Counter intelligence

How do you successfully streamline the design process for a retail giant such as Selfridges? The people on the inside reveal their trade secrets to Sara Manuelli

“We had to create a brand that would co-exist independently from its site and was relevant to fashion,” says Selfridges marketing director Nick Cross, referring to the events of 1996. “Research said that without the building there wasn’t a Selfridges brand, which is a problem if you are planning to open in Manchester.”

At the time, Selfridges was having to face major changes. It wanted to transform itself from a home furnishing store to a predominantly fashion-led brand for a younger market and, for the first time in its history, the company was opening a new site in Manchester. While a lot of the design changes focused on the visual identity, there were infrastructure changes that a new site demanded, such as an updated warehousing structure and distribution chain. Meanwhile, London customers had to be persuaded to choose Selfridges over the glamour of Harvey Nichols, or the traditional appeal of Harrods. And to make matters more difficult, the flagship store was going through major refurbishments – something that inevitably caused disruption.

A sense of direction was revealed with the appointment in 1996 of Vittorio Radice as chief executive. Previously at Habitat, Radice was called in by Selfridges to “modernise the way the business was run, to prove the willingness to move the company, make it a leader”, he says. Radice’s aide, Nick Cross, moved in as marketing manager, having worked with him on the Selfridges account while he was international planning director at advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

“We came up with two ideas,” says Cross of the early days. “One was ‘the spirit of the city’, which was all about aligning Selfridges to what was happening in the metropolis and drawing upon the energies and talents that are around. We wanted to be aspirational without being snooty,” he says. Rather than compare itself with the “posh” stores in London’s Knightsbridge, Cross felt it was important to embrace the “hurly-burly” of Oxford Street. The second idea was to create “the house of brands, a way in which the store could manage and contain all these exciting brands, while still allowing them to shout loud and clear”, he says.

In 1997, the then Newell and Sorrell created a new identity. The marque used a more contemporary typeface developed out of Franklin Gothic, but dropped the illustration of the Oxford Street building in London, to reflect the new store openings planned outside the capital. In September 1998, the Manchester store opened. It wasn’t all a smooth ride, though. “The years 1997 and 1998 were tough,” admits Cross. “We were demerging from Sears in 1998, the masterplan was being implemented, bringing inevitable financial losses, [plus] we had to develop new stores concepts and change our computer system, all at the same time.”

But by the second half of 1998, the jigsaw was coming together. The window display team became more event-led and launched high profile collaborations with designers, photographers and artists. Last month, the Perrier-Jouët Selfridges Design Prize saw designers Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, Dunne and Raby, Marc Newson and Jasper Morrison creating crowd-stopping windows on Oxford Street. Art has become a store fixture, thanks to Ben Weaver’s General Assembly company, which brokered the deal with artist Sam Taylor-Wood last year to wrap giant panoramic shots around the store. Weaver is also behind Tokyo Life, the month-long initiative which will see, from May, the Oxford Street site transformed into a Japanese store, complete with art installations, products and events.

On the promotion front, this month Selfridges launches Issue No 1, its biannual in-store magazine, edited and designed by Wink Media, the Wallpaper Group advertising and branding arm.

In design terms, the store has become, in recent years, an active employer of the best British talent around. To name just a few, recruits include graphics group North for the signage system, retail interior consultancy Din Associates for most of the basement in-store concepts and lighting designer Arnold Chan, who has illuminated the store’s facade and the Christian Liaigre-designed cosmetic hall.

But Selfridges’ greatest coup has probably been to ask designer Peter Saville to rejuvenate its in-house design team. Saville was appointed in April 2000 to move things forward, or as he puts it, “to help Selfridges’ renaissance”.

“I must admit that I had my foregone conclusions on the store,” says Saville. “Back in the 1980s, for me it represented a little utilitarian place, so, of course, I was astonished when I came in and saw it had labels such as Prada.”

