LONDON — A gilded career in retail and a sex ’n’ drugs lifestyle — including two heroin overdoses — make for odd bedfellows. Unless you’re Ed Burstell.
The managing director of Liberty — who has also held top jobs at Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman — never actually set his sights on a life in retail. True, he studied accounting and English at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., but post-graduation he was too busy clubbing his way through Ft. Lauderdale and Manhattan in the late Seventies and early Eighties to contemplate his future.
Thanks to a large shot of luck (he didn’t die); a powerful core (he’s smart, strong and his parents loved him), and regular doses of Diet Coke, now his primary poison, Burstell has carved out a unique career in the polished and puritanical world of retail. Over the past seven years, he’s been working with Liberty’s majority shareholder and chairman Marco Capello, an Italian private equity investor, to revive the store, and the two are now grooming it for an initial public offering in 2018.
Life today is certainly far from a New York psychiatric ward where, decades earlier, he found himself strapped to a bed, having nearly died — the second time — from a heroin overdose.
Burstell lays out how and why he got where he is in a new memoir, “At Liberty: From Rehab to the Front Row.” It will be published in the U.K. in October by Michael O’Mara Books Ltd., and in the U.S. in the spring.
It’s been a looping rollercoaster of a life, and Burstell talks with candor about his drug use — he was mainlining heroin daily at his most extreme; his luck dodging HIV — “A fact I am thankful for every day. We’d all been doing the same stuff, but some men got it, and some didn’t,” he writes, and his horror at watching his best friend and so many other gay men die of AIDS in the Eighties and Nineties.
Retail — he started his career as a holiday perfume spritzer at Macy’s in Herald Square — was his savior, forcing him to quit the extreme partying and grow up. “Who knew such a crummy holiday job could have such miraculous consequences?” he writes.
During a recent interview in his small corner office in the building next door to Liberty, Burstell said the book came partly out of the mentoring he does with young people. In New York, he served on the board of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths between the ages of 13 and 24. He also mentors aspiring young retailers, many of whom are terrified of making mistakes, he said.
Burstell believes that, “If there was ever a story where someone can actually f–k up royally more than once, and start again from the bottom, and eventually win,” it’s his.
“I’m talking to them, I’m telling them that there’s so much — they don’t have to plan that much, they don’t have to be afraid of making decisions or taking a chance. There is time. But when you’re that age you don’t know what time really is.”
Burstell said he had no problem with revealing his troubled past. “I’m over 50, so I really don’t give too much credence to other people’s opinions. And I think if you’re going to tell it, you might as well tell it. Everyone’s got a story,” he said.
Most of the book, however, is about his ups and downs in the beauty and American department store business of the Eighties and Nineties. It traces Burstell’s rapid rise from spritzer at Macy’s to managing director at Liberty, with wild rides at Bloomingdale’s, Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s in between. Laugh out loud moments include an unfortunate marketing campaign at Bloomingdale’s, with men dressed as Elizabeth Arden mousse foundation cans, knocking over displays and crashing into customers because they couldn’t see out of their helmets.
He writes about the weird journey of the first Epilady epilator. “It was a new torture device. We sold zillions at Bloomingdale’s, but zillions came right back.”
Burstell dedicates a few choice paragraphs to the potpourri craze of the late Eighties: “Every lounge, hotel room, office and restaurant had a bowl of the junk,” he writes, adding that during the holiday period, he didn’t even have time to stack the packets on the display table they were selling so quickly. “I ended up just tipping them into a mound on the table, like multi-colored food into a trough, as hands grabbed desperately at them.”
He also writes about how the 2008 stock market crash changed the face of luxury retail forever. “Customers were looking at themselves with fresh eyes, never to have the veil returned. Did I really buy this piece-of-crap bag for $3,000? Really? It was a wake-up call. No one trusted full price anymore,” he writes.
Liberty, which has made big strides under Burstell and Capello, remains a work in progress, and he plans to see more projects through, dividing his time between London and New York. There are plans in place to transform the thousands of feet on Liberty’s top floor into a club and restaurant, and turn part of the street-facing, ground level space into a series of small shop fronts selling food and wine. The scarf hall, which Burstell calls the “soul” of the store, will be re-vamped, while collaborations, in-house design and the wholesale business will all be ramped up.
“I wouldn’t still be here if I thought I was done. There is still a lot of opportunity to polish the apple,” said Burstell, adding that he’ll likely exit following the IPO. “It’s not for me to be old and dragging around, surrounding myself with much younger people in an effort to stay relevant. At the end of the day, fashion is a young person’s business.”
His next act, he said, will be full-time advocacy work, possibly for Hetrick-Martin again, or a similar organization in London.
While retail may have saved him, Burstell doesn’t consider it — or even his advocacy work — his finest hour, personally or professionally. Without a second’s hesitation, he said his greatest achievement so far has simply been staying alive.