The Selfridges scion making a splash
The creative director of Oxford Street's boldest department store talks fish, fashion and life in the Weston dynasty
Sunday 15 May 2011
Famous for its canary-yellow bags and vast Oxford Street flagship, Selfridges has always been a bold presence on the high street.
The same couldn't be said of Alannah Weston, the department store's 39-year-old creative director, who has kept a low profile since taking on the post eight years ago.
But in an unusual step into the limelight, Weston last week launched Project Ocean, a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of over-fishing. With the backing of the Prince of Wales and the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Weston hopes to highlight the worrying depletion of the world's fish stocks.
"My goal is to make the ocean issue embedded in Selfridges DNA," she tells me in a rare interview in her penthouse office over Oxford Street. "Conservation has always communicated the challenges but not the solutions. So I said 'what could a person do?'"
Weston first became concerned about fish stocks two years ago after her brother, Galen, returned from an environmental conference in Copenhagen. He suggested introducing a policy of only buying fish from sustainable sources throughout Selfridges – even the sandwiches – which has been implemented.
A raft of other initiatives has also been launched, of which more in a moment, but first I want to find out about life as a Weston, the famously private Canadian-Irish retail dynasty. Alannah is the daughter of Sir Galen Weston, who bought Selfridges in 2003 for an estimated $958m (£590m). He is the grandson of George Weston, a cockney émigré who was a baker's apprentice aged 12, but became Canada's biggest baker. Today, the Weston family own controlling stakes in 200 companies in Canada, including the supermarket Loblaws, as well as many British brands, including Fortnum & Mason, Primark and Heals.
Through the Garfield Weston Foundation, they are among the most generous supporters of the arts in Britain. Little is known about the Westons, except that they are hard-working and private. Alannah is no exception.
"It's in my blood," she says. "I have always been raised to work. My family always assumed we would work. Not necessarily in the business but at something. There's no way that I could be idle."
Weston was an arts journalist before joining Selfridges. She is married to an architect and lives in West London with two young children. She describes herself as "very Canadian" and says she likes nothing better than to put on her Birkenstocks and a backpack and go on a hike, though she admits her West London friends may not know that about her.
She seems at home in office environment though, and judging by the endless scurrying and bowing and scraping among her many assistants, no doubt she can be a formidable boss. But work, and getting it right, has clearly always been important.
"My parents wanted us to get an education, then do whatever we chose. We grew up with our dad talking about work. When I was a kid I would take chocolate puddings to school and do taste tests on the other kids. My dad used to drive us round the supermarkets every weekend. So, we grew up with it. Although I spent a lot of time doing journalism and in the art world, in the end I couldn't say no when he said come and work here."
Weston is close to her father, though he gives her free rein. Project Ocean was her idea, and is timely, as Fearnley-Whittingstall is lobbying Parliament to end the Common Fisheries Policy as a result of which dead fish are thrown back into the sea.
Weston has commissioned a one-off T-shirt from designer Katharine Hamnett, a stark black and white design which says "No more fish in the sea?". Another initiative of which she is proud is the digital interactive window, in which passers-by can name a fish instantly by texting a number. Selfridges has also published a consumers' guide to buying fish, which suggests alternatives to endangered varieties.
But perhaps the most significant part of the project is that Selfridges has put money into protecting a swath of the ocean in the Philippines from over-fishing.
"Part of the problem is that there are no borders in the ocean," says Weston. "It's very difficult to govern. I would never profess to have the solution, but there is a lot of pressure at the moment to come up with one."
Weston's passion is infectious, but then, the Westons are not only interested in making money. "Doing Project Ocean was not the most obvious thing," says Weston, "When I first presented it to the team, they were like, why would you do that? But my dad just went straight for it. He loves anything that creates a buzz.
"The other night we had a dinner to thank everyone who has helped out, and he said: 'Alannah, keep those kind of brains around you, and what an interesting life you'll have.'
"So it's not just about selling stuff: it's about having an interesting life and working with people who are doing meaningful things."
1972: Born in County Wicklow, Ireland, to Hilary and Galen Weston, Canadian-Irish retail billionaires and philanthropists. The family divide their time between Ireland and Canada.
1994: Graduates from Merton College, Oxford, and becomes a journalist, working on an arts supplement for The Daily Telegraph; then moves to luxury fashion retailer Burberry as head of international press.
2003: Galen Weston buys Selfridges for just under a billion dollars, and appoints Alannah creative director.
2007: Marries architect Alexander Cochrane in a ceremony in Surrey. They have two young children.
2007: Selfridges records profits of £84.1m. Alannah launches the Wonder Room, with a surprise performance by Stevie Wonder.
2011: Launches Project Ocean.
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