One of the great joys of my childhood — and this may make me sound like a woollen-coated moppet in a nursery rhyme — was being taken by my nanny to see the Christmas windows at Selfridges. Christopher Robin had the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace; I, already mad on clothes and not yet out of my prep-school pinafore, had Selfridges.
I don’t remember going inside, but we did walk around the three sides of the building, giving each window the serious attention we would a painting at the Tate. Then we went on to somewhere more sensible like the John Lewis haberdashery department. At that age, looking was enough. Shopping came later.
One year stands out. I was, I think, seven and the Christmas windows were scenes from fairy tales. There were no shop mannequins, but wooden puppets with wide eyes and poised limbs playing Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty, each set on a stage heaped with parcels and garlands, glass slippers and glazed fruits. They were magical.
Last Christmas, Selfridges returned to fairy tales for their window displays. I went, this time without a nanny, to press my nose against the glass. How garish and gimcrack they were. These weren’t the Rossetti princesses of the remembered windows, but rock-chick shopaholics with pink hair extensions (Rapunzel) and sickly doughnut fiends (Hansel and Gretel). They were, I hate to say it, vulgar. I am afraid that the V-word describes much of Selfridges as it is today: noisy and over-lit, brash and gimmicky. It has become just another Westfield, the behemoth shopping mall, though without the virtue of a multi-screen cinema.
I say it in sorrow, not anger. I could measure out my life in trips through Selfridges’ doors. The slip and ballet-wrap cardigan (it was the late 1990s, when slips and ballet-wrap cardigans were very much the thing) I wore for my parents’ silver wedding anniversary were bought in the Kookai concession at Selfridges. The silk chinoiserie dress I wore to my 18th birthday rang through the Selfridges tills, as did the black dress I wore under my graduation gown. Through my teens and early twenties, ‘I’m just out to run some errands’ was code for ‘I’m off to look round Selfridges.’
But the siren call of Selfridges has become less beguiling. What was once a sybaritic treat has become just another trip to the mall.
The autumn windows, the length of the Oxford Street front, displayed just one item: the Apple iWatch. They may have been dressed up with oversize hothouse flowers cast in resin, but there was no disguising, even under giant petals, the corporate deal behind the display. And if you happened not to want an iWatch, what else was there to tempt you inside?
Harry Gordon Selfridge, the impresario who gave the store his name, was mad on windows. When the shop opened on Monday 15 March, 1909, the 21 windows — 12 of them fitted with the largest sheets of plate glass in the world — were arranged as tableaux from the paintings of Watteau and Fragonard. The scenes were hidden behind ruched silk curtains until the grand opening.
The early Selfridges adverts coined the phrase ‘The new art of window shopping.’ Get the windows right, Selfridge reckoned, and get the shoppers through the doors. Once inside, the instruction to his 1,800 staff was ‘to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection’. The store falls far short today.
It is so aggressively lit, so blighted with video screens running perfume adverts, so remorselessly loud. Can any woman give her full attention to the right shade of Guerlain lipstick while George Michael yowls ‘Freedom’ over the speakers? The music changes entirely at random, Taylor Swift at the bottom of the escalators, hip-hop at the top. Beyoncé among the shoes, Cuban by the time you get to Prada. And which bright spark sandwiched the bookshop between the Bose loudspeakers concession and the gadget shop with its whining miniature helicoptering drones?
The old Selfridges bookshop was carpeted, and therefore quiet, and it was folded into a corner of the basement. It was there, aged nine, that I took the first book of the Edge Chronicles off the shelves. By the time my mother had finished running her own errands on the fashion floors, I’d read the first three chapters.
The present brilliantly white bookshop is in a thoroughfare between Luggage and Home Electronics. There’s no corner for a child to disappear into the Deepwoods. There aren’t many proper books at all. Mostly faddy recipes: Inspiralized: Inspiring Recipes to Make with Your Spiralizer; The Uncook Book: The Essential Guide to a Raw Food Lifestyle.
And where, in Selfridges’ 650,000 square feet, might you go for something more sustaining than spiralised kohlrabi noodles? Not the new tray-service canteen on the fourth floor, where you have the choice of Benito’s Hat, Masala Zone, Chop’d, Yo Sushi and Starbucks. There is nothing spoiling about a Starbucks. You might as well be at Heathrow Terminal 5. Otherwise, there is Dolly’s cafe in the basement, at the foot of two escalators. Or the salt beef bar by the Food Hall’s main doors.
This tendency to put cafés and services on the concourses is a great failing. If I am to have my nails painted, my hands massaged, my tea and pastries, I would prefer to have them somewhere other than a gangway. Liberty and Fenwick have their eyebrow bars and cafés in corners and alcoves; Selfridges puts you out on the shop floor as if you were merchandise.
Increasingly, when I feel the draw of running errands, I find myself in Liberty or Fenwick: the first an indulgent, cossetting, treasure-chest shop; the second neat, orderly, quietly tempting. It is slightly unfair to compare them. Selfridges is a megalopolis; Liberty and Fenwick are Regency spa towns. But they have subtlety and modesty while Selfridges has money-money bling. The blingier it gets, the more it begins to look like a naff version of Harrods.
When did the rot set in? Was it when they abandoned the old carrier bags with their line drawings of the Edwardian façade? Was it with the ironic January sales slogans: ‘You want it, you buy it, you forget it’ and ‘Buy me, I’ll change your life’, which admitted that shopping is really a pretty hollow business? Was it when they started opening their Christmas shop in August? Or was it earlier this year, when they covered an entire wall of the toy department in bright yellow cartoon Minions for their latest movie tie-in?
I want to stand, as I did when I was seven, spellbound in front of the windows. Conjure up the old magic, Selfridges, in time for Christmas, if you can. Don’t drive me into the arms of rivals. And please don’t make me go to Westfield on my errands.