Architecture: Are you being modernised?

Selfridges' bright, modern refurbishment may just be at the root of the store's recent improved fortunes.
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The Independent Culture
Just inside Selfridges on Oxford Street a nine foot tall busty bronze woman strides out with nuts and bolts for knees, pistons instead of hips and a flapper haircut-like helmet. This Valkyrian woman, modelled on the Twenties dancer Josephine Baker by Eduardo Paolozzi, is seen by the chief executive of Selfridges as symbolising Modernism.

Vittorio Radice, a 42-year-old Italian, is a Modernist bent on shaking up a few traditions in the staid world of retailing by employing interior designers and architects. "In spirit, Josephine Baker matches fellow American Gordon Selfridge's fun-loving metropolitan dream from back in 1909 when he opened Selfridges," he says. At the time it was the largest building ever designed as a single shop in the West End.

Both Josephine and Gordon died in poverty, a reminder to Radice of the fickle fortunes of daring to be different. On the eve of announcing interim trading figures for Selfridges, Radice is wearing a Prada black suit with a black tie, but it's a fashion statement, not a funereal one, because the news is good.

Trading, which began to rise late last summer, is still on the up. This time last year, just three years after Vittorio Radice embarked on his ambitious face-lift, the famous Oxford Street store had a pounds 600,000 drop in profits when sales fell over a year from pounds 131.4m to pounds 126.8m. Naturally, the store refurbishment - and the weather - was blamed. Will the analysts now acknowledge the importance of the architecture to the store's improved fortunes?

Headhunted from Habitat, where chucking out the chintz in favour of solid colour was a success, the first thing Radice did was invest pounds 100m in new store design, services and infrastructure. It was not so much to give Selfridges a new look - although they did - as to bring back the "feel good" factor of shopping and browsing. He wanted a "fresh, modern, clean store that captures the young while keeping their mothers and grandmothers loyal".

Ninety years of shopping till they dropped at Selfridges had left the interiors in need of a face-lift. The Eighties in particular hadn't been kind to the old Beaux Arts building. Ionic columns picked out in gold seemed to be a statement about conspicuous consumption; everything was a bit flash. The bas-relief at the front entrance had had its bronze Art Nouveau leaves and Art Deco lozenges picked out in expensive gold leaf. Buffing it back to a tasteful dulled patina took three months. Neon lights like giant sunbeds suspended from horrible ceiling grilles, partition walls, and grey carpets all went in the skip.

One of the things not to go was the special services that you can only get at a department store all under one roof. So you can still park your car, get your shoes shone, buy a paper, drink an espresso and get your luggage repaired. But now you can do it more glamorously.

Turning around a department store is a bit like stopping an oil tanker. The masterplan was to clear out the clutter: hundreds of different brands setting up stalls under one roof created something very like a souk. The brands are still there but their differences have been resolved in a unified environment. Three banks of escalators and two main aisles on six floors keep the customers moving. Circulation flow is critical to good shopping.

For the first time in its 90-year history, the view from one side of the 150m-long store to the other is unobstructed. Christian Liagre, French designer of the new Mercer hotel in New York and the supermodel sanatorium, the Hotel Montalembert in Paris, revived the ground-floor beauty department. Now some 2,100 square metres have twinkling mirrors softened by the palest coral- and lilac-painted walls. A whiff of extravagance hangs in the air alongside Murano glass chandeliers designed by Liagre to put the customers in a good light. Eventually, you'll be able to swim and have treatments in the health spa as well as a complete makeover; meanwhile, Liagre is working on phase two - another 5,000 square metres of the ground floor which houses men's accessories.

For fashion on the second floor, Vittorio Radice, who likes designers to see the big picture, chose Vincent Van Duysen for what Radice describes as "warm and friendly minimalism". Like his fellow Belgian fashion designers Annie de Meulemeister and Martin Marghiela, he pruned back to the essentials. Rather than partition walls, he uses bench-like tables and stolid red screens, together with changes in flooring and ceiling materials to create different oases. Rediscovered marble columns have been restored and windows unblocked for more natural light. The old neon lights have gone, replaced with beams that focus on clothing details to highlight special features.

Next, the sports department will have ski slopes to try out skis, a tank full of water in which any passer-by can try out waterproof garments, and running tracks to test trainers. "Performance is important as a spectator sport, as well as for trying and testing products," says Radice, having observed the endless fascination the shoe-shine girl provides on the ground floor. The kids' area is also going to get good architecture, enlivened with electronic games and more interactive things to do.

"Department stores a hundred years ago used to be places you went to feel good. To shop, linger, lunch, experiment, discover something new. I want to bring back that excitement," explains Radice.

By the Nineties, the store had more in common with the TV series Are You Being Served? in the way that products were grouped. Sections for haberdashery, hats, leisurewear and formal wear don't make sense now that every designer markets the entire look, head to toe. Shedding its fuddy-duddy image was an important step. BBC TV even ran a series last autumn on Selfridges called The Shop, showing its new style police taking Polaroids of things that were either in or out. Radice didn't mind. "Good viewing," he says. "If they hadn't put in all the drama, the viewers would have changed channel. Peaktime viewing for half an hour a week for six weeks could only be good for business."

Selfridges is now the store you want to be seen in, along with those of Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and younger designers. Monica Lewinsky signed books there last Thursday, and thousands came along. Just as complexes like Bluewater open with 320-unit malls, Selfridges is revitalising "downtown", as its founder would call it.

And the West End store's response to the arguments of urban regeneration versus out-of-town shopping may mean the difference between a billion- dollar success story and oblivion.

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