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Inside the World of Ed Burstell

Burstell has transformed Liberty of London into one of the world’s most-watched retail happenings.

On a brilliantly sunny Tuesday afternoon in New York City, in between running from one fashion show to another, Ed Burstell bursts through the glass doors of Trish McEvoy’s East 57th Street offices, shattering the chic calm within, all white Barcelona chairs and polished ebony floors and elegant orchids, with a loud, “Hiya! How are you doing, dear?”

In one hand, he carries his lunch—spinach salad and a diet Snapple peach tea; in the other, a battered black Prada tote that serves as his moving office. Behind him follows a three-person camera crew, there to record his every move for a follow-up to the hit documentary, Liberty of London, which aired last year in the U.K. and is now filming season two. Reportedly BBC America is in talks to air the show, a veritable retail master class, in the U.S.

Burstell wolfs down half his salad, flosses his teeth, then makes a grand reentry, this time with the cameras rolling.

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Burstell is the managing director of Liberty, and the star of the show—in more ways than one. Since joining Liberty six years ago as buying director (he was promoted to his current position in 2010), he has brought the 140-year-old retailer, once best known for its colorful floral fabrics, back to profitability and relevance in one of the most competitive markets on earth—London.

“The transformation he has undertaken at Liberty is, directionally, a game changer,” says John Demsey, group president of the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., who has known Burstell for more than two decades. “In the way he approaches fashion, discovering new talent, his embrace of artisanal fragrances, establishing new beauty archetypes—he sees the future and gives it room and space to grow. He is a real merchant.”

“Ed is one of those people who has this unbelievable creative side with a really balanced business side,” says Sharon Collier, the chief executive officer of Cover FX, who Burstell says “discovered” him when she was the beauty department manager at Neiman Marcus in Westchester and he was the counter manager for Estée Lauder—and highest-producing sales associate in beauty. “He is extreme as far as the creative side goes and being able to identify new trends and opportunities. That is unique.”

Back in the Trish McEvoy offices, both sides, the analytical and intuitive, are on full display, as Burstell takes a seat, idly starts playing with some makeup and gets down to business.

“So, Ed, what have you been up to?” McEvoy asks him.

“Fashion week—one show after another,” says Burstell in his trademark nasal New Yorkese. (His most-used retort when people comment on his newfound TV celeb status is “With this voice—can you believe it?!”)

“I wanted to catch up with you guys to figure out how to do something explosive. I didn’t think the business would be as big as it is,” he continues. “I thought it would be about 500,000 a year,”—he’s talking pounds—“you said 750,000 and now it’s at a million. How do we get it to a million two?

“We’ve never done a personal appearance with you,” he says, unfurling a floor plan of Liberty. “I was thinking department takeover.”

For the next 20 minutes, McEvoy and Burstell volley logistical details back and forth, from how long she needs with each client (45 minutes rather than the 30 that Burstell initially suggests) to how many cash register–ringers should be on hand (two). They oohh and aahh over a Liberty-print makeup planner that McEvoy has created for the holidays. “If we do 250 makeovers and everybody buys a planner, that’s 25,000 pounds,” Burstell calculates.

“If they buy a skin-care set, too, it’ll be closer to 40,000” shoots back McEvoy. They talk flowers, lighting, cocktails and fragrances, then it’s time to move on. Another fashion show beckons.

That hands-on approach is trademark Burstell, the key to what drives both his longevity as a retailer and the remarkable success he’s had at Liberty, where sales for the year ended February 2014 were 125 million pounds, about $204.3 million at current exchange rates. The store, a historic Tudor edifice on Regent Street, rang up about $130.8 million, versus $62.1 million in 2009. Liberty’s Web site had sales of about $8.2 million and its wholesale business rang up $65.4 million. For the same period, beauty accounted for about $36 million, or 27 percent, of overall store sales, and 20 percent of e-commerce sales, about $1.6 million. In 2009, Liberty’s beauty sales were just $13 million. (Burstell oversees all retail, marketing, image-related and buying functions, as well as the Liberty of London brand.)

“I love looking at products. I love going to showrooms. I love going on appointments. I still want to get my hands dirty,” says Burstell. “You’ve got something you think you can show me, I’ll see you,” he continues. “It must be one of the most intimidating things, someone with a great product standing outside a store, thinking, ‘How am I going to get in?’ We let them in.”

