The trouble with Christmas,” Alannah Weston, creative director of Selfridges, tells me in her office above the famous Oxford Street store, “is that it happens every year.” This will be Weston’s eighth festive season since her father, the Canadian retail billionaire Galen Weston Jr, bought Selfridges for m in 2004. In that time, she suggests, getting ready for Christmas has never really stopped – she already has 2013 in her head – and there is only one certainty: it never gets any easier.
This year, she has to say, was a case in point. Things were going extremely well; they were ahead of themselves for once. They had a whole Christmas scheme for Selfridges – for the main store in London, the satellites in Birmingham and Manchester, the website – all but wrapped up and under the tree last January. However in April a friend of Weston’s told her that the legendary American fashion photographer Bruce Weber was going to be in town, and that he was keen to work with her on a festive idea. To Weston this sounded a lot like a Christmas wish come true. “I love Bruce – we have worked together a few times,” she says, “and you are never quite sure what you are going to get from him, which is part of the magic of it.”
So she abandoned her best-laid plans and put her faith in the semi-mythical, white-bearded Weber, the man who confected some of the world’s most powerful commercial images for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Foolishly, perhaps, looking back, Weston suggested to him at one point that part of her dream Christmas list would be to make a little backstage movie for the web to support an ad campaign. “It was my fault because then basically the whole thing immediately turned into a film set and we had to shoot all of it in one night in the store,” she says with a slightly wild laugh.
In the days leading up to that night, 5 June, while Selfridges was still tricked up for the Queen’s Jubilee, all red white and blue and crazy golf on the roof, Weston would have what she describes as “these funny conversations with Bruce”. Like he would murmur: “I thought it would be kinda nice if there were some ponies…”
And Weston would say: “Ponies, Bruce? How many?”
And Bruce would say: “Maybe five?”
And then Bruce would say: “I feel we should have some boxers in it…”
And she would be: “Bruce, it’s Christmas – what are we going to do with boxers?” (But of course as it turned out the main image in the Christmas campaign became a bloodied sparring partner holding a present behind his back.)
Pearly kings and queens were in store for the Jubilee and Weber asked them to be in it. Along with a Dick van Dyke-like one-man band. He then decided they needed a Rasta Santa rugby player and a particular ballet dancer with Audrey Hepburn cheekbones from LA…
“Do you have fixed budgets for these things?” I wonder at one point as she describes the making of the three-minute film.
“No,” says Weston. “I can’t really work like that.”
In this, Alannah WESTON is in a fine Selfridges tradition. As a Downton-esque ITV mini-series based on Lindy Woodhead’s book Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge will show in the new year, Harry Gordon Selfridge, originator of the store, also pretty much invented the idea of the Christmas shopping experience a century ago. From its neoclassical home in Oxford Street, fronting the busiest few yards of pavement in the country, Selfridges has been evolving that particular experience ever since, like some compulsive festive organism attuned to the secret desires of voracious Christmas shoppers. Some things have not changed much since the original high-end huckster first pumped cinnamon and chestnut aromas into the six acres of his store in 1909.
As Andrew Davies’s TV adaptation will dramatise, Harry Gordon Selfridge was a self-styled retail visionary, a man who believed that shopping did not have to be a means to an end but could be a thrilling day out in itself. He dreamed up stunts and events to make each of these shopping experiences memorable and unique, putting on fashion shows and circus acts, displaying Louis Blériot’s plane fresh from its Channel crossing and staging the first demonstration of John Logie Baird‘s newfangled invention of television in 1925. Shopgirls became showgirls, shop windows aspired to art galleries, and through it all Selfridge spent a fortune on the revolutionary concept of brand advertising – investing in 1909 in the launch of the store alone.
By the time the Weston family bought Selfridges at the beginning of a new century, a little of that glamour and a lot of those stunts had become old hat. In the 70s and 80s, when the store was owned by the now-defunct Liverpool-based Lewis’s group, then taken over by the American giant Sears, it had begun to have the feel of a museum piece adrift in the tackiness of Oxford Street, full of the ghosts of Christmases past.
The Weston family knew a lot about breathing life into slightly moribund retail projects. Galen Weston had grown up steeped in the Canadian biscuit factories, bread-making industries and supermarket businesses established by his father. He had expanded successfully into Ireland, taken over Dublin’s Brown Thomas, and eventually returned to Canada to run the family supermarket chain Loblaws, among many other retail interests, becoming the second richest man in the country. His brother, meanwhile, was in charge of Associated British Foods (owner of Primark), and other family members ran Fortnum & Mason and Heal’s.
