In Conversation with Linda Hewson

type - features
Features
20th anniversary
Chris Sanderson talks to Selfridges Group’s global creative director Linda Hewson about 20 years of pioneering retail projects and the changing retail landscape, and considers the future of the department store in the
Transformative Twenties

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

Chris Sanderson: I’m so delighted that we can catch up! Back in 2000 you were kicking off your career with Selfridges and it was around this time that I was creative director of Viewpoint magazine and had been asked to do some windows for the store on the theme of the future. How much has your world changed over the last 20 years?

Linda Hewson: At Selfridges our interest in the visual, spectacle, experiences and the 3D aspect of retail – the holistic approach – has never changed, but it’s the way people have engaged with it over the years that has changed. Digital was initially a huge disruptor but now what we can do with it is immensely exciting. Stores have always been important to us – they still are. Their windows, facades and atriums are important and they play a role in their city and the surrounding area.

Now climate change and sustainability are big disruptors in our lives and all of these things help us to progress our business model.

Looking back 20 years there was a slightly different attitude, and Selfridges felt like quite a radical place for new retail because there was a lot of pioneering thinking, big thinking and some risky stuff going on. Over time, we’ve never lost that creative spirit, but now it’s more about bringing the art and science together. We used to just throw stuff out there and give it a go and see what happened, whereas now we think about things more deeply, we measure things more accurately, we learn and we understand the customer better.

Chris:       Do you think that greater understanding of commerciality is giving you the freedom to be more creative?

Linda:       I think it does as you have more to work with. We didn’t have any data before and now we do. And I'm not a huge fan of data to be honest; it should never lead creativity, but it definitely helps to fine-tune things, to turn up the volume in some areas, and down in others. And we’ve got more channels to play with now: we have the physical spaces, but we also have digital spaces. For example, we can do live talks and events online, so we’re reaching different people at different times in different ways. That’s very exciting.

Chris:       Here we are, many months into the coronavirus pandemic which has had a devastating impact on retail and yet you’re in the midst of another retail initiative, Project Earth.

Linda:      Project Earth is huge. While the way you engage with it at the moment feels like a campaign it is in fact launching something much bigger – a complete change in our strategy as a business. It’s the first step in changing the way we do business.

Published by:

16 November 2020

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: Selfridges fragrance lab by Campaign, The Future Laboratory and Givaudan. Photography by Hufton and Crow

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1. Project Earth Animation by Pitch Studios for The Future Laboratory and Selfridges. Fashion by The Fabricant and PMS Studio.
2. Linda Hewson, global creative director, Selfridges Group

It isn’t something we’ve quickly thought about during lockdown and brought into being, it’s something we’ve been doing for 10 years now, looking at sustainability, the future and how we can use the Selfridges platform to explore and innovate in the retail space. Project Earth is about looking at materials, models and mindsets and how we use those three things to experiment. Which is exactly what it is – it’s a live experiment that we are going to learn from to see how our customer engages and how people respond, and then it’s going to shape our business. We’re in the process of working on and evolving the Selfridges Group vision, purpose and values. We believe this is the only way to approach retail moving forwards: what we’re interested in are societal boundaries, environmental boundaries and commercial opportunities, and how we look at these three aspects to drive us forward. It’s a very exciting time even though it feels daunting. I do however think we can reinvent.

Chris:       Where do you think that takes the creative direction and the brand?

Linda:       The challenges, of course, are going to be on the commercial side. At the moment we’ve got all sorts of obstacles. We’re missing the international customer at the moment, there are all the uncertainties about Brexit and issues around tax-free shopping. So now we’ve got to really focus on the domestic customer. This means looking at the whole product mix and strategy, potentially introducing new categories, and looking at the balance between own-bought and concession. We also need to consider how the shape of the stores needs to respond as a result of all of that changing.

I think we’re going to need to be much more flexible and quicker in how we do things. It’s likely that the strategy is going to be much more biased towards independent and sustainable brands, and this is hugely exciting. What comes with that is great creativity. This isn’t something you can do overnight. We have a significant target of wanting all our products to be from sustainable sources by 2025, which is huge and it’s going to take time to introduce this shift but I think we can do it – and it’s all about the customer really, isn’t it?

Chris:       Well, that has to be the guiding principle, doesn’t it? Any burning question for me 

Linda:      Well, my burning question is probably one you’ve predicted, which is will department stores still exist in 20 years’ time, or even in 10 years’ time. And if so, how will they be different?

Chris:       Oh, that is a really, really good question...

 

Watch the full Zoom conversation between Chris Sanderson, co-founder, The Future Laboratory and Linda Hewson, group creative director, Selfridges Group below.