LONDON — Roy Northway Stephens, the former chief executive officer and managing director of Selfridges who believed in the power of retail as spectacle, has died at 85.
Stephens, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade, was infected by the coronavirus three weeks ago and died on April 14 at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut, his family confirmed.
Stephens was born in England, but moved to New York when he was a boy as his father was a founder of the United Nations. Having graduated from Hicksville High School and The State University of New York, he moved back to England in 1960 to pursue a career in retail.
In the U.K., he worked for Littlewoods and Allders of Croydon and ran his own import-export business. He joined Selfridges in 1979 at a time when its owner Sears Holdings wanted to take the store upmarket. At the time, Stephens was quoted as saying that his new Selfridges job was “the realization of a dream.”
When Stephens stepped into the role, Selfridges was not the buzzy emporium that it is today. It was dreary compared to its competitor Harrods and in desperate need of refurbishment. His arrival also capped a difficult decade for British retail, a time of IRA bombings, the three-day work week and sky-high inflation.
“He had a huge job to do, and he was peppy, full of energy, real New York push and American pizzazz. He was polite, pleasant and a very powerful figure in early 1980s retail,” said Lindy Woodhead, retail history consultant to Selfridges, and the author of the book “Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge,” which was turned into a successful TV show starring Jeremy Piven.
Woodhead first met Stephens when he arrived at Selfridges. At the time, she was running her public relations firm WPR, and it represented the British jeweler Garrard, which was then owned by Sears Holdings.
She said Stephens did his absolute best to burnish the image of the store. She said he had a showman’s flair, and saw Selfridges, which is now owned by the Weston family, as a “big, powerful publicity machine.” During his tenure, he also returned the store to profitability.
He dedicated the store’s windows to “Star Wars,” when “The Empire Strikes Back” sequel was released in Britain in 1980; invited the Muppets and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into the Christmas Grotto; and brought in a range of celebrities and VIPs, including the Olympic medallist Sebastian Coe; author Barbara Cartland and the journalist and broadcaster Alan Whicker for personal appearances.
As Selfridges ceo, he took part in the Better Made In Britain exhibition in 1983, squiring Princess Diana around the show, which promoted local goods, fashion and manufacturing. Stephens would later pick up an honor from Queen Elizabeth for his services to retail and trade.
He would eventually return to the U.S. as president of Revlon’s prestige division, and spent the last three decades living in New Canaan, Conn.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marjorie Stephens, his daughter Cathy Kangas, and his son Robert, their respective spouses and three grandchildren.
Kangas, the founder and ceo of the skin-care company PRAI Beauty, said her father was her “biggest fan and always instilled in me that I can be anything and do anything. He gave me a huge sense of confidence and a ‘Never think something can’t be done’ attitude. I think he was a lot like that to the people he worked with as well, which is why people looked up to him so much. He was kind, gregarious and always for the underdog.”
The family said funeral services will be private, and will be followed this summer by a memorial and celebration of Stephens’ life.