Galen Weston installed Paul Kelly, who had helped the family turn around Brown Thomas, as his CEO at Selfridges, and his daughter, who had been working at Burberry, as creative director. She has made it, I guess, into a lot of people’s fantasy job. “It is, in the sense that it is really all about your imagination,” she says. “You get to play all the time, and to work with all these brilliant people who can bring what is in your head to life. Is it a dream job? I think so. I wouldn’t be so much use in the finance department I don’t think.”
Even so, to those who started off muttering nepotism and silver spoons at Alannah Weston’s arrival, she can point to eight years of growth at the store in the face of a grim retail recession, to the fact that Selfridges topped bn in sales for the first time this year, and to the recent award of the “World’s best department store” from industry peers for the second time in three years. If Selfridges staff might have feared she would be a spoilt daddy’s girl, a Veruca Salt, she has proved herself much more a self-effacing incarnation of Willy Wonka.
“I like to think we are in the entertainment business as much as the retail business,” she says brightly. “We want people to always leave Selfridges with something, of course, but it is fine, too, for people to come and just feel they have had a wonderful time.”
She is, she suggests, quite a minimalist personality by nature – she has had all sorts of ironic trouble earlier in the morning working out what on earth, from among the far-as-the-eye-can-see racks of designer clothes, to wear for the Observer‘s photo shoot. “Christmas for me,” she says, “is always an effort in finding my inner glitter and sort of throwing it all out.”
The most obvious expressions of Alannah Weston’s inner glitter this year are the giant silver and gold bells that have been slowly rising and falling on wires among the great glass escalators of the Oxford Street emporium since the end of October. The bells are accompanied by an unending peal of chimes, carefully randomised so as not to send 4,000 employees insane before the festivities begin. Still, as store director Meave Wall was explaining to me as we walked the marbled floors last Friday – Wall tends to get through a dozen kilometres a day in her immaculate heels – so far things are only really getting going.
A team of 50 ‘Elfridges, for example – “beautifully styled men and women who will be on hand to help you select, collect and wrap all your gifts this season” – were still trying on their tuxedos and ballgowns for size. The sparkling Favour Fairies, who in the coming days will be whizzing around the store on roller blades, ready to speed-deliver your bags to a taxi should you so wish, were yet to get their skates on. An 80-strong “flash mob” choir, which threatens to ambush the unsuspecting shopper with a pop-up a cappella of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”, had not convened in earnest. Santa, liberated from a grotto for 2012 (a good call, you guess – who wants their child sitting on the knee of a silver-haired stranger this year?), was not yet in evidence.
Even so, by the end of November they had sold 12,000 mince pies. Wall and her team keep a constant eye on what is shifting most quickly, ready to respond immediately to a run on something unexpected. In the daily hit parade of bestselling merchandise, popcorn machines are currently occupying positions one, three and five. In the food hall there is something of a frenzy for a range of giant sweets: enormous Snickers bars are going fast, with 2ft-long Twizzlers close behind.
Some things never change. Harry Gordon Selfridge was the first to see the theatrical possibilities of the demonstration on kitchen equipment. Meave Wall still knows for a fact that from now until Christmas they will sell 20 KitchenAid food processors an hour. And also that a good many of them, this year, will be used in the construction of another star seller: Big Ben gingerbread houses. Some must-have items emerge from nowhere, though. In under a week 20,000 advent calendars, with a Ciate nail varnish behind every window, have been snapped up at each. New ones can’t be sourced fast enough.
Alannah Weston is anxious to suggest that her focus is always on the shoppers’ experience but she is not, she admits, too much of a shopper herself. She lived in London from the age of 18, “but somewhat perversely I didn’t really come here at all. I was never the kind of girl who would come into town shopping at the weekend. I do remember when I was working at Burberry we did fashion shows here, and my dog was the model for the raincoat. I got completely lost in the store. But now, of course, every inch of the floorplan is engrained in my brain…”
Weston’s mother was a model when she met Galen Weston in Ireland in 1966, but even she, her daughter suggests, has never been much bothered about retail therapy. “My mother has always been interested in fashion,” she says, “but it’s never been: ‘Darling, let’s go shopping’, it was always: ‘Let’s go skiing… or riding… or play tennis.’ My dad used to drive us around the stores on Saturday sometimes, and that probably got into the blood a bit.”
