How To Departmentalise Your Life

I happened to be in the fabulous institution that is Liberty early this week. Nothing unusual in that except that Monday saw the launch of the Channel 4 documentary about this very shop. Did I imagine a sense of anticipation and excitement in the air? Probably. Although I discussed it with a few staff who had yet to even see any previews of the show and they were equally intrigued. And so they should be. Liberty is as English as they come and while the regular customers are fascinating enough, some of those behind the scenes look as eccentric as the stock.

Like a lot of people fresh out of drama school in the nineties, I worked part time in a department store. This particular one, ‘Grace Brothers’ in style and in a very posh suburb of South London, was undergoing a refurbishment which didn’t really seem to alter anything much. Other than boarding up the natural light and introducing a few fresh new brands, the things that really needed modernising like the escalators which never went in the direction you needed no matter what side of the store you were on and aged staff members for whom those escalators were actually a novelty, remained resolutely unchanged. I enjoyed my job there but as a young member of staff from one of the new concessions, I was given a wide berth for a few months following my arrival. The ladies from Jaegar and Country Casuals were extremely sniffy and we soon discovered all sorts of politics about fitting rooms and tills – far too boring to go into here but at the time caused outrage. Hilarious.

At Liberty they still have natural light filtered through leaded windows and housed as it is in a beautiful listed building complete with creaky staircases and Tudor galleries, its tourist appeal must surely outgun Harrods. Especially since it is the only place – other than the exclusive boutique in Chelsea – to stock the coveted Manolo Blahnick shoes.

Autumnal scarves at Liberty

Autumnal scarves at Liberty

I am fond of department stores for three reasons:

1.      They always have promotions on…

Debenhams is arguably the most discount-tastic of the lot. If you have ever paid full price for anything there, it must have been for emergency make-up supplies. Last weekend I got a two pack of YSL Touche Eclat for £35 (hooray, I can apply to both eye bags simultaneously!) and I don’t think that deal can even be beaten in Duty Free. Oh and they do those demonstrations in the kitchen department where they hand out free knives at the end. Unless you look very obviously like a lunatic in which case they might swap the knife for a tea towel or something.

2.      They rarely quibble about refunds…

When I worked in a department store – oh alright it was a House of Fraser, Dickens and Jones in Richmond to be precise – there was a story doing the rounds about a customer who brought a coat back twenty years after buying it because “It hasn’t worn well”. House of Fraser obliged and handed over a full refund although I don’t suppose she had the receipt. That’s customer service for you. I wonder if they put the coat back out on the shop floor at sale time?

3.      They have loads of fitting rooms so you rarely have to queue…

Fitting rooms can be anything from a curtain across a corner of the store in a small independent boutique to a lounge-like red velvet boudoir complete with dressing gown and chaise longue (hello Agent Provocateur). Either way, the most important feature is the mirror. You might not want to leave the security of your cubicle – I often try things on with my jeans round my ankles – and ultimately nobody wins if the mirror distorts you into something better or (god forbid) worse than you actually are. I don’t want to be hassled every five minutes with the threat of an eager sales assistant throwing open the curtain when I have my head stuck in an armhole and both boobs exposed so locks on fitting room doors are a godsend. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve literally got stuck in an item of clothing, on one occasion only finding freedom by forcibly ripping the zip apart.

The lingerie fitting rooms at Debenhams Oxford Street

The lingerie fitting rooms at Debenhams Oxford Street

Debenhams have given their flagship store in Oxford Street a make-over and the results are impressive. I was thrilled to find firstly that the lingerie department was right near to the entrance on the lower ground floor when more often than not its in the deepest darkest recesses of the third floor. Then secondly I discovered that the fitting rooms were vast and really rather lovely. Three very sensible girly hooks, a little thing but oh so handy during the arduous task of trying on bras. I was so enjoying exploring the new look lingerie department that I almost didn’t get irritated by the cagoule-clad husband who had seated himself (was he sitting on his own portable camping chair, I couldn’t be sure?) right in front of one of the displays I wanted to look at. He sat there reading some kind of journal while his wife picked out matronly bras oblivious to this imposition. Thinking about it, maybe he wasn’t even her husband, or anyone’s husband and he was just sitting there for the hell of it. He might have been there for days surrounded by underwiring and lace – whatever floats your boat.

I’m undecided on how I feel about partners waiting outside fitting rooms. Obviously if they’re paying then you have to come out and do the whole twirling thing but does anyone apart from possibly Kelly Brooke actually enjoy that? I remember a branch of H&M once trialling a sofa outside the fitting rooms of one of their branches. Always full of exhausted looking men and sometimes their toddlers, it was a depressing sight with them all rolling their eyes at each other and yawning. My boyfriend at the time thought it a great idea. I thought an even better idea would have been for them to stay at home in the first place. But then I shop better alone, always have. Ironic that nowadays I like nothing more than shopping with others, as long as it is them we are buying for.

Although it’s clear department stores are an outdated institution these days, I sincerely hope they are here to stay. I could leave my son pressing buttons in the lifts for hours while I went off shopping if I had less of a conscience. And who in their right mind hasn’t popped into the beauty department at 4pm on a Saturday evening so they can get a free professional make-over for that night’s date? Hell, with Debenhams staying open until 10pm in the lead up to Christmas, that night’s date could even be at Debenhams…



About aftercarrie

I help people refine their wardrobe to suit their shape, colouring and lifestyle. I am a style consultant, personal shopper and colour analyst working in London. Be the loveliest possible you. My first book SHOPPED was released on 5th July 2016 (September Publishing).
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