London’s world-famous department store, Selfridges, was the subject of the ITV drama series, Mr Selfridge, starring Jeremy Piven as the American entrepreneur who founded the business more than a century ago. Selfridges opened for business in Oxford Street on 15th March 1909, after Harry Gordon Selfridge recognised the need for such a venture in the historic area.
Oxford Street had developed into a fledgling retail area in the late 19th century, with its beautiful architecture – such as the unique Marble Arch – providing a backdrop for the high-quality businesses that exist there today.
One of the most breathtaking buildings remains Selfridges department store. Mr Selfridge founded his company, Selfridges and Co, in June 1906. After commissioning architect Daniel Burnham to design a building epitomising Edwardian Baroque grandeur, the store opened in 1909 but it wasn’t fully completed until the 1920s. Occupying a whole block, it was the West End’s biggest department store, with its trademark façade and decorative classical columns prompting it to become known as the retail business’s “temple”.
The TV series, Mr Selfridge, took viewers back to the early days and depicted not only the life of the store but also the owner’s personal life and the ups and downs of his employees’ day-to-day existence. Romance, intrigue and financial dealings were among the major themes of the series, based on a biography of the entrepreneur, ‘Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge’, written by Lindy Woodhead.
There were four series, running from January 2013 to March 2016 and comprising 40 episodes. Filming took place on set in north London, where a replica of the original 1909 store was built to exact specifications. The exterior was painstakingly rebuilt in Chatham’s historic dockyard, while some scenes were also filmed at Aldwych’s disused tube station.
The 1909 store’s interior featured various departments including accessories, beauty and fashion, the loading bay, the offices, the design studio, Palm Court restaurant and the sewing room. It remained true to the real-life Selfridges, including the store’s innovative decision to put the cosmetics department right at the front, rather than hidden away inside, to attract a wealthy clientele.
Selfridges also had a library, a post office, an information bureau, a theatre booking office, art galleries, a roof garden, a comfortable rest room and restaurants. Interpreters were available to assist foreign customers and a trained nurse was on hand to administer first aid if necessary.
Today’s Selfridges still retains some of the original departments such as women’s and men’s clothing, handbags, shoes and beauty. It also has a kids’ department, home and technology, the food hall, jewellery and watches, and a special Christmas department is resurrected each year.
The rooftop restaurant, now called the Il Tetto Restaurant and Bar, is still available for customers. The store also has Hemsley and Hemsley at Selfridges – a 30-seat café offering recipes from Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley’s best-selling cookery books.
The French bistro Aubaine offers classic French dishes, while there’s also the Champagne and Oyster Bar by Caviar House and Prunier. Dolly’s art deco-inspired café serves traditional English afternoon tea, with a range of coffees, teas, sandwiches and pastries.
The television series depicted Mr Selfridge touring the store every morning in formal dress to personally monitor the departments and make sure everything was running smoothly. He remained at the helm until 1941 and died at the age of 89, just six years after his retirement.
Mr Selfridge was as an innovative and ultimately likeable man but one who had a few flaws. He made the department store an enjoyable experience for all who entered, realising that people would often shop for pleasure, rather than out of necessity.
The series depicted the interior being decorated with fresh flowers, shiny decorations and greenery, with glass snowflakes suspended on threads to mirror the winter weather on opening day. Its legendary window displays were also a major part of the series, as they were tourist attractions in their own right. Selfridges was one of the first retailers in the UK to launch window dressing to attract consumers inside – they often served an educational purpose too, since they displayed new inventions of the era.
The tradition of iconic window displays continues today, with the 12 windows facing Oxford Street hosting particularly spectacular Christmas displays including 114,000 baubles, 72,000 sequins and 12 Santa Claus in 2016!
Today, Selfridges has additional branches in Manchester Trafford Square, Manchester Exchange Square and Birmingham Upper Mall East Bullring. The London store remains its flagship department store.
Selfridges is a great place to be this time of year – even if you don’t go in to shop, it is a lovely place to immerse yourself in some Christmas cheer.
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