Bringing in newness and innovation is the core tenet of Burstell’s strategic vision for Liberty, one that is antithetical to the prevailing retail model in much of Europe and, increasingly, America. “From the top down, my job is to make sure that every floor looks like it was edited and focused and bought with one eye. I’m not a big advocate of concession models. A store is also a brand—Liberty is a brand with a very distinct and unusual DNA,” he says. “That would be eroded if you were just renting out space.”

“So much of retail today has become standardized, run by reports and numbers and trends on paper,” says Heidi Manheimer, the chief executive officer of Shiseido Cosmetics America, who met Burstell when both were young buyers at Bloomingdale’s in the late Eighties. “Ed is the most un-retail retail person I know. He’s always been jazzed by the product and the in-store experience. From the beginning, he came at it from the consumer’s point of view of the product and the experience.”

Makeup artist Bobbi Brown first met Burstell around 1994, when she was launching her fledgling line at Henri Bendel, her brand’s second account. “Ed is not someone who says, ‘Here’s a tiny space on the counter, you are lucky to be here.’ Instead, he asks ‘What opportunities do we have?’ and he takes it from there,” she says. “He sees the products as what they are and how they will look on the counter and how the consumer will experience it. Many retailers have so many big initiatives they are working on they don’t stop to look at the details. Ed looks at all of that.”

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Burstell’s pursuit of new and unusual resources has been instrumental to Liberty’s turnaround, drawing in the much-coveted Millennials. “When I started, there was one revenue stream—a customer who had been there for a long time and was maturing. She’s a little bit older and she likes things that are print-based,” he says. Six years later, that customer now represents about 50 percent of Liberty’s business, while a younger, hipper, more fashion-forward shopper comprises 30 percent, attracted by brands Burstell has added such as Alexander Wang, Stella McCartney and 3.1 Phillip Lim in fashion, and Byredo, Surratt and Hourglass in beauty. The remaining 20 percent is tourist trade, of which half comes from other parts of the U.K.

Burstell’s impact on beauty has been significant. He likes to say he and his team, Gina Ritchie, head of beauty and accessories, and Sarah Coonan, beauty buyer, have doubled the space and tripled the sales. Today, the 5,000-square-foot space has productivity of about $7,200 per square foot.

No wonder. Beauty, after all, is a category Burstell knows intimately. Collier made him her assistant at Neiman Marcus. (“He took a huge pay cut,” she remembers with a laugh. “I told him sometimes you have to take a step back to take lots of steps forward.”) He then became an assistant buyer at Bonwit Teller, a buyer at Bloomingdale’s and then the cosmetics and fragrance buyer at Henri Bendel. By the time he left there for Bergdorf Goodman in 2005, he was the store’s vice president and general merchandise manager.

Burstell’s experience at each retailer is evident in how he approaches running his business today. His time behind the counter instilled in him an absolute allegiance to the customer. “A selling philosophy starts with how you talk to a customer. That defines everything from the bottom up,” he says. “If you don’t understand the bottom up, it’s not going to work from the top down.” Burstell delights in recalling the launch of Estée Lauder’s autobiography at Bonwit Teller, when Lauder walked through the front door, took hold of his arm and headed straight to the counter to meet her public. “She was devoted 100 percent to her customers,” he says. “What a lesson.”

In fact, one of the biggest hurdles Burstell has faced in his turnaround plan is instilling a service culture at Liberty, located in a country better known for its British reserve than service with a smile. “Compared to American service, it is still quite lacking,” he says, bemoaning the absence of dry-cleaner deliveries in London. “So we just pound away at the basics, when someone knows as much as they possibly can about what they’re going to sell you. We are there to facilitate customers around the department with ease, be knowledgeable but not pushy, you know? There are none of me there,” he guffaws, ending the thought with a laugh as he often does. “That won’t happen. But there will be a conversation about ingredients.”

From Bloomingdale’s and Bendel’s, Burstell took away the importance of events, of happenings, of being the retail ringmaster of a desire-driven circus. “If you have a smaller footprint of a store, you have to animate it,” he says, recalling raucous MAC events at Bendel’s, where anyone from RuPaul to Charlie’s Angels would turn up to see and be seen. Parties and personal appearances are now standard operating procedure at Liberty, like a bash for editor Katie Grand and Love magazine, where Beth Ditto performed. “She brought the house down,” Burstell exults.

“If you have a small store, why do something if nobody knows you’re doing it? You need to talk about the news and you need to never be afraid to make your own news. You have two options,” Burstell continues, really on a roll now.

