The retail phoenix: how the department store is reinventing itself

The once sprawling empires of Parisian department stores back in the 1800s resembled something of a luxurious treasure trove, departments brimming with all you could ever need, and all you could ever hope to discover.

Catering to a new generation of wealthy, middle-class women, they offered a glut of rare or sought-after luxury items that you could only get your hands on from within their walls. Associating yourself with department stores, was associating yourself with a sophisticated, opulent lifestyle for the envy of society. They became destinations for customers to generously while away their days in their glamourous meccas, whilst marking a pivotal point in history where women began to socialise freely without a chaperone.

In their heyday, department stores were the pinnacle of retail as we know it today, they not only ushered in shopping as a social activity in its own right, but also brought in the dawn of window design – storefronts adorned with extravagant displays that acted as enticing advertisement gateways into their worlds.

So where did it all go so wrong? When did the department stores once brimming piles of decadent goods, become a brimming, mismatched sales wrack, where everything must go?

The slow demise of the department store crept in when large one-category stores started opening, making it harder for them to sell at competitive prices. The meccas that were once one-stop-shops where you could buy anything under one roof soon paled into insignificance when the Internet came along, laying out it’s market stall to flaunt it’s even more impressive selection of wares – and at even more attractive prices.

So it’s perhaps in an unexpected twist of fate, that Amazon – the empire of online shopping that has been instrumental in the gradual demise of many a bricks and mortar retailer – has announced plans to open its very own department store. I’m sure the irony’s not lost on Bezos. But Amazon’s forays into department store life suggests there’s still life in the old dog yet, just in new, unexpected ways.

Nostalgia takes on a new guise

Amidst the doom and gloom of Debenhams meeting its unfortunate end, John Lewis shutting a handful of stores, Barney’s, and Lord and Taylor closing their doors indefinitely, and Neiman Marcus filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – yes the list does sadly go on - a department store rises gracefully from the ashes in all its art deco glory: the iconic La Samaritaine.

When LVMH-owned La Semaritaine closed abruptly back in 2005 it was met with reported heartbreak from loyal customers facing the anguish of a shock, unexplained break-up - even described by one devoted employee as on par with destroying the Eiffel Tower. Not sure the views are quite as good. But back in the day, department stores such as Harrods, Liberty’s and Selfridges were in fact seen as tourist attractions akin to cultural landmarks, even featured in London guidebooks as must-see destinations for visitors far and wide.

But despite La Semaritaine’s legacy, its glamourous restoration and reappearance on the retail scene, and everything that’s riding on its success, it still remains to be seen how its offering will truly differentiate itself against the competition. Its well-loved art-de-vivre reincarnation in the centre of Paris certainly arrives at an opportune moment when people are craving the luxury of the finer things in life after a year pent-up in lockdown. And this really is as luxurious as luxury gets. The newly introduced rotating pop-up spaces and mixing of local, independent labels – 50 exclusive brands, to be precise - alongside the bigger players, might offer customers fresh opportunities to discover new brands, but will it be enough? Only time will tell.

However, the reincarnation of nostalgia looks set to continue, as another phoenix joins La Semaritaine. After almost 50 years, Bobby’s – previously replaced by Debenhams – has made a comeback to its former home, with plans to restore its architectural features back to their rightful ways. The welcomed return comes in a new guise, featuring a curated selection of local independents, including an art gallery, ice-cream and coffee parlours, microbrewery, and the world’s first food hall dedicated entirely to dogs. Pretty niche.

The new face of the department store

Proof that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks, and for the department store – those tricks have never been more needed – a whole host of other brands are now morphing into exciting new possibilities as they change the future face of the department store.

Taking on new life under the affectionately nick-named Bloomies – Bloomingdale’s has launched its new, small format concept, reminiscent of its multigenerational brand heritage but with a more convenient and casual take on its older Bloomingdales sister. The curated and ever-evolving space is a far cry from the stagnant format of sprawling department stores of days gone by, as it seeks to think and act on a local scale to serve the needs of the community. A place to pop in every week and discover something new, each and every time.

Meanwhile, a walk through Selfridges on Oxford Circus - one department store that has its finger on the pulse, and in quite literally all of the pies – you wouldn’t for a minute think that it was a format whose future is currently being debated. The retailer has broadened its capabilities into planet-friendly wedding facilitator, podcast creator, vegan butcher, green-fingered garden centre host and most recently, emporium of gaming. Continuing to prove their culturally relevant credentials and reconnection with nature, their new HIVE restaurant which opened on the first floor, houses 100,000 bees in the trusty care of beekeeper and conservationist Mark Patterson, at a time when the fate of our bees has been called so starkly into question.

For the struggling department stores desperate for reinvention, modelling themselves on the success of formats like that of art-gallery-esque Dover Street Market or Coal Drops yard, would not be a bad place to start. Neither are department stores per se, but their models absolutely set themself a cut above the rest.

You just know when owned by Comme des Garçons, its simply going to ooze the element of cool, described by Adrian Joffe, the brains behind DSM, as an ‘alternative indie radical conglomerate.’ And so of course, the retailer’s eclectic, high-end streetwear offering - which resembles collections more like pieces of art – its product drops, capsule collections and collabs, make it an unrivalled new format for the future of department stores.

Famous for its bi-annual interior change which ushers in the start of a new season, designers and artists are invited to co-create the space with their own craft, resulting in a totally transformed look and feel twice a year, keeping it fresh, agile and relevant. And where brands have often ended up fitting a predefined space within department stores, DSM flips things on its head by giving brands and designers creative ownership of their own space, ensuring a diverse, creative environment is maintained and celebrated.

But what if?

It can’t be denied, the department store model needs a radical overhaul, and fast. So what if they reignited that same sought-after rarity once found in the Parisian meccas of days gone by, but dialled up the exclusivity to the max?

Rather than stock the established, legacy brands they’ve always done, why not adopt a street-food market mentality and play host to a revolving curation of new and emerging brands, brands that would only ever be in town for a week at a time? Depending on their curation of brands that week, the collections would be complimented with live music performances, art installations, food vendors or product drops, akin to unexpected, but synergistic brand collaborations. A model that celebrates its heritage of exclusivity, but in new, exciting ways.

Ever-changing, fluid formats like DSM that curate and celebrate the intersection of art, fashion and culture, whilst giving exclusive or emerging brands a space to shine, are without a doubt the formats of the future. But ultimately, it’s differentiate or die, for our old friend the department store. Time will tell as to which category the remaining department stores fall into.


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6 min01 Oct 21