Interview: The retail therapist

Vittorio Radice can make the word `marketing' sound romantic and sell CK to the most Calvinist of Britons. Having already worked his magic for Habitat, he is now busy transforming the look and fortunes of Selfridges. E Jane Dickson can `feel the quality' of his enthusiasm. Photograph by Anthony Oliver

Vittorio Radice is so cool he doesn't look down when he steps off an escalator.

Nor does he swerve and sidestep the orange-faced harpies waiting to ambush the unwary with the latest fragrance in the perfume hall. Radice, the 42 year old, Prada-wearing, Arsenal-supporting managing director of Selfridges, is as groovy as chief executives come, but he's not the kind of man you would spray without asking. Up on men's fashion, jumpers are folded furiously at his approach (he has a big thing about folding) and staff stand a little straighter as they return his cheery salute. You begin to see why, when Radice, who has the impressive knack of being both affable and absolutely alert, swoops on a counter which could do with a polish. Nothing is said; there is the merest exhalation of annoyance as Radice swipes at the offending dust with his cuff, but if I were the salesperson on that stand, I'd be going to bed with a duster in my hand for quite some time to come.

Since his arrival at Selfridges in March 1996, Radice has masterminded a total revamp of the doughty old lady of Oxford Street. Prior to the appointment of this charismatic Milanese, whose elastic vowels can make the word "marketing" sound romantic, there was more than a touch of Grace Brothers about the store, which opened in 1909 and preserved its aura of double-gusseted respectability well into the Nineties. If you had a hankering for say, coronation chicken or a pair of driving gloves, you might tootle down to Selfridges. Today, after its pounds 100m makeover, it is all sushi and pink pashminas.

"The whole concept of shopping has changed," says Radice. "People don't need things any more because they already have everything." If this is true, no one has told the customer in the La Perla underwear concession who is scooping up pounds 30 knickers like she's auditioning for Supermarket Sweep. When she can't find her size in ecru, she looks desolate, physically diminished. Radice understands this. "Shopping is less and less about commodity and more and more about emotion," he explains. "Today, when you buy a jumper, you're not buying it because you need a jumper. It's because you want to feel that you're riding a horse in the middle of the Arizona desert, and when you buy the Ralph Lauren jumper you're halfway there." In the mouth of almost any other marketing man, this could sound smug and sneering. With Radice, it sounds like a personal invitation. "The reason I love marketing is because I like making people happy. Spending money is fantastic."

It is fantastically un-British, this sunny materialism of Radice's, but it seems that we are gradually losing our Calvinist inhibitions. Radice came to Selfridges from Habitat, where he sold a dream of cream sofas to a nation of late-night curry eaters and doubled the turnover in three years. His three-year masterplan for Selfridges, which de-merged from the Sears group in 1998, is already showing dividends. At a time when most established city stores are feeling the pinch from out-of-town upstarts, Selfridges has announced a 15 per cent profit for the last financial year. Radice gives the breezy impression that "recession" is some quaint English notion he has yet to master. "In the ten years I have been in this country, I have seen Britain become much more receptive to new ideas," he says. "Just look at the success of restaurants in London recently. Why shouldn't the same thing happen in retail."

The bloodless tag of "marketing man' does not sit well on Radice. He is rather an old-fashioned merchant with a hands-on "feel the quality" enthusiasm for his merchandise. He grew up around his family's furniture business near Milan; his father sold furniture and his uncle manufactured it. By way of teenage rebellion, Vittorio elected for a degree in agri- chemicals, but his heart was never in it.

