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How department stores can stay relevant (and chic)

Handout | Andrew Meredith/Handout | Andrew Meredith

Before zooming in on clothes from the likes of Lanvin, Givenchy and Alexander McQueen, Alannah Weston wants me to notice the floor. We are walking through the glossy new Women's Designer Galleries at Selfridges & Co.'s London flagship, where Weston serves as creative director. Throughout much of the 1,865-square-metre space, an expanse of beautifully honed marble – 10 different varieties, in fact – rests underfoot, conveying considerable grandeur without much flash.

For the labels that occupy a section of the gallery's periphery – this is the prime real estate – the marble extends almost seamlessly into flooring characteristic of each brand's stand-alone store: The Prada area, for instance, boasts the same black-and- white-checkerboard marble as its newest boutique on rue du Faubourg Saint- Honoré in Paris, while Lanvin features unfinished herringbone wood.

Toward the far end, behind a grouping of the avant-garde lines Haider Ackermann, Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, the marble sweeps upward from the floor like a cresting wave, forming a dramatic translucent wall in front of a bank of windows, allowing just enough natural light to filter into the space.

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The project is the third major one that Weston, whose father is Toronto-based retailing mogul Galen Weston, owner of Loblaws and Holt Renfrew in Canada as well as the Selfridges chain in Britain, has undertaken inside the Oxford Street department store since joining the company in 2004. While the new galleries may seem conventional at first glance – the space still hews to the standard shop-in-shop (or "brand corner") template – they represent a "huuuuge," in Weston's words, departure for the iconic store, which never previously offered such a significant selection of ready-to-wear clothing from many of the brands (only accessories were typical). This focusing on a higher price point and a more fashion-forward aesthetic appears to be part of a larger strategy to tweak the perception of Selfridges as a retailer at the forefront of trends and good taste – not just a purveyor of product.

A cornerstone of this strategy: The Selfridges Edit, a studiously stocked area occupying the middle part of the space and containing such cachet-heavy offerings as Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh, Maison Martin Margiela and, as I discovered on a subsequent visit, the same black A.F. Vandevorst dress that Weston was wearing during her interview (price: a comparatively reasonable £430).

"We're all so rushed and want a boutique-style edit," says Weston, who has a two- and a four-year-old. "We want to arrive in the store and not just shop it like a mall."

By taking this direction, Selfridges is throwing down a luxe gauntlet to Dover Street Market, a destination that trades in high-end edge. The difference is that Dover Street Market is cool to the point of intimidating; the Designer Galleries – for which she once again enlisted Londonbased Canadian architect Jamie Fobert, who worked on the adjacent, well-received Shoe Galleries – are more familiar.

Describing the vibe as "elegant and high-quality without being glitzy," Weston is no stranger to clever positioning. Prior to joining Selfridges and acting as press officer at Burberry under then-chief executive officer Rose Marie Bravo, she had launched a branding agency as well as an art gallery at Windsor, the idyllic Florida compound founded by her parents in 1998. "It's a bit like curating a show in a gallery because it's the positioning next to each other that makes the things more interesting," Weston says of the new Selfridges space. And she describes the interior renovations undertaken to create it – Selfridges' historic exterior wasn't touched – as if she had built an installation. "I know a shop fit can't last forever, but the building itself can. That's very much how I brief the architects: 'You are not here to change the envelope. You are here to restore it and then provide an installation.'"

In any case, she says, "I think product is always going to be king. It's that bag or that dress that will draw somebody somewhere. Of course you want something stunning that elevates the product and makes you feel, 'Wow, I'm in a really special place.'"

That's where that magnificent marble floor, the unexpected product groupings and – oh, yes – the futuristic change room boasting a camera wall that allows you to e-mail pictures to yourself or a friend come into play.

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"The department-store model can only work if it plays to its strengths," Weston concludes. "And its strengths are that I don't have to leave the shop and go down the street and into another shop" to find a host of brands and a world of options.

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