His mission was to communicate what was going on in the store, something he wasn’t sure he understood himself . “The problem,” argues Saville, “is that I don’t believe in the motivations behind design. Today, the design process has been totally ‘integrated’ as a marketing tool. In the UK’s marketing mentality, design is really a cheap way of making something look different.” According to Saville, this is a country that would rather rebrand a train service than rebuild it.

In this context, accepting the creative consultant job become a matter of faith. “I can [only] contribute to things I believe in. I can do this [Selfridges] because it is genuinely happening.” Saville was struck by Cross’s commitment and says he is “thrilled” by Radice’s awareness of customers’ whims. In design management terms, however, the dilemma that was presented to him was whether to buy the design in or to create it in-house. “By its very nature of turnover, the store is duty-bound to have an in-house graphics team,” he explains. As a firm believer that a convincing identity comes from inside, Saville opted for a compromise. “I told Cross and Radice that they needed to do what they could do in-house and selectively bring from the outside that specialist talent that is needed occasionally,” he says.

The role of a design consultant to a client, however, requires more than just a creative pedigree, and Saville admits that he learned a lot from Pentagram partner John McConnell, who historically is a consultant to Boots the Chemists. “McConnell is a great politician, in the good sense of the word,” he says. “He really cares about people, while I used to be more selfish. As long as I got what I wanted I didn’t care. Yet it is the people that matter [in this job]. It’s important to make them feel good about what they do, since it’s so easy in a big organisation to become marginalised and demotivated.” Saville works for Selfridges a day or maybe two days a week, at no fixed time. While Cross calls him Selfridges’ mentor, someone that can motivate and inspire the in-house team, Saville succinctly says “he helps them out”.

Saville’s first challenge was to liberate the design studio from the maze of administrative and hierarchical procedures and middle management that obstructed the flow between the commissioning (from Radice and Cross) and the creating (from the designers).

“It wasn’t the ideas that were the problem,” he says, “but their management. Creative solutions got diluted because it wasn’t what the studio wanted, but what the middle management wanted.” And as an external consultant, Saville is in a position to criticise. “Once you are in the system you are part of it,” he muses. “As a third party you can see the wood from the trees and can say things normally not allowed by protocol.” The libertarian arrangement means Saville has carte blanche to knock at Cross or Radice’s door whenever he feels the need.

Saville’s second challenge is still ongoing. “The studio needed to be built, but it was pointless to do anything until we solved the lack of proper design management, and appointed someone with the experience and the authority,” he says. Four months ago, Ashleigh Vinall was brought in from Debenhams to work as the creative studio manager, and the results are now starting to show. “I think now we are breaking the pattern of deviation,” says Vinall, “and I know I can show Saville an idea at any point.”

Although Saville would still like to add in-house roles, such as someone exclusively dedicated to type, the inner structure is now starting to bear the fruits of labour. While in the past, outside design consultants were kept separate from the work of the in-house team, “this year we took the steering wheel,” says Saville. The Tokyo Life event is a good example of collaboration between forces. While Japanese graphic star Koji Mizutani created the logo, all the promotional material was implemented in-house. The in-store campaign for the new season was also done in-house, with illustration by Stuart Mackenzie. “There is no need for outside people to tell Selfridges what it should be doing. The independent designers should just help you achieve it,” he says.

In many ways, Selfridges has managed to expand a retail concept into a visionary art and design patronage system, while offering a spectacular, yet non-exclusive environment to its customers. The Birmingham store, due to open in 2003 and designed by architect Future Systems, will become, according to Saville, a destination building. “It’s a brave statement,” says Saville, “and the natural question is, does Selfridges mean it?” The answer is yes, for it represents an attitude, “the spirit of Selfridges”, as Saville calls it, which is embodied by Radice. With that typical North Italian mix of pragmatism and vision, Radice looks at the project as an evolution. For him, Birmingham is a continuation of the spirit that built the 1909 Oxford Street site, the vision of American millionaire Gordon Selfridge, who described it as “a new era of shopping”.

