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Liberty revamps for 'super-fans'

Liberty’s group buying director, general manager and design director tell Drapers about the department store’s revamp, going back to basics and reconnecting with its core customers.

Its black-and-white Georgian facade is instantly recognisable and its name is synonymous with all things quirky, quality and British. Now, at the grand old age of 142, London retail emporium Liberty has undergone a complete revamp across nine departments in just eight months. The goal of such a vast project? Reconnecting with “die hard” Liberty fans.

“We felt that every floor was sparking something different to different people and we needed a united point of view,” explains group buying director Gina Ritchie. “We were trying to be something to everyone and we’re too small to do that. It is all about polarising that point of view. We have been talking to Liberty super-fans and we’re really focusing on them. It won’t please everyone, but that’s OK.”

Regeneration of the 120,000 sq ft department store commenced in February. Since then, it has quietly overhauled its men’s, women’s and children’s wear, and stationery, cook and dine, haberdashery, furniture, food hall and restaurant areas, all while continuing to welcome and serve the 80,000 shoppers that walk through its doors every week.

Womenswear flip

The most recent and largest transformation is in the womenswear department, which relaunched in October. A total of 25 new brands were added across the category, under the direction of head of womenswear buying Alexandra Gordon, who joined Liberty from Fenwick in January.

The different areas of the womenswear department have been flipped so the designer “superbrands”, including Valentino and Lanvin, now sit in the main hall, giving them more space and closer proximity to the jewellery department, which has a strong crossover customer. Contemporary brands such as Acne, Être Cécile and Isabel Marant are now upstairs.

To the left of the main room, what was previously the denim section has been transformed into a new “emerging designers” area stocking seven labels, including Central Saint Martins graduate Richard Quinn and US-based Conor Ives. After a month the new designers will be rotated into the main hall to be replaced by new up-and-coming labels.

“It’s important new designers have their fair share of the floor,” says Liberty general manager Janine Constantin-Russell. “We like to support and nurture new talent, as well as offering our customers something different.” The denim area has been moved to the floor above.

Above the emerging talent section is the department store’s first multi-brand lingerie concession, The Pantry, which launched this month at the bequest of its shoppers.

“It was the single-most requested thing we didn’t have,” says Ritchie.

To the right of the main hall a new designer collections room has been created to rekindle the attention of the older Liberty shopper. The 2,000 sq ft space comprises a former Nike concession and a 1,500 sq ft stockroom that features two windows that were boarded up. It stocks brands such as knitwear firm Oska, and luxury silk and cashmere specialist Eskandar, which is making a return to the store.

Ritchie says it is an example of how Liberty is returning to its core shopper: “Eskandar used to be big business for us but in recent years our older customers have been neglected. We want to celebrate them. The edit takes us across a wider age range.”

The revamp of menswear, which completed in August, involved a similar shake-up of layout and brands. During the week of Drapers’ visit, sales in the department are up 50% on the year.

“We stripped it all back,” says Constantin-Russell. “We wanted it to feel residential and we wanted to hero the product. We find that fancy doesn’t work for Liberty. Our shoppers want a sense of discovery – they want to uncover a hidden gem. They don’t want it all laid out for them.”

Cool craft

One area that has the customer at its core, says Ritchie, is haberdashery and fabric: “It is the jewel in our crown. It is the real community piece. We want to bring people together. That’s an important part of our strategy.”

Liberty has reintroduced a table of sewing machines that customers can use and increased its product range. Sales in that department are up 30% year on year as a result.

“It is about making craft cool again,” says Ritchie. “There are sewing machines where shoppers and students can sit and work on their pieces. There is a great buzz and we’re starting to get that expert customer who we haven’t seen for a while.”

Fabric of society

The famous Liberty London fabrics are also undergoing a transformation.

Design director James Millar says he has taken them back to their 19th-century roots and is focusing on silk for the new season: “Originally our fabrics were silk but over the years that disappeared and we’re now famous for our cotton. I want to get back to that silk heritage. You can see that with the introduction of silk pyjamas for this autumn.”

Liberty’s own-label brand Liberty London, which mainly consists of bags, accessories, scarves and shirts, also plans to launch own-label swimwear for spring 18, and is considering expanding its roster of wholesale stockists, which include Isetan in Japan and Neiman Marcus in the US.

“On the own-label side we’re growing and expanding into lots of categories,” says Millar. “In the past it wasn’t as cohesive but we now have the same handwriting across all areas, it is one thought process across the whole business. We are unique because of that legacy design and craft – more so than any other shop, it sets us apart.”

A weird and wonderful history

Constantin-Russell agrees Liberty’s history differentiates it from its department store competitors, which are focusing more on adding experience in store to drive footfall: “With us it has never been a hard sell. We have always been about community and environment.

“We have a weird and wonderful history, and we’re not setting out to make experience for experience’s sake. The store itself is an experience. For us it is about going back to our roots and thinking about the customer. It is about their experience and trying to create the right environment to facilitate that. We’ve found that if we stray too far from [founder] Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s strategy, it doesn’t work.”

Liberty was able to keep the revamp nimble thanks to its small executive board, comprising Ritchie, chairman Marco Capello, CFO Teresa Baker, managing director and operations director Sarah Halsall, and director of human resources William Le Clerc. Former managing director and Liberty frontman Ed Burstell left in October last year to take up the newly created role of head of partnerships at Canadian retailer Hudson’s Bay Company. 

“It is tight and we have autonomy,” says Ritchie. “We don’t have a lot of red tape, we like to disagree, we have an entrepreneurial spirit and we just get on with it.”

In its most recent accounts filed on Companies House for the year to 30 January 2016, revenue at Liberty remained largely flat, edging down 0.6% to £70.7m. Operating profit, meanwhile, fell 20% to £6.2m.

As Liberty gears up to welcome more than 100,000 shoppers a week in the run-up to Christmas – 80% of whom are Londoners with “high expectations” – the “brave” revamp has given the store a new lease of life, believes Constantin-Russell: “Since the work began, sales are up 10% overall compared with 2016, and that is despite all the disturbance.

“Making a few cosmetic changes would have been easier but we really listened to our customer and we had one opportunity to do it right. We had to be brave, risky and have fun. If we enjoy the store, we know the real Liberty fans will enjoy it.”

The Drapers verdict

In a tough trading environment, Liberty, like all other retailers, is trying to put the shopper at the heart of the business. The Liberty team is refreshingly honest in admitting the store had “lost its way”, and had alienated and neglected some of its core shoppers.

The ambitious regeneration seeks to rectify this by honing in on the Liberty super-fans and asking them what they want. In clearing out superfluous brands, adding new labels and returning to old favourites, the Liberty team is being bolder and braver in its decisions.

The result will not be for everyone, but that is the point. The goal is to return to its roots – and arguably its former glory – and the revamp reflects this singular point of view. Liberty is embracing its status as an emporium of quirky, special pieces amid high street mundanity, and the true fans are sure to rejoice.


Liberty by numbers

  • 1875 Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded the store
  • The store was constructed from 2 ships 
  • Revamp took 8 months
  • 9 departments reconstructed this year
  • 100,000 shoppers a week in the run-up to Christmas

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