Visiting Harrods, the gargantuan department store in the heart of Knightsbridge, is an inevitable rite of passage for visitors to London. Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and Hamleys all have their charms, but Harrods holds a different kind of allure. The doormen, dressed in iconic Harrods forest green and gold are the retail equivalent of Beefeaters, the ceremonial guardians at the Tower. The spiralling elevator staircase carries customers up to the Egyptian-themed retail heavens; pillars that wouldn’t look out of place in King Tutankhamen’s tomb are just one of the features of the kitsch yet regal décor. The Harrods shopping experience combines tradition and theatricality and the store is as deeply ingrained into the London map as the Central line. Harrods was recently sold to the Qatari royal family for an amazing £1.5bn. Will those Egyptian pillars still be standing in a year’s time? With its future in question, Harrods’s place in the heart of the city has never been more keenly felt.
Harrods welcomes 15m customers each year through its gilt doors. It has 330 departments, selling everything from pets to papayas to perfume, employs over 4,000 staff and covers over 1m square feet; not bad for a store that began life in 1849 in a single room. Founded by Charles Henry Harrod, it employed two assistants and a messenger boy to sell its mainstay of tea and groceries. Part of the store’s mystery, its unique selling point, is the lore that has seeped into the fixtures and fittings of the very building. One of the most famous dictums is that, if something couldn’t be found in Harrods, it didn't exist. The store’s pet shop sold all manner of exotic creatures until the 70s; there is a YouTube video showing the former owners of the lion cub purchased at Harrods in the swinging London of the 60s. The original Harrods escalator, introduced in 1898, is believed to have been one of the world’s first and induced fainting fits among Victorian maidens giddy on the experience. The store maintains a door policy that forbids shorts, flip flops and ripped jeans, which meant pop star Jason Donovan was turned away at the height of his fame in the early 90s. Harrods also features a memorial to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, son of former store owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, who died in a car crash in 1997. The Harrods motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique – all things for all people, everywhere.
‘There’s something solid, something reassuring, about Harrods,’ says fashion historian Judith Watt. ‘In a retail environment competing for newness, Harrods doesn’t play the game. It doesn't need concepts and shock-and-awe tactics. It inhabits a historical place in London retail, and there’s a personal engagement with the customer; true, most Londoners do not shop there, but everyone remembers their first trip to Harrods.’
This isn’t to say, however, that the store languishes in dust and cobwebs, reliving its colourful past like the retail equivalent of Miss Havisham, the recluse in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In recent years, Harrods has established itself as a competitive force in bringing new names to the London consumer. Fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee, who steered Harrods through recession to report a sales surge of 9% in 2008, has been instrumental in bringing brands such as Lanvin, Balmain and Givenchy to the Harrods customer. McKee is so influential that Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council, consulted her over his luring of Burberry and Matthew Williamson back to the fashion capital.
The store does not only operate in the upper fashion echelons; McKee has been instrumental in garnering a new raft of design talent and supporting London’s burgeoning fashion talent. In 2003, Harrods joined forces with Central Saint Martins, the fashion college that has nurtured the careers of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan and Christopher Kane, to create the Harrods Design Award. At the graduate shows that take place during London Fashion Week, one student is picked to receive the award. The prize? The star pieces are displayed in the windows of Harrods for one week, an honour that MA course director Louise Wilson credits as ‘priceless in terms of exposure’. Christopher Kane, the 2006 winner, saw his graduate collection of complex spider-web dresses paraded in front of Knightsbridge shoppers. ‘It was surreal,’ he said of the experience. ‘It was an honour to be part of this timeless, world-famous destination.’