So is that ethos still thriving? Radice asserts an optimism and invites critics to see for themselves when the store publishes its yearly results on 22 March. As he sees it, Selfridges is a brand, but unlike most brands, it doesn’t create product, it offers an experience. “We are an entertainment brand,” says Radice. “We create a place which people come to visit and where maybe they will buy something. Most customers already have everything they need. They don’t need more shoes, more socks. Yet they want to buy more, because they want to be seen to be in the know.”

And the man is certainly part of the club. He sits on the board of the National Gallery, he apparently jets off to India once a year for Ayurvedic treatments and counts among his fans names such as Terence Conran, Ron Arad and Vogue publisher Stephen Quinn. In his sunlit top floor office, the sideboard is furnished with Gary Hume and Chris Ofili prints from Countereditions, fashion illustration books and sketches of the Birmingham store.

In business terms, Radice knows that every decision has an instantaneous effect. “We are not like a manufacturer which plans and knows what they will produce a year in advance,” he explains. “Here, if you move a chair from A to B, you may sell twice as many. It’s a much more immediate experience. We don’t have order books, we open the doors every morning and hope the customer comes in to buy,” he adds.

So far so good, since it is estimated that around 20 million shoppers a year visit Selfridges. This is in stark contrast with the current situation of retail neighbour Marks & Spencer. Saville admits that all those fashion labels are a bit of a problem, since as soon as he’s done a job, he wanders off in the store to spend his “hard-earned” money. I ask him if he has a special Selfridges discount card. Saville’s eyes glint naughtily at the thought. “No,” he replies. “But I think I should design one.”

Selfridges’ design recruits

1997 Selfridges identity created by Newell and Sorrell

1998 Din Associates called in to create in-store concepts such as the china and glass department, the luggage department and, in 2000, the bookshop and cookshop

1998 Christian Liaigre designs the perfumery and cosmetics hall

1998 Selfridges starts collaboration with lighting design group Isometrix on departments and Oxford Street facade

1999 Food hall packaging redesigned by Pyott

1999 North creates signage system

1999 Collaboration with Wink Media for advertising

2000 Peter Saville appointed to boost in-house design team

2000 Hosker Moore and Kent appointed to create the new lingerie department and the ladies’ accessories hall

2000 Tomato Interactive creates windows for Tokyo Life

2000 Softroom designs interiors for private restaurant The Dining Room

2000 Wink Media produces biannual magazine Issue No 1

Selfridges’ history

1909 Gordon Selfridge opens Selfridges on Oxford Street, London

1920 Company goes public

1965 Selfridges is acquired by Sears

1970s The Selfridges hotel is built and the Food Hall is extended

1995-1996 Selfridges opens two locations in Heathrow airport

1996 Vittorio Radice leaves Habitat, where he has been since 1990, and is appointed as Selfridges chief executive

1996 Nick Cross is appointed as marketing director

1998 Selfridges demerges from Sears

1998 Manchester store opens

1999 Stores are renamed Selfridges & Co

2000 Selfridges announces plans to open a Birmingham store designed by Future Store Systems in 2003

2000 Planned redevelopment at the back of the Oxford Street store into a 50 000m2 office, residential and leisure space, designed by Lord Foster

2000 Peter Saville is appointed creative consultant to design team

2001 Ashleigh Vinall, previously at Debenhams, is appointed as creative studio manager of the design team, composed of six people in the window team, four in graphics and four in production January 2001 Selfridges’ Christmas trading statement, for the six weeks over Christmas, showed a rise in sales of 1 per cent over the past year for the London store and a rise in 22 per cent over the past year for the Manchester store. Sales for the second half of the year are up 5 per cent for the London store and 22 per cent for the Manchester store 22 March 2001 Selfridges due to publish its annual figures

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