“You can say ‘I tried to get brand XYZ.’ Or you can get off your ass and get something else and talk about it and make it great.”

To that end, Burstell has spearheaded a slew of exclusive product collaborations, from the haute—cotton Liberty scarves overprinted with Hermès’ signature horse and carriage—to the high street, like Nike sneakers in the company’s cheerful patterns. Shoe designer Manolo Blahnik took his watercolor drawings of beautiful footwear and turned them into a stationary range, while Frédéric Malle combed through Liberty’s archive of 40,000 prints for limited-edition boxes to house his fragrance range.

“I have synesthesia—when I smell, I see color,” says Malle. “Ed had the idea to use this as packaging and I jumped on it. The prints that I chose are abstractions that represent what I see when I smell.”

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As with Frédéric Malle, many of the relationships that Burstell has forged throughout his career are intact and important today. Liberty’s top fragrance brands include Frédéric Malle, Le Labo, Byredo and Escentric Molecules, while bestsellers in beauty include Trish McEvoy, Bobbi Brown, Laura Mercier, Aesop, Kiehl’s, Shu Uemura and Aveda. Unlike most stores, each brand has roughly the same amount of space on the floor, no matter its sales. “When you size something up or down, you’re giving a subliminal message to the consumer, who may or may not want that from you and may or may not believe you,” Burstell says. “Why go through all that if you don’t have to?”

Burstell is continually tinkering with the assortment, adding new products, brands and concepts, like Must-Haves and Makeup Must-Haves, two areas which each have a turnover of about 1 million pounds, selling incremental items such as eyelash curlers and specialized bath soaks.

Back in New York, Burstell, on the hunt for news, is meeting with Jan Ahlgren, a Swedish model who is readying a fragrance brand—called Parfumerie Wilhelm after his grandfather—for launch. As Ahlgren sets up the presentation, Burstell grills him like a journalist, all the while inspecting the bottles, boxes and caps, before getting down to the business of smelling the six scents. Each gets its own commentary. One smells “really decadent, like the end of the night, perfect for me because I smoke,” while another, called Room Service and inspired by how Greta Garbo might have smelled when she was ordering room service in a fancy hotel, smells like an “incredible cleaning product.” (“Don’t take that the wrong way,” says Burstell, “because I love it.”)

Of the one aspect that he’s not so crazy about—the line’s minimal black-and-white labels that resemble that of another Swedish fragrance brand—Burstell is diplomatic, telling Ahlgren matter of factly, “I would change that. It’s too reminiscent of what’s out there.”

All the while, he’s lined up his three favorite scents and is ready to nail down details. “When will they be ready?” “Can we get something for December?” “We’ll launch with three—they tell a story together—then roll out another in fall, and another at holiday.”

Sandi Burrows, who is handling the distribution for Parfumerie Wilhelm and has arranged the introduction, is elated. “When you say to other retailers that a brand is launching at Liberty, it is very meaningful, because of the uniqueness of the environment and excitement that Ed has brought to it,” she says. “There are other retailers one could go to and have a bigger sell-in, probably. But it’s a stamp on the brand and a wonderful place to build visibility and be nurtured.”

But back to business. It’s not yet 10 a.m. and Burstell has six back-to-back beauty appointments scheduled before an afternoon trek out to Brooklyn to case the scene for unknowns. Ahlgren packs up and Burstell heads out as the cameras continue to roll. No surprise there: When the first installment of the Liberty documentary was broadcast last November, viewership averaged between two-and-a-half million and three million people an episode, and the retailer’s sales increased 18 percent in December.

The theme of that first season’s show was how Liberty prepares for the Christmas selling season, and in addition to Burstell and his management team, it featured everyone from the stock supervisor to the store’s top-selling salesperson (she works in fragrance, natch). True to Burstell form, it’s a no-holds-barred look at the inner workings of one of retail’s most-frenzied trading periods. “If people are going to watch, you have to put it out there,” he reasons. “Why make something boring?”

This year, the focus is on the business of fashion, of how the store sets it strategy and chooses the merchandise for ready to wear, accessories and beauty, the aspect that Burstell loves best.

“For me,” says Burstell, “it’s always been about the stuff. The beginning to end is the product you sell—that’s it. Nothing more. It’s as clear to me today as ever.”

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Product exclusives and cool environments are the trademark of Ed Burstell’s approach at liberty.

Here, some recent examples >>