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Retail princess Alannah Weston, a maverick impresario Add to ...

She has hired mock superheroes to rappel down the side of the historic 101-year-old building in the middle of London's busy Oxford Street. In 2007, she opened the Wonder Room, a gift shop of luxuries for people who have everything. To launch it, she invited - who else? - Stevie Wonder.

Another year, a model stripped naked inside one of the windows as part of a fragrance promotion. Soon came a tattoo parlour and an art gallery, where she has orchestrated inventive exhibitions to tie in with large art shows at some of London's most prestigious museums, galleries and festivals.

Alannah Weston has retail in her blood, but she has proven herself to be a maverick impresario. She has turned the massive Selfridges flagship store - at more than a half-million square feet, the art deco building is the size of a small village - into a cultural talking point, a kind of theatrical nexus of fashion, music, history, art and celebrity filled with things to consume as ideas and to buy.

In the process, she effectively silenced the sharp tongues that clucked about nepotism when her father, billionaire Galen Weston, appointed her creative director of the iconic British department store.

Sales in 2009 were £864-million ($1.4-billion), which represents a 50-per-cent increase since she started and a 100-per-cent rise in profit, her team reports - a significant accomplishment in the uncertain British economy.

Mr. Weston, who lives mainly in Canada, bought Selfridges in 2003 for a reported £628-million, taking it private, and a year later hired his daughter, the elder (by 10 months) of his two children. Worth an estimated $7.4-billion, he heads up a family empire (Loblaws, Holt Renfrew, Weston Foods and Brown Thomas in Ireland) that puts them No. 2 on Canada rich list and No. 132 in Forbes magazine annual calculation of the world's wealthiest.

"With people, when I started here, maybe they were very conscious of who I was and didn't know how to treat me or what to say … but then I think they sort of gradually forget because we're so busy getting on with our work and they see I have as many foibles and strengths as anyone they might work for," says Ms. Weston, a tall, willowy 38-year-old, who sits at a table in her large office at the chain's landmark store in the heart of London, hands folded in front of her, prim as a school girl, dressed in a simple Vionnet silk dress and Isabel Marant high-heeled shoes. She pauses momentarily and pushes her long blond hair off her face. "Well, that's the way I hope it works," she offers with a shy smile that produces a dimple in her cheek.

Her aristocratic manner, as polished as her appearance, comes with supreme discretion. She doesn't blow her own horn and is not self-aggrandizing - in fact, she's the opposite, often self-deprecating.

"Well, they weren't going to make me financial director," she jokes of her position as creative director. That task belongs to Paul Kelly, vice-chairman of Selfridges and a trusted Weston family lieutenant who has worked for them for almost 25 years. "I've known him all my life," says Ms. Weston, acknowledging that the close connection - and the financial sounding board he provides - makes it easier to do her job.

Gordon Selfridge was an American innovator who ran his fashion emporium based on a series of aphorisms. "Develop imagination, throw away routine," he said, Ms. Weston recalls. The point was to entertain the customer. He made the Oxford Street property a stylish female-friendly store, with reading rooms, lavish restrooms and exotic displays such as the Blériot XI plane after its cross-Channel flight the year the store opened and later the first television in 1925. But over the years, under different management, the Selfridge legacy had waxed and waned. Ms. Weston's daring exploits to bring it back with a vengeance are regularly featured in British Vogue, Wallpaper and other media outlets that cater to the wealthy international set.

In many ways, she is her ideal customer: busy, arty, fun, international in outlook and well-connected. For many years, her parents have rented Fort Belvedere, a house in Windsor Great Park, from the Crown Estate. Friends with Prince Charles - her father plays polo with him - they are likely to be invited to the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in the spring.

Like many in the upper echelons of British life, she can be irreverent. Before she married, she was known for outré art shows in her home. Once, when she was younger, she paraded around Holt Renfrew at Christmas, dressed in a sweater that matched that of the dog she held on a leash. But she respects her rarefied place in society and her duty.

The Westons have never had the snobby belief that shopkeeping was beneath them, the undoing of some retail dynasties such as the Eatons. Her younger brother, Galen Jr., heads up Loblaws in Canada.

During family gatherings, talking about retail is "pretty much all we do," she confesses with a laugh. (The Weston clan includes cousins in London who run Associated British Foods and Fortnum & Mason, another high-end department store.) "I try to make a rule with my dad not to talk about it on the weekend … because you can burn yourself out. You really can. And he's relentless in that respect."

Her "workaholic tendencies" have abated somewhat now that she and her husband of 3½ years, architect Alexander Cochrane, have two toddlers. (They met at his christening in Ireland, she laughs - their parents are friends - "and then I didn't see him again for 35 years.") She currently works three days a week in the office, but on her days off she comes to the store often with her daughters, Maia and Lola, aged 3 and 1, respectively.

Inculcation in the family business was what she knew as a child, too. Her first memory is getting lost in the china department of Brown Thomas in Dublin when she was a toddler. Later, in Canada, "my dad used to drag us around every Saturday in the car, going to all the Loblaws stores and we used to count how many people were at the tills.

She had a choice about joining the family business, she insists. The key was that her father never pushed her. "It took time, and he let me take my time." Having studied English literature at the University of Oxford's Merton College, she always wanted to be a writer. But after working as a journalist, writing about art, for London's The Daily Telegraph, she was discontent. Her father introduced her to Rose Marie Bravo, who was in the early stages of revamping the Burberry brand.

She left her tutelage in 2001 after two years to set up her own design agency, Zephyr Projects, that produced brochures, books, catalogues, logos and packaging for the art world and fashion industry. Holt Renfrew was a client. She also worked as creative director the family's elite 416-acre residential community, called Windsor, built on a barrier island near Vero Beach, Fla. In addition to a marketing campaign and printed materials for the real estate project, she organized high-level art installations for a gallery she convinced her parents to open there. "You see, I could never get away from the family business," she says, raising her eyebrows in mock exasperation. "It was always driving me back."

 

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