Ed Burstell

The Hudson’s Bay Co., determined to feed its growing international array of department stores with exclusive products and innovative concepts, has hired Ed Burstell as head of partnerships, WWD has learned.

It’s a new position at HBC, where Burstell will lead efforts to bring differentiated merchandise and formats to all HBC divisions, which include Saks Fifth Avenue, Hudson’s Bay, Lord & Taylor, Saks Off 5th, Find @ Lord & Taylor, Home Outfitters, Gilt, Galeria Kaufhof, Galeria Inno and Sportarena. He joins HBC on Dec. 5.

Burstell has led a colorful life on both a professional and personal basis. He’s well-known in retail and fashion circles and comes to HBC direct from Liberty of London, where he held the title of managing director and was instrumental in growing the business and forming innovative collaborations with the likes of Hermès, Manolo Blahnik, Nike, Uniqlo, Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Doc Martens and others. Liberty of London operates a historic, 141-year-old flagship on Great Marlborough Street in London’s West End which sells upscale luxury goods and is famous for its floral and graphic prints.

“Ed has a tremendous and well-deserved reputation in the fashion industry,” said Jerry Storch, HBC’s chief executive officer. “He is very experienced in developing the kind of partnerships and exclusive relationships we are looking for. He works well with people.” Burstell will report to Storch.

“Our objective is to clearly differentiate our offerings and bring products and experience to customers that they can’t get anywhere else,” Storch added. “The department store industry is changing very rapidly. It’s more important than ever to have constant uniqueness in our offering.”

Asked if department stores show enough initiative to innovate, Storch replied, “You can never do enough. We have always innovated, with pop-up shops, shops-in-shops,” he said, citing HBC’s Topshop collaboration in Canada and Germany. “You can always do more and in this environment you need to do more.”

“As a merchant, it’s your responsibility to provide innovation, something that is exciting and tempting to customers,” Burstell told WWD. It’s the job of the merchant to ensure “the experience creates loyalty and curiosity.”

Burstell said he’s motivated by his next assignment because it entails “engaging the consumer across all HBC platforms and price points…It might be something in ready-to-wear, designer, home, or beauty. It’s just as limited as your imagination.”

He said retailers, generally speaking, suffer from “this weird culture of sameness. A lot of stores have abdicated their DNA. There is an awful lot of leased shops. The store might as well just be a street with a roof.”

Storch said HBC, working with Burstell, would seek non-endemic partnerships, conceivably involving intellectual properties, media, celebrities, consumer goods and other kinds of companies. “It’s a broad range of possibilities with very different match ups and pop up experiences.

“The department store needs to feel like a world’s fair, a grand bazaar, a great exhibition, with all kinds of ideas that you can’t get at a traditional narrow specialty store,” Storch added. “Department stores were once places to experience the world, to experience technology and innovation. We can learn much from the past.”

While department stores of today are often viewed as losing relevance and customers in the age of the Internet, there are signs that some are focusing more on new concepts and offerings. Macy’s, for example, earlier this month opened the first Apple shop inside a U.S. department store, at its Herald Square flagship, and over the last several seasons has signed partnerships for in-store shops with Sunglass Hut, Best Buy, Finish Line and Lids, among other brands. Justin MacFarlane joined Macy’s last February in the new role of chief strategy, analytics and innovation officer, with responsibility for strategic development, consumer and customer research, data analysis, innovation and development of  business opportunities.

At Nordstrom, Olivia Kim, formerly of Opening Ceremony, serves as vice president of creative projects. She joined Nordstrom in February 2013 and launched Pop-In@Nordstrom, which rotates its merchandise every four to six weeks to introduce a fashion trend or theme or a particular brand or vendor. Partnerships have included Hermès, Nike, Topshop/Topman, Warby Parker, Converse, Poketo, Liberty London, Rag & Bone, Dylan’s Candy Bar and the U.S. debut of Hong Kong fashion collective I.T. Pop-Ins are in select Nordstrom locations including four flagships in Vancouver, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

Kim also launched Nordstrom’s Space shop concept, primarily focusing on emerging designers. Space shops are also in select Nordstrom doors as well as online and have housed such labels as Simone Rocha, Shrimps, Acne, Aries, Vetements and Anthony Vaccarello.

HBC over the last several years has formed some of its own unique partnerships with Kleinfeld’s, the bridal store, as well as Topshop/Topman for in-store shops in Hudson’s Bay and Kaufhof units. HBC also sells Black Brown 1826, a men’s wear collaboration with designer Joseph Abboud, and the Lord & Taylor division has been rolling out Birdcage shops selling a range of seasonally themed contemporary and gift-oriented merchandise, much of it exclusive.

Storch said it’s difficult to quantify how much of HBC’s offering is exclusive, but he did say that 10 to 20 percent of business, depending on the retail banner, is private label. That range doesn’t include exclusives to the store provided by designers and brands.

Burstell started as a spritzer at Macy’s, led a sex ’n’ drugs lifestyle and rose to top jobs at Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman, before joining Liberty where he’s been working with the store’s majority shareholder and chairman Marco Capello, an Italian private equity investor, to revive the store, and position it for a possible initial public offering. He’s been a mentor to young people aspiring to have retail careers; he wrote an autobiography, and actively supports the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.

According to HBC, Burstell’s initiatives contributed to Liberty of London’s double-digit year-over-year growth. He served at Liberty of London for eight years and earlier was a senior vice president of accessories, footwear, fine jewelry, designer jewelry, cosmetics and fragrance at Bergdorf Goodman. Before that, he was general manager of Henri Bendel, where he was involved in many partnerships and capsule collections with other designers, including Diane von Furstenberg, Rick Owens, Patricia Field and Stephen Burroughs. He said he “championed” British designers.

In addition to Burstell bringing ideas to HBC, the company has some ideas of its own for Burstell “to sift through,” Storch said, without specifying any. Seeking newness and innovation, Storch said, “Of course, we do this all the time. Bringing Ed in is above and beyond, to accelerate the pace of newness and go outside the box.”

“After eight years, what I set out to accomplish has been done,” Burstell said. “In strict numbers, Liberty of London was trading at 38 million pounds in 75,000 square feet when I arrived. It’s now trading at 100 million pounds [or $122 million at current exchange]. The store is doing really well. The fabric business is doing well. We have a small wholesale business that is really healthy.”

He said his first order of business at HBC will be  “to get know the culture and have to understand each one of the business models. I see a lot of people who rush into a new job,” and make changes fast. “I think that’s a big mistake.”

Nevertheless, “I have a millions ideas rolling around. We will have a lot of conversation to see which ones are appropriate. I can’t help always being curious.”