Following his military service, where his personable manner and education recommended him for the position of PA to a general - no bad training for a future chief executive - he worked for a construction company that built department stores in Libya. A ten-year stint as the home furnishings buying director in Milan for Associated Merchandising Company, the American leviathan, followed. While at AMC he impressed Glen Senk, senior vice president of Bloomingdales, with his confidence and flair and when Senk was drafted in to run Habitat in the UK, he brought Radice with him. Delighted to be considered an "honorary Londoner", Radice lives in Belsize Park, with his wife Gemma, who teaches dyslexic children, and his two sons, Tommaso, 12, and Nicola, nine. The boys already know every inch and item in Selfridges. "I let them run around the store on a Saturday morning," says Radice, as if he can devise no better treat. He was equally indulgent with the BBC film crew who followed the upheavals in the store for a warts-and-alls documentary screened last year. Naturally the cameras homed in on the characters who gave the best telly and the overall impression was not one to inspire confidence in shareholders already nervous about the effects of the "repositioning".

"I have no regrets at all about that programme." says Radice. "I think it helped tremendously. We were going to make a big change and we had to communicate it to many people. There was no better way to do this than a documentary on BBC1 at 8.30 in the evening." He is also happy to report that all the featured staff members are still in his employ.

Bringing Selfridges up to scratch, however, required radical surgery. "I tell you," says Radice, with emotion, "the day they shut down the cosmetics hall on the ground floor for refurbishment, it was as if our heart had stopped beating." The aim of the overhaul was to reposition Selfridges as "the house of brands". The store's famously dowdy menswear and womenswear floors are the most spectacularly transformed, with sumptuously appointed in-store boutiques for every big name in fashion. "What you want is the feeling you get when you walk down Bond Street," explains Radice. "You enter the Gucci store there or the Gucci space here and it is the same experience, the same ambience, staff with the same kind of knowledge of the product. But our big advantage is that here, if you want to return a Gucci jumper, you can pick up some Patrick Cox shoes instead. Our great luck is that we have all these little departments - like our pharmacy, and the newsstand and the shoeshine - which a lot of big stores have had to do away with. And we have 15 different restaurants. My vision," he goes on, eyes shining, "is for people to come and spend the whole day in the place, buying or just sightseeing, I don't much mind. Even if they buy nothing, the shop is at its best when it's full of people."

The idea of spending an entire day in a department store, however sprauncy, may be faintly appalling but it hardly seems polite to say so to Radice. He is particularly pleased with what he calls the "adjacencies", a linear progression of "lifestyle" brands which he has worked out as carefully as any dinner-party seating plan. Starting at the west end of womenswear, Nicole Farhi, Armani and other grown-up brands are grouped together, chatting among themselves, as it were, of nannies and Tuscan villas, while at the other end of the store D&G and Versace are whooping it up in sequins and frills. Basically what it boils down to is that anyone who is a size six can take the Duke Street entrance. "I know, I know," says Radice, "I always start at the young end of menswear, but I can never find my size, so I have to move along and I can see myself getting older as I walk down the corridor."

He hasn't quite ended up in the pinstripe wing yet, and insists that the suit he is wearing was chosen for the stretch in the fabric. And what is the label? "Well, it's Prada," he says, as convincingly nonchalant as a man who drives a Ferrari for the radio reception. And if there's one thing he likes better than an adjacency, it's an unimpeded vista. "Look," he says, with a theatrical sweep of the arm, "for the first time in the history of the building, you can see from one end to the other."

Certainly, the old beaux-arts building has been treated with enormous sympathy. Equal attention has been given to details - like the restoration of marble columns and removing the garish Eighties gilding from the monumental bronze doors - and to the broad strokes, like the new five-floor atrium, with its colossal statue of Josephine Baker, commissioned by Radice from his friend Eduardo Paolozzi.

The relevance of La Baker, the American dancer who took Paris by storm, to Oxford Street is not immediately apparent, but Radice is happy to fill in the gaps: "Gordon Selfridge and Josephine Baker were both Americans," he says, delighted with the coincidence. "They both did something revolutionary in the same era: one opened Selfridges and the other opened the Folies Bergere. And both died in poverty!"

There you are then. Put that way, it would be foolish to erect a statue of anybody but Josephine Baker. And watching Radice in full flight, you begin to see what makes a brilliant salesman. "It's not about the product," he says, gesturing to the myriad un-needed objects that surround him. "It's about the passion"

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