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Sebastian Manes

Selfridges’ buying director for womenswear, accessories and kidswear enjoys taking risks. His latest wheeze - the ground-breaking Shoe Galleries - proves they usually pay off

When Drapers met Sebastian Manes in October at the launch of Selfridges’ Shoe Galleries at its London Oxford Street store, he had paired a suit with a natty pair of white-spattered Maison Martin Margiela brogues.

It was a fitting choice for Selfridges’ buying director of womenswear, accessories and kidswear; classic, but with an irreverent twist.

Six months on, and it is clear to see in the newly promoted Manes the passion and fearlessness which has helped to make Shoe Galleries such a success.

Billed as the world’s largest footwear department at 35,000 sq ft and featuring brands from River Island and All Saints to Prada and Christian Louboutin, the numbers do the talking: six galleries, 11 boutiques, more than 100,000 pairs of shoes, 4,400 styles and 10,000 pairs sold a week - some 1,500 more than forecast.

Full of energy

Marseilles-born Manes litters his speech with old-fashioned English phrases such as ‘gosh’, ‘my goodness’ and ‘good lord’, particularly when describing Selfridges’ energy. He frequently refers to the need to take risks to be successful, something he says he learned as founder of a luxury women’s and men’s wear indie, Kahut, which has since gone out of business.

The retailer, in Saint Tropez in the south of France, was a victim of the economic fallout following September 11, 2001, but Manes attributes his rise up the ranks at Selfridges to the entrepreneurial side of his personality.

Running the indie was fabulous, he says. “It gave me a lot of confidence which I didn’t have before. It had a sad ending but mentally I was in a good position”.

Paris beckoned and a stint as a luxury agent for brands such as Gucci and Prada, but a lifelong obsession with London and then Selfridges took him to Oxford Street to apply for a job as a streetwear buyer in late 2003.

“I always dreamt about Selfridges,” he says. “The first time I entered the store, I thought, ‘What is that?’ Loud music, people going everywhere.”

“Another time, I passed a [Selfridges] window and Elle Macpherson was naked,” he says incredulously. “Those guys are absolutely bonkers, I thought.” It transpires Macpherson was modelling her Intimates lingerie range, so she was not entirely naked, but the spectacle obviously had an impact on Manes.

“I don’t know how to explain it. You have to put that in perspective. For someone coming from the south of France, even Marseilles, it’s nothing like London. Suddenly you are out of the cave - oh, good lord.”

He didn’t get the job, but his CV landed on the desk of the then accessories buyer. After four interviews - Manes admits his English was “not the best” - he got the job of senior accessories buyer.

The clear vision of the Westons, the Canadian family which owns Selfridges, was to get into luxury, he says. “You have to bear in mind we’ve only had Chanel for four or five years and we didn’t have Hermès until [luxury accessories department] the Wonder Room opened in 2007. When I joined we had Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Fendi and Dior - that’s it. That seems unthinkable now.”

Building trust

Manes initially got into trouble for spending too much money on accessories. However, the strategy paid off.

“Because of the good result, trust came. It was just about taking risks. I knew that unless I made a quick difference, I wouldn’t get promoted.”

He has quickly risen up the ranks. Responsibility for lingerie, travel and now womenswear and kidswear followed accessories, footwear and jewellery. Now reporting to Anne Pitcher, who was herself promoted to managing director last month, Manes has his sights set on overhauling the rest of the second floor, which as well as the Shoe Galleries houses women’s designer and bridge brands, over the next 12 months.

“My recipe remains the same: unless you take risks you won’t see a lot of results. You’ll just go at the same pace over and over again. The way I practice is to [make sure I] see things at shows and fairs; go to the market and talk to people, and spend time on the shopfloor.”

So what is the secret of the Shoe Galleries’ success? “It wasn’t like one brand was doing very well and the rest were lagging behind,” he says diplomatically. “It was consistent. When we approached All Saints they had 10 pairs of shoes and now it is a really proud offer. River Island had never worked with a department store and it is proud [of its place in the Shoe Galleries].”

Steps towards success

He admits that each negotiation was different and often tough, but the experiences simply added to his satisfaction.

“If I am convinced it is the right thing to do, then I find a way,” he says. “I’ll go back and go back and say ‘we have to do this’. It’s the way you present it to the senior management here and the brands. There is sort of a recipe to how you talk with them.”

The success also created unforeseen issues; more staff and seating were needed and the stock room was under pressure. Still, Manes struggles to identify anything he would change.

“I get excited by all of the footwear brands because they all do a different job. I’m not trying to be politically correct, that is genuinely what I think. I’m excited to have Repetto [because it is exclusive to Selfridges in the UK] and it was a risk to bring it into such a large space. I’m equally proud to have Christian Louboutin.

“You discover something different every time you go back [to the Shoe Galleries], an experience or product. I’m proud of everything,” he declares.

CV

2011 Buying director, womenswear, accessories and kidswear, Selfridges

2008 Director of accessories and lingerie, Selfridges

2006 Deputy head of accessories, Selfridges

2005 Buying manager, accessories, footwear and jewellery, Selfridges

2004 Senior buyer, accessories; acting buying manager, accessories, Selfridges

2001 Founder, Kahut, Saint Tropez

Q&A

Are you concerned about shopper spending in 2011?

I’m really concerned about the [macro-economic situation]. I’m convinced that to have entry price-point brands and luxury is the right recipe. Both are treated equally well and are equally as exciting, and that gives the inclusive feel. We won’t go more entry price point or more luxury just because we have an influx of tourists.

Where do you shop?

On the road. But there is a new concept at [designer boutique] Late Night Chameleon Cafe in Dalston in east London, a by appointment-only store, which opened in December. It didn’t copy anyone, it has a great selection - niche and Belgian designers - and it is really high end.

It’s a very exclusive concept store and as a principle that is great. You can’t translate that in Selfridges. I have a lot of respect for that, it’s a very brave thing to do.

Are there any brands you would like to have in the Shoe Galleries which aren’t there?

Manolo Blahnik. It didn’t want to be involved. It is only stocked in Brown Thomas in Ireland and its own shops. At the time I wanted it, but I think today it would be difficult to add another brand, because [the concept] is working so well.

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