BIRMINGHAM, England — Selfridges has unveiled a sparkling pleasure dome in the center of this gray-toned city, pushing the boundaries of retailing, department store architecture and sensory experiences.
The much-anticipated, $64 million store, which opened for business two weeks ago, is a jarring sight, looming over England’s second-largest city like a big, friendly spaceship that’s just touched down from planet fashion.
“It’s the first time for decades that we’ve been able to design a store from scratch, both inside and out,” said Selfridges chief executive Peter Williams, on the train from London to Birmingham, the day before the opening. “We see this building as part of a great department store tradition — Bloomingdale’s in New York and Selfridges on Oxford Street — where the architecture is a permanent billboard for the business.”
The new Selfridges, which is expected to generate annual sales of about $126 million within three years, is part of Birmingham’s newly refurbished Bullring shopping center. The center, which was renovated at a cost of nearly $800 million, also boasts a new Debenhams department store, Nike, Zara and Topshop and will soon see Gap, H&M and French Connection units.
The four-level, 270,000 square-foot store is built on a hillside, so there are entrances on almost every level.
The feminine curves and glistening skin of the new store are the brainchildren of Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete, the co-principals of Future Systems, the London-based architecture firm famous for its dreamy, whimsical designs, including the Marni and Comme des Garçons stores in New York, Tokyo, Paris, Milan and London.
The Selfridges store’s deep blue exterior, with its bulbous corners and gently curving facade, is covered with 15,000 spun aluminum discs that glisten in the sunlight. At night, the building is flooded with blue light from the streetlamps.
“Everything about it is organic — it looks like it could come from the sea or from nature generally, and why not? The people who will shop there are not box shaped,” said Kaplicky. Furthering the store’s design link to fashion, he said its exterior was inspired by a Paco Rabanne chain mail dress. He sees the exterior as a curtain — a backdrop for the city — and a foil for Birmingham’s endless vista of gray, industrial buildings.
But, in Kaplicky’s view, that is about to change. He’s convinced the iconic postcard from Birmingham will now be one that bears a picture of the new Selfridges, not of its factories and warehouses. Indeed, the London-based home fabrics designer Martin Waller, who saw the new store during its debut week, went so far as to say that Selfridges will do for Birmingham what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris. “Everybody has a nice, plain black T-shirt to sell,” said Waller. “This store is about more than that: It’s all about diversion and entertainment.”
Future Systems also designed the building’s gently curving interior, which is virtually devoid of right angles and is reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its circular white balconies. The shop floors curl around a central atrium illuminated by a skylight, while white elevators criss-cross the central atrium.
Selfridges chose a different architect to design each floor. Future Systems designed Level One, which houses the food hall, children’s wear and home collections. The pink, dark blue and white food hall, with its cloud-like light fixtures spun from white wire, is a foodie’s wish-come-true with crater-shaped bowls spilling over with candy, tables stacked with Oreo boxes and Leonidas chocolates and a whiff of fresh bread and cheese in the air.
The hall boasts 10 eating counters serving up dishes including Beef Wellington, Thai green chicken and dim sum. The feel is cool and futuristic, a place where Judy Jetson might stop for a bite. There is no doubt this is retail-as-theater — the concept preached by Vittorio Radice, the former chief executive of Selfridges who left to join Marks & Spencer and head its growing home division earlier this year.
“It’s the same theater production as the Oxford Street store — but this is the 2003 version,” said Radice, who attended the opening party last week. “It’s a dream, it’s amazing. There is nothing else like it in the world.”
Architects Nick Eldridge and Piers Smerin, who worked on Villa Moda in Kuwait, designed the young design, books and technology floor on the next level up. The feel there is fluid and inspired by an industrial warehouse with displays that can be changed in a flash. Clothes, including Adidas Originals, Gorgeous Couture, Miss Sixty, Diesel and Levis, are displayed on packing pallets and conveyor belts that can be moved easily around the open-plan floor.
In the technology area, the designers lined the walls with black foam — the kind normally found in photographers’ cases — and covered the floor with green rubber — the sort that’s used in a children’s playground. An interactive walkway that burps and moans weaves its way across the floor.
Stanton Williams designed the third level, which is all clean lines and straightforward spaces and houses the beauty, jewelry and men’s wear department. This level is, perhaps, the most architecturally conventional and houses such men’s collections as Hugo Boss, Maharishi, Zegna Sport and D&G.
Cibic and Partners, in collaboration with Lees Associates, designed the top level, which features the women’s designer and accessories collections and is a fashion souk.
On one side of the open space, table after table is covered in shoes, boots and bags by Miu Miu, Jimmy Choo and Marni. Major designers like Prada, Gucci and Dior have built their own shop fits along the floor’s outer walls, while the Burberry collection is housed in a shop shaped like a shiny red egg and plunked in the center of the open space. Other designers sold on the floor include Chloé, Alexander McQueen and Missoni, which are displayed in conventional areas along the edges of the open space.
“We wanted the feel to be like a big, exuberant fruit basket,” said Aldo Cibic whose firm also designed Gallery, the restaurant on the floor that looks out over the Bullring.
Richard Fitzpatrick, the head of Retailmap, a U.K.-based retail research and consulting firm, called the store’s architecture stunning and innovative and said there was no doubt it would spur sales.
“A conventionally designed, highly commercial Selfridges store would have done well in Birmingham, but there is no doubt this store will stimulate more sales,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’ve traveled a lot in the U.S. and Europe, and department stores are so same-y, from Kohl’s to Saks Fifth Avenue. This is quirky and inspiring.”
As reported, Birmingham isn’t the end of Selfridges’ ongoing retail tale. The retailer is on track to develop future units in England in Bristol, Leeds and Newcastle. Meanwhile, its first Glasgow unit will be designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito and is scheduled to open in 2007. It will be the first major commission for the architect in the U.K. The new store will have 200,000 square feet of trading space and offer cosmetics, food, apparel and home furnishings. Total investment in the store will be in the region of $144 million.
“The site we currently have for the store is derelict. Our intention is to build a new building which will look different from every other building in the city. We believe it’s the building that communicates what the business is about,” said Williams.