For in recent years there has been a big yellow sign on the corner of Selfridge’s on London’s Oxford Street that says: “Let’s change the way we shop.” Walk a few hundred yards in any direction down “Britain’s high street” and you’ll uncover evidence that a large proportion of pre-pandemic Oxford Street’s 200 million annual customers have already accepted that invitation, leaving department stores online. .
The idea of shopping as a leisure activity was invented here in the 19th century. The wide Georgian sidewalks, plate-glass store fronts, and novelty street lights encouraged visitors to stand “six people deep” to graciously covet the illuminated headgear or pyramids of fruit. Jane Austen was an early follower of retail therapy and she guiltily admitted in a letter that she once spent £5 on a trip to Oxford Street, about £500 today.
Go in search of that experience now, as I did on sweltering afternoons last week, and you’ll find row upon row of once-familiar, boarded-up storefronts. Debenhams went into administration in 2019 and House of Fraser continued through the pandemic. John Lewis, who has been here since 1864, is in the process of selling his upper floors for offices. Topshop’s teenage dreams, a symbol of ’90s fast fashion excesses, are covered by real-estate billboards in which suggestions of “being the future” compete with graffiti tags. There’s long been an air of desperation among shoppers here, clutching Zara bags as they step over rough sleepers, beckoning for “charity muggers” and Hare Krishnas to come to Primark, but now you can convince yourself that you are seeing the last of a dying man. race.
Even the big Marks & Spencer store that flanks Selfridge’s, once a tourist destination to rival St Paul’s and Madam Tussaud’s, will be demolished and replaced with a new office and retail block. The now ousted Michael Gove ordered a stay on the building for environmental reasons. M&S’s new chief executive, Stuart Machin, is outraged that he can’t reduce his most famous store to rubble. Since the pandemic, Oxford Street has been “on its knees”, he says, and “in danger of becoming a district of dinosaurs”. And anyway, the M&S flagship “is now their website”.
Selfridge’s, meanwhile, isn’t about to give up the “retail experience” invented by its namesake creator in 1909 so quickly. The yellow sign about changing shopping was not a digital surrender but a promise to “reinvent retail by putting people and the planet at the center of our thinking.” Those plans involved adding to the eternal treadmill of shoppers with ever newer things with a new collection of rental clothes, an in-store “repair janitor” dedicated to fixing worn-out items, and a second-hand clothing and accessories store. hand.
This project seems like a pretty serious evolution of Harry Selfridge’s original concept of “giving women what they want.” His famous stunts at the store (a million shoppers came in its first week of opening to see Louis Blériot’s cross-channel monoplane) have also evolved. This week saw the launch of Selfridge’s in-store and showcase dedicated to “SUPERFUTURES”. Exhibits include reimagined mannequins whose “deconstructed layers capture the meaning of owning a garment” and “sustainable display materials” that “question mass production models within the context of temporary installation design.” The window shoppers who stopped by seemed less astonished than puzzled.
What is happening beyond Selfridge’s gates seems no less surreal. The symbols of the current decline of the street (one in five stores is empty, the footfall is still 30% below pre-pandemic levels) have become the American candy stores that have multiplied in empty premises, with windows full of flashy bags of Cheetos and Pop. Pies and Apple Jacks. Thirty of these shops are currently under investigation by the new Westminster Labor Council for tax fraud and selling counterfeit goods. There have been headlines about the seizure of £22,000 worth of fake Wonka chocolate bars, shell companies set up to avoid the £7.9m levy on vacant premises, price gouging at pick n’ mix and suspicions of money laundering. .
Walking among them in 85°F heat is a circular experience from hell: a circuit of big candy stores without children. I browsed for half an hour without seeing anyone buy anything from the uninterested young men dressed in black, who man the vape counters and currency exchange counters in the back of the store. Questions about how they make a living or how they pay rent with all this stock were answered with vaguely threatening shrugs.
Some social historians could see, in these operations, the street returning to its roots. Yale London survey The series devotes an entire volume to Oxford Street, characterizing it as a place of “persistent incoherence”, for centuries a muddy painful way lined with pubs, nude boxing venues, street vendors and street vendors. Its livelihood depended on the fact that it was the shortest route from the Old Bailey courts to the gallows at Tyburn (now Marble Arch), where tens of thousands of people watched the weekly executions. The scorers needed a place to eat and, more urgently, to drink.
In his 1991 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren rolled past Selfridges and suggested that the screams of the hanged men could still be heard. He was brought here as a child every Christmas with a grandmother who told him stories that once upon a time there were more prostitutes than horses walking these streets and showing him where Thomas De Quincey bought his drugs.
As now, there have always been plans to improve the character of the place, make sense of it, or restore it to its former imagined glory. In the 1960s, London planners called it “the most uncivilized street in Europe”. Modernists, with a passion for shopping malls and motoring, came up with ideas for pedestrian access decks with flowing traffic below, and for a regency overpass at Oxford Circus.
Sixty years later, the impetus has been to remove cars from the road altogether. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, made the pedestrianization of Oxford Street, which has frequently seen levels of particulate pollution several times above the safe limit, a cornerstone of his plan for a greener London. The street is, after all, the best-served public transportation destination in the country, with four subway stations and multiple bus routes. The two stations of the new Elizabeth Line, designed to take another 90 million passengers to the West End of the capital, were to be the catalyst for this new tree-lined avenue. Nothing happened.
The pedestrianization project, which proved to significantly reduce pollution and traffic accidents, was scrapped in 2018 by the then Conservative Westminster council citing opposition from local residents, despite the project receiving overwhelming support in a public consultation. .
Tory council’s short-term plan to bring buyers back – the creation of the ridiculous £6m “Marble Arch Mound”, a scruffy artificial hill you had to pay £4.50 to climb, now dismantled – was a key factor in his defeat in the municipal elections this year.
The new administration has yet to publish its plans for the regeneration of the street, although a spokesperson tells me that they have “ruled out pedestrianization for the foreseeable future”. Some activists and commentators have pointed to the transformation of King’s Cross, with its art venues, tech offices and restaurants, as a model for reviving the capital’s most famous shopping street.
Designer Thomas Heatherwick, who masterminded part of the King’s Cross redevelopment, and was also the leader of the Garden Bridge fiasco, explained to me last week how he imagined this could work: “Oxford Street feels like one big, long room it’s become dull and drab and needs to be reinvented,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just any old commercial space. It needs a much more unusual mix of work and play, united as a place that offers style, humor, health and inspiration.”
Of course, it should be pedestrianized, Heatherwick says, but that should be just the beginning. “Why not link the roofs of the buildings, an interconnected walkway with bridges from one to another and others that stretch on both sides of the main road? Make a great walk with store entrances on the rooftops. Whatever happens, don’t change it. London,” she says, in a phrase that would be big band music to Harry Selfridge’s ears, “has to learn to be brave again.”