Fver the past two years there has been a large yellow sign on the corner of Selfridge’s on Oxford Street in London that reads: ‘Let’s change the way we buy’. Walk a few hundred yards in either direction on Britain’s “high street” and you discover proof that many of Oxford Street’s 200 million annual shoppers before the pandemic have already heeded that invitation, abandoning department stores for internet.
The idea of shopping as a hobby was invented here in the 1800s. Wide Georgian sidewalks, glass storefronts and state-of-the-art lampposts encouraged browsers to stand “six people deep” to kindly covet items of headgear or fruit pyramids lit by spotlights. Jane Austen was an early adopter of retail therapy, guiltily admitting in a letter to spending £5 on a trip to Oxford Street – around £500 today.
Go in search of that experience now, as I did on sweltering afternoons last week, and you’ll find rows and rows of once-familiar storefronts boarded up. Debenhams came into operation in 2019 and House of Fraser followed during the pandemic. John Lewis, who has been here since 1864, is in the process of selling his upper floors for offices. Teenage dreams of Topshop, a symbol of 90s fast fashion excesses, are covered in real estate agent billboards on which suggestions of “being the future” vie with graffiti tags. There has long been a look of desperation among shoppers here, clutching Zara bags as they step over sleepers in the street, waving at ‘charity muggers’ and Hare Krishnas to come to Primark, but now you can convince you see the last of a dying raise.
Even the sprawling Marks & Spencer store that flanks Selfridge’s, once a tourist destination rivaling St Paul’s and Madame Tussaud’s, is to be demolished and replaced with a new office and retail building. A stay of execution for the building was ordered by Michael Gove, now defenestrated, for environmental reasons. New M&S CEO Stuart Machin said he couldn’t reduce his most famous store to rubble. Since the pandemic, Oxford Street has been “on its knees”, he says, and “in danger of being a neighborhood of dinosaurs”. And anyway, the flagship of M&S “is now its website”.
Selfridge’s, for its part, is not ready to give up so quickly on the “retail experience” invented by its eponymous creator in 1909. The yellow sign on the evolution of shopping was not a digital capitulation but a promise to “reinvent commerce by putting people and the planet at the heart of our thinking”. These plans involved augmenting the perennial treadmill of shoppers of ever newer new arrivals with a new collection of rental apparel, an in-store “repair concierge” dedicated to repairing used items, and an accessories and apparel boutique. second hand.
This project sounds like a pretty serious evolution of Harry Selfridge’s original concept, to “give women what they want”. Its famous in-store stunts – a million customers came in its first week of opening to see Louis Blériot’s cross-Channel monoplane – have also evolved. This week saw the in-store and window launch of Selfridge dedicated to ‘SUPERFUTURES’. Exhibits include reimagined mannequins whose “deconstructed layers capture the importance of owning a garment” and “sustainable display materials” that “interrogate mass production models within the context of temporary installation design.” The window-shoppers who stopped seemed less surprised than perplexed.
What is happening just behind the gates of Selfridge is no less surreal. Symbols of the street’s current decline – one in five stores are empty, footfall still down 30% from pre-pandemic levels – have become America’s candy stores that have sprung up in vacant premises , with windows stacked with screaming bags of Cheetos and Pop Pies and Apple Jacks. Thirty of these stores are currently being investigated by Westminster’s new Labor Council for tax evasion and the sale of counterfeit goods. There have been headlines of around £22,000 of fake Wonka chocolate bars seized, shell companies set up to avoid a £7.9m tax on unoccupied premises, price gouging on pick n’ mix and suspicions of money laundering.
Walking between them in 28°C heat is a hellish experience: a loop of vast candies without children. I walked for half an hour straight without seeing anyone buying anything from the disinterested black-clad young men manning the vape counters and money changers at the back of the shop. Inquiries about how they make a living or pay rent with all that stock were met with vaguely menacing shrugs.
Some social historians might see in these operations the street returning to its roots. from Yale London Survey series devotes an entire volume to Oxford Street, calling it a place of “enduring incoherence”, for centuries a muddy place via dolorosa lined with pubs, bare-knuckle boxing venues, hawkers and hawkers. His livelihood depended on it being the shortest route from the courts of the Old Bailey to the gallows at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) where weekly executions were watched by tens of thousands of people. Onlookers needed a place to eat and, more urgently, to drink.
In his 1991 film The Ghosts of Oxford Street, punk impresario Malcolm McLaren rolled a dump truck past Selfridges and suggested you could still hear the screams of the hanged. He was brought here as a child every Christmas with a grandmother who told him that there used to be more prostitutes than horses walking these streets and showing him where Thomas De Quincey bought his drugs.
As today, there have always been plans to improve the character of the place, give it meaning or restore it to its imagined former glory. In the 1960s, London planners called it “the most uncivilized street in Europe”. Modernists, fond of shopping malls and automobiles, hatched ideas for pedestrian access bridges with traffic below, and for a flyover at the regency of Oxford Circus.
Sixty years later, the impetus was to ban cars from the road altogether. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has made the pedestrianization of Oxford Street – which has frequently recorded levels of particulate pollution several times above the safe limit – a cornerstone of his greener plan for London. The street is, after all, the best-served public transport destination in the country, with four metro stations and several bus routes. The two stations of the new Elizabeth line, designed to bring an additional 90 million passengers to the capital’s West End, were to be the catalyst for this new tree-lined avenue. Nothing happened.
The pedestrianization scheme, which has been shown to significantly reduce pollution and road accidents, was scrapped in 2018 by then-Conservative Westminster council, citing opposition from local residents, although the scheme has received overwhelming support in a public consultation.
The Tory Council’s short-term plan to bring buyers back – the creation of the ridiculous £6million ‘Marble Arch Mound’, a scruffy man-made hill you had to pay £4.50 to climb, now dismantled – has been a key factor in their defeat in the municipal elections this year.
The new administration has yet to release its plans for street regeneration, although a spokesperson tells me it has “ruled out pedestrianization for the foreseeable future.” Some campaigners and commentators have pointed to the transformation of King’s Cross, with its arts venues, tech offices and restaurants, as a model for reviving the capital’s most famous shopping street.
Designer Thomas Heatherwick, who planned part of the King’s Cross redevelopment – and was also behind the Garden Bridge fiasco – told me last week how he imagined it might work: “Oxford Street looks like a huge, long room that gets boring and monotonous and needs to be reinvented,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just any old commercial space. It needs a much more unusual mix of work and entertainment, united in a place that offers style, humor, health and inspiration.
Sure, it should be pedestrian, says Heatherwick, but that should only be the start. “Why not join the rooftops of the buildings together, an interconnecting walkway with bridges from one to the other, and ones that overlap the main road itself? Make a grand promenade with store entrances on the rooftops. What let it happen, don’t just alter it. London,” he says, in a phrase that would be big band music to Harry Selfridge’s ears, “must learn to be brave again.”