been owned by the Weston family — who also owns Selfridges and Holt Renfrew — since the Fifties, has finally shed its quaint but fusty skin and entered into 21st-century retailing.
And while Fortnum’s has always been famous for its afternoon tea in one of its restaurants, luscious picnic hampers and luxury food offerings it was never exactly known for its beauty and fashion offer. Until today, those departments seemed stuck in the Fifties, with threadbare carpets, handbags and soaps fit for grannies — and a lack of buzz.
But that’s all changing: Fortnum’s has spent two million pounds, or $4.2 million, revamping the women’s floor, with beauty treatment rooms, an exclusive Caron fragrance counter, and an accessories department offering brands such as Anya Hindmarch, Philip Treacy, Celine, Michael Teperson, Lulu Guinness Couture and Missoni.
“We wanted to create a boudoir, luxury environment that wasn’t obviously full of brand names. We wanted to let the products — rather than the brand fixtures — talk,” said Emma Wrigley, trading director, during a walk-through of the vast floor.
Fortnum’s staff gutted the place: They tore up the old, eau de nil carpeting, pulled out the ceilings and the old shop fits and let in all the natural light. The new floor is bright, open and set up like a luxury bazaar, with cream carpets and glass tables offering up products ranging from jewelry to fragrances to beaded pashminas.
After years of trying to compete with the likes of Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the designer stores in nearby Bond Street, in 2005, Fortnum’s decided to stop carrying men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, and to focus on gifts and accessories. “We’re not a huge shop, and we’re more about the luxury gift purchase anyway. We’d rather focus on that than compete as a full department store,” said Wrigley.
In the beauty and skin care part of the women’s floor, the mustiness has been replaced with hard-to-find fragrances, including scents by Bond No. 9, Clive Christian, Micallef and Lorenzo Villoresi.
“It’s all about elegance and indulgence,” said beauty and fragrance buyer Kathryn Catanzaro. To wit, there is a large, Art Deco-inspired Caron counter featuring fragrance fountains near the elevators.
While scent is front and center, skin care and color lines by Sisley, Guerlain, Chanel and Dior, among others, are on offer, too. There are also some touches harking back to bygone eras, like dressing table accessories by Lady Primrose.
“We want people to come in and not just to see boxes and bottles, but to treat the experience as a discovery of indulgence and femininity,” said Catanzaro.
In addition, there is a suite of beauty rooms offering treatments by brands including La Prairie, Stoke Park Club and Aromatherapy Associates. Treatments devised by beauty therapist Jackie Denholm Moore, manicurist Sophy Robson and foot-care expert Margaret Dabbs are also available.
“We wanted customers to feel like they’re walking through a door to an intimate private home,” said Catanzaro of the treatment space’s atmosphere.