Ed Burstell is the larger-than-life managing director of London department store Liberty. He talks to Tara Hounslea about how he’s still discovering the magic of the 140-year-old store, new big-name collaborations to build brand awareness and his plans for international expansion
What first attracted you to Liberty?
I think it was a curiosity and appreciation of Liberty’s DNA because American history is about five minutes long. British history is like back when we invented money – there isn’t that in America or it is very few and far between. And at a time when everyone is out there trying to invent a heritage right now, this is real.
I tell people all the time that I have the best job in retail in the world. I was at New York department store Bergdorf Goodman before this [as senior vice president for non-apparel] and when I told people I was leaving to go to Liberty London [in 2008] they said: “What, are you nuts?”
But I believe it is one of the last greatest emporiums of our time left on earth and it just needed a different type of attention. Everything was already here, it just needed things layered on rather than taken away. It’s been a really organic process over the last six and a half years.
At a time when everyone is out there trying to invent a heritage right now, this is real
The buying team and I were very aware that we needed to add a number of fashion brands. The designer brands we added included Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Marc Jacobs, Manolo Blahnik footwear, Valentino, Victoria Beckham and JW Anderson. We also added more than 20 new contemporary brands.
What do you think you have brought to the role and what sets Liberty apart?
I’m still learning on a daily basis and there’s a new cultural nuance every day. Frequently something happens that makes me understand that Arthur [Lasenby Liberty, who founded the store in 1874] was a genius. He was the first one out there to scour the world and bring products back, and actually talk about and to promote them.
He built the Liberty store itself, which is absolute magic and he built it residentially [like a home] knowing that the product was going to have to talk. You have to look into the next room and see something that was tantalising to move you around. It’s sort of like poetry in a store. Being here after hours is a little spooky but it’s magical too.
Being here after hours is a little spooky but it’s magical too
A lot of stores have abdicated their DNA in favour of a retail estate deal or concessions and that is a thing of mine: we are not just a location, we are a brand. To do that you have to be the one who sets the edit, takes the risk and keeps the focus. Hopefully you match your customer sensibility and every time they find another reason to come in, but you can’t do that just by saying: “Yes, we’ll take that box and then have nothing to do with what goes in it and what it looks like”.
What have you yet to conquer at Liberty?
We have an amazing asset which is the roof space. There are all kinds of possibilities and avenues that we are currently putting in front of the council and working with architects on.
There’s a variety of things we could do – some of them are food or merchandise related, so we don’t know where it is going to go yet. Hopefully it will morph into a little bit of everything but I don’t think it will happen until 2017.
The other thing is that [landlord] Shaftesbury has been really great about pedestrianising the whole Carnaby Street quarter [at the back of the store] and they’ve done things like turning Kingly Street into an amazing restaurant row.
This season we have started to wholesale two categories of scarves and bags and small leather goods.
We have another side of our building [at the back] that we don’t currently trade out of, so there is a lot of potential there.
In terms of product, we have always had strengths in soft accessories and scarves but we haven’t been wholesaling them before. The sheer number of requests from great stores around the world has brought us back to that path. This season we have started to wholesale two categories of scarves and bags and small leather goods.
We develop them all in house with a really talented group of designers and they’re going into Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom [in the US], Isetan [in Japan] and another in Korea. We’re starting out with a handful of great doors. Again, it will be organic and we’ll grow from there.
The best-performing fashion brands stocked at the store are Dries van Noten, Valentino, Lanvin, The Row, Acne, Alexander McQueen and Isabel Marant.
What is the latest with collaborations?
Our collaboration business has really exploded and is being led by Scott Tepper [fashion and buying director who joined in December last year]. It is being treated now as a real business because the appetite globally is that big. It’s more about who we say no to.
We have a couple of really big collaborations coming up, which haven’t been signed yet but should hopefully be by the end of the month. There’s [premium cycling brand] Rapha on at the moment [on cycling wear priced from £35 for a cap to £150 for a long-sleeve jersey].
There’s a huge one that goes live in February and a summer one, which could be with Brazilian flip-flop brand Havaiana’s – although I didn’t tell you that! It will start in summer and continue through to the Rio 2016 Olympics, which makes perfect sense.
We’re in talks now with Disney and Coca-Cola, which are all exploratory. You can see how that would work for brand awareness.
We’re in talks now with Disney and Coca-Cola, which are all exploratory.
The new website – moving from Liberty.co.uk to Libertylondon.com – goes international in February, shipping to 80 countries with 20 payment methods like AliPay and 50 different currencies at the checkout. The site will also take any duty payment due in that country up front, so the customer does not have to worry about paying this on receipt.
We will also be using local languages in the checkout and have plans to go fully localised in some of the big territories in the future. I provide the merchandise but I don’t run it. That’s done by Sarah Halsall, who’s my counterpart [as managing director of operations and Liberty Art Fabrics]. There are two of us because there are so many pieces and Sarah understands that side, while I don’t.
What do you think about the London retail market?
London itself is fine but I think outside of London is a different story. London is artificially propped up by money from China, Russia and the Middle East.
In terms of the market itself, if you look around the world starting east with Japan, that’s pretty much 100% concession and then you go to London and it’s half that, then you go to America and there’s hardly any. London kind of sits in between “all the risk” and “no risk”, so it’s a marvellous hybrid where you can make a calculated decision on how you want to go.
What do you think about the London consumer?
She is much more confident than the US consumer. At least for the Liberty shopper, by the time she gets here she doesn’t need to be told – she’s done her own research. It’s different in America, where they like to be told.
I think that’s a cultural thing because there’s such a long history of individual craft on every level, whether it’s from furniture making to dress making.]
How did you find the TV show Liberty of London, which aired on Channel 4 in 2013?
It was an OK experience all round. You have to open your life and it’s all in the edit – you don’t have control of it and you have to just let go until you actually see it.
They can cut it up and make you look like a saint or they can make you look like a monster, so I trusted them. I think I came across OK but I don’t know – you certainly can’t change this voice!
What it did was reintroduce us to a customer that perhaps hadn’t shopped for a while and introduced us to a totally new segment of shoppers.
How do you find living in London?
I have been here long enough that my visa ran out, so I had to take the life in the UK test about a year ago. I passed so they can’t get rid of me now – at least not for 10 years. The test was all-encompassing, it was current events, politics, religion, history, sports – you had to know everything, so now I flash my resident’s card all the time.
My house is full of things from Liberty. I’m such a hoarder and I live in a mews and there’s not a surface that’s not unadorned – which basically means there’s shit everywhere.
- At Liberty: From Rehab to the Front Row by Ed Burstell (Michael O’Mara, £20) is out now.