Weston looks a bit weary when I bring up the subject of the family firm, as if she dislikes being thought of just as the latest in a line. I wonder how involved her father gets in the day-to-day running of the store. Was he consulted over the Weber shoot?
“Not specifically, no,” she says. “But in a way he is the ultimate consumer.” She flinches in mock drama when she is reminded he is actually in the building today, sleuthing among the bells and the ‘Elfridges. “He is here somewhere,” she says, “but I haven’t heard what he thinks yet.” She’s not too worried though. “I am very similar to my dad; we have the odd creative difference, but he is incredibly good at saying: ‘Go for it.’ He is not a doubter. It is always more likely to be: ‘You didn’t do enough’ than: ‘You did too much.’ You are never afraid of daring with him. He expects you to dare…”
In terms of guiding her career, the best thing her father did, she says, was to encourage her in make-believe when she was a child. “I spent a lot of time forcing my cousins to be in plays, and my brother,” she says. “I was the eldest of my Irish cousins and the youngest of my Canadian cousins. My dad put up all these curtains at home so we could put on plays all the time.”
She is trying to pass on some of that playful spirit to her two daughters, aged five and two. They are more likely to keep her awake at nights than her work, she says, but she can’t help being a worrier – she has the perfectionist’s fear of missing something. “It can’t just look great,” she says. “I have made terrible mistakes, of course. You make the most elegant graphics and no one can read them. The other day I was down trying some clothes on and I realised that in my ever-so-chic black changing room you couldn’t see anything you were wearing. All that…”
Some of Weston’s anxieties have lately taken on a more global cast. Last year Selfridges pioneered what she calls “retail activism“, with its lavishly imagined Project Ocean theme drawing attention throughout the store to the issue of overfishing and the damaged ecology of the seas.
It came about, she says, after talking to her brother, who was at the Copenhagen climate talks, and “ocean issues seemed a bit more tangible than the doom and gloom of climate itself”. Project Ocean, which involved an enormous animatronic whale, started as a window scheme and ended up taking over the whole Oxford Street store.
“The team here loved it,” she says. “But also the NGOs like Greenpeace loved it. You always think they are going to be instinctively anti-corporate, but that wasn’t the case. And we worked really hard to clean up our fish business, so we were sincere.”
She is, not surprisingly, slightly wary of all this sounding like something Edina out of Ab Fab might enthuse about. “I don’t want my environmentalism to seem like fashion or be trendy,” she says firmly. “And I don’t want to suggest we can solve everything. But we can be a platform for strong messages.”
I guess, too, though, that they have above all to sell an idea of consumer excess and luxury. Doesn’t that ever feel uncomfortable, particularly at a time when a lot of people are struggling?
“That was one thing about this Christmas project,” she says – it was Weber’s idea to lead with a charity T-shirt, sold in aid of Kids Company. “It certainly wasn’t the year to do a campaign about an shoe or a handbag. But you always have a trend and a counter trend in retail. For everyone who wants to be restrained and thrifty, there is always someone just dying for some sequins. We have Primark here and we have Chanel, and you can get the same experience whichever one you go to…”
Those contrasts, she insists, are not the only ones she seeks to create. “We do high and low, fast and slow,” she says.
How about a consumer experience for someone like me, I wonder, who generally finds himself mouthing a kind of repetitive Samuel Beckett internal monologue after five minutes of festive shopping: I can’t go on, I must go on, I won’t go on, I’ll go on…?
Happily Weston, true to the spirit of her store’s founder – who coined the phrase “The customer is always right” – will soon have that sorted as well. “After Christmas we will be bringing back the Silence Room, which is something Gordon Selfridge had where people could have a few moments’ peace. Alex Cochrane, the architect, who happens to also be my husband, has designed this glorious room lined entirely with felt, where you will take your shoes off and leave your phone at the door and stay for as long as you want…”
As I find my way out of her festive city state populated with that day’s 50,000 visitors, past the tolling bells and dodging the eager ‘Elfridges through the forest of baubled trees, the air thick with cinnamon, it is the thought of that room that stays with me. I have only one question: why wait until after Christmas?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010