This time last year Debenhams was hands-down the drabbest and ugliest department store on Oxford Street. Oppressive, badly lit, awkwardly laid out and overrun with tacky markdowns, it was shopping at its worst.
What a difference a year makes. With the brand’s 200-year anniversary looming, the store has undergone an extreme makeover. There are now seven airy floors – the top level, formerly offices, has been opened up and daylight pours through the newly exposed glass roof. By the beginning of December 2013, the store’s moving façade, made from 180,000 rectangles of metal, will be unveiled – it’s designed to shimmer like the sun on the sea. A fitting exterior to the hugely improved offering within. After scouring the store for the best bits, here’s what we liked...
Dodge the Julien Macdonald glitter and Ben de Lisi frump and head for the impressive roster of edgy designers including Todd Lynn, Preen and Jonathan Saunders, who’ve all designed special ‘Editions’ collections. The vast H! by Henry Holland range is as popular – and cheap – as ever with prices starting around the £15 mark for cute tops and neon knitted mittens.
The once crowded and hard-to-navigate beauty hall has been scrapped and rebuilt. It’s now home to London’s biggest Dior perfume and cosmetics counter, niche brands Korres and Bliss, and a huge Benefit with waxing rooms.
The first floor is devoted to men with the arrival of the store’s own Savile Row-inspired Hammond & Co range – think British classics such as herringbone overcoats, £130, and a fine range of Loake brogues.
Designer bed linen, cool Scandi homeware... in Debenhams? Ja! Head to the fourth floor and seek out a hip Danish homeware brand called Bloomingville, sold exclusively at this store alongside the afforable designer ranges.
The top floor is now so much lighter thanks to the spectacular new glass ceiling. This is home to the new kidswear department, where we were impressed by the sparkly Markus Lupfer childrenswear collection. There’s also a compact toy department, a swanky new restaurant and the best baby changing facilities on Oxford Street. Those with prams can zip straight up to the fifth floor via the lifts at the back of the store.
What was one of the store’s worst bits is now one of its best – the dark and dingy menswear dungeon has been transformed into a super-swish bistro area, with ’60s-style furniture and soft lighting. It’s the perfect compliment to a girly accessories haven devoted to lingerie and shoes. Just one look at it is enough to erase all memory of its former life.
More department stores in London
Liberty was founded in 1875, but the present Marlborough Street site, with its ships’ timbers and leaded windows, was built in the 1920s. The interconnecting jumble of rooms, with the odd fireplace and cushioned window seat, makes for an intimate feel – as if you’ve strayed into a private room in a stately home. Although Liberty trades well on its history, it constantly squeezes innovation into its wood-panelled rooms.
Selfridges celebrated its centenary in 2009. With its concession boutiques, store-wide themed events and collections from the hottest new brands, it's a first port-of-call for stylish one-stop shopping, while useful floor plans make navigating the store easy-peasy. There are plenty of concessions worthy of note, plus a winning combination of new talent, hip and edgy labels, smarter high street labels and mid and high end brands on the fashion floors.
Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s ground-breaking six-storey space combines the edgy energy of London’s indoor markets – concrete floors, tills house in corrugated-iron shacks, Portaloo dressing rooms – with rarefied labels. All 14 of the Comme collections are here, alongside exclusive lines such as Lanvin, Givenchy and Azzedine Alaïa. Dover Street’s biannual ‘Tachiagari’ event sees the store close while designers make changes to their concessions, ensuring the space is constantly evolving.
The results of F&M’s £24 million, two-year revamp (revealed in 2007, 300 years after its opening in 1707) were stunning: the store retains all that was marvellous about its Georgian past while changing just enough to position itself as a 21st-century shopping experience. A sweeping spiral staircase soars through the four-storey building, while light floods down from a central glass dome.
There is a reason why John Lewis is one of the most respected and liked shops in Britain, and it’s not a complicated one – John Lewis sells good products, in a pleasant environment, served by knowledgeable and amicable staff. This large store offers a broad sweep of electricals, homeware, fashion (with some exclusives like Pistol Panties lingerie) gifts, furniture and leather goods, each coming with the reassurance of JL’s nonpareil ‘never knowingly undersold’ guarantee and lenient returns policy.
Harrods’ distinctive terracotta façade with dark-green awnings stirs up mixed emotions. For every tourist who yearns for a Harrods teddy, there’s a Londoner who sniffs at its vulgarity. But for all the marble and glitz, the store that boasts of selling everything is working hard to inject its image with ever more style: always strong on fashion, Harrods offers women a 10,000sq ft Designer Studio with a host of British designer launches.
Compared to some of the incredible refurbs that rival emporia have indulged in, Harvey Nics feels like it’s coasting a little. That said, you’ll still find a worthy clutch of unique brands over its eight floors of beauty, fashion, food and home. In beauty, there’s skin-firming Rodial, La Prairie Platinum and Bed of Nails pillows and mats, with slick Gentlemen’s Tonic for men, as well as beauty services that include Beyond MediSpa, with a team of doctors and medical ‘aestheticians’, and the Daniel Hersheson hair salon.
If Harrods is the elder statesman of department store shopping, Fenwick is the eccentric aunt. The ground floor is stuffed with slightly antiquated accessories like headscarves and fascinators, and one of the best hat and hosiery selections in London. In Fenwick, you can be sure to find a good range of offbeat, slightly bohemian British design ranging from Orla Kiely accessories to Tallulah and Hope kaftans.
The London flagship branch of this reliably good department store chain has had a revamp of late with a mighty 12,500 square foot new shoe department in the basement. HOF is the only stockist of the re-launched Biba line, including its lovely new lingerie line and has recently added The Kooples, Mulberry and New and Lingwood to the mix. But arguably the jewel in the HOF crown is the Mary store – a wonderful shopping experience designed by retail guru Mary Portas to target the needs of the forty something stylish shopper.
This accessible store is designed to bring fashion shopping to the every day customer – it is known for inviting fashion designers like Matthew Williamson, House of Holland and John Rocha to do cheaper collections in store. While it lacks the luxurious feel of shopping at John Lewis or Selfridges, Debenhams has a loyal fanbase and prides itself on being an affordable one-stop shop covering all retail needs from fashion and beauty to homeware and electricals.