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The best department stores in London


With centuries of success between them, London’s leading department stores are the aristocrats of retail, as popular today as they have always been

Hannah Lewis / © Katie Wilson-Ells
Hannah Lewis ,

In 2016, Fenwick of Bond Street celebrates 125 years at its prestigious London address. The department store opened in 1891 and remains one of the most famous in the city, as respected today as it was in its first years of success. Still in the hands of the Fenwick family, it is one of the major fashion destinations in the British capital. Offering fashion, beauty, spa treatments, restaurants and more, Fenwick has been one of the city’s best-loved retail spaces for over 12 decades.

Enduring appeal
While London can’t claim to be the indisputable birthplace of the department store, the city has a real affinity with these spaces, and is home to some of the most famous in the world. Fenwick is not even the oldest among them. Harrods, Liberty and Fortnum & Mason all pre-date it, the latter having first opened as early as 1707. Selfridges, though younger that the others, has nonetheless been delighting customers since 1909. So what makes London’s leading department stores so enduring?

Taste of history
Their very longevity is an alluring factor. From Liberty’s Tudor-revival façade to the Beaux-Arts architecture of Selfridges, the structures that house these stores act as advertisements for their heritage. Maintaining and even expanding on such standout design – see, for example, the Egyptian-themed escalator at Harrods – reinforces the power of this sense of nostalgia. Walk through the doors of any of these department stores and your experience has much in common with that of a visitor a hundred or more years ago.

Endless innovations
But, of course, tradition is not the only draw. The stores are loved for their ability to balance classic, time-tested elements with the completely new. Liberty, for example, is on a constant quest to challenge expectations, and has been known for its fashion-forward, often alternative concepts since its launch in 1875. The iconic mock Tudor structure which has housed the store since 1924 contains an impressive variety of departments, from the traditional to the unexpected.

The barbershop in the menswear department is run by Murdock London, one of the capital’s most fashionable men’s grooming names. This autumn, alternative jewellery label Maria Tash will open a permanent boutique within Liberty, following on from its highly successful pop-up. Interestingly, while the department store concept may seem traditional, it allows constant flux: small but significant changes to separate departments can be made as often as necessary.

All under one roof
The variety offered in these spaces is a major appeal, and London’s top department stores offer almost everything imaginable. While other retailers are just beginning to expand their offerings in a bid to draw customers away from e-commerce, establishments such as Fortnum & Mason have been providing this diversity for years. Founded in 1707 by William Fortnum and Hugh Mason, the store initially sold groceries and speciality foods, and gradually expanded to offer much more – including leather goods, gifts and luxurious homewares.

But what makes Fortnum & Mason stand out as a destination is its dining options – in particular its famous afternoon tea. The Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, opened by none other than Queen Elizabeth II, is consistently listed as one of the quintessential places in London to take afternoon tea. The department store is more than a retail space: it’s somewhere to spend quality time.

Theatre of retail
This is also true of Selfridges. When it opened in 1909, the beautiful Beaux-Arts style building – which even today seems more like an aristocratic residence than a store – had an impressive 100 departments, as well as restaurants, a roof garden, and reading and writing rooms. The space had more the feel of a private club than a boutique, which delighted discerning clients. American founder Harry Gordon Selfridge was known for his commitment to the ‘theatre of retail’ – for taking the experience of shopping to a new level – and his legacy remains at the store which bears his name. The ever-changing window displays reflect this; from designer collaborations to the unmissable Christmas displays, they have become almost as much of a draw as the products they showcase.

Customers come first
But perhaps Harry Selfridge’s greatest legacy is the famous theory of service that he is credited with originating: ‘The customer is always right.’ This philosophy can be seen in action across all London’s famous department stores; for example, the Harrods motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique translates from Latin to English as ‘All things for all people, everywhere’. Each has an extensive staff of knowledgeable employees, all committed to providing the best customer service possible, whatever you desire, from a coffee to go to a made-to-measure garment. Whatever you are seeking, they will make it their mission to find it for you – with courtesy and a smile; and that is why customers return time and again.

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