I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. When I was younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I was told I wasn’t good enough at math so I went to Montreal to study fine art instead. Then after taking a year off to travel, I decided that I needed to eventually have a job, so I went back to university to study something more practical, interior design, and I went on to study architecture after that. I was accepted to the architecture programme at Columbia University in New York, and it totally changed my life — in all my years as a student, it was the best academic experience I’ve had, and set me on the course I am on today.
When I graduated, I was offered a really interesting job with a young architect, S Russell Groves, who had worked with the renowned Peter Marino. We worked with all the big fashion houses at the time. Giorgio Armani was a very hot brand in the ‘90s, and designing his stores was my first job in New York. In a sort of fluky coincidence, my first big project for Giorgio Armani was to design his Emporio Armani Toronto store, which was part of Holt Renfrew! I lived in New York for nine years and that’s where I really became an expert in retail space design, and after that I moved to LA and had a whole new experience of the sector. We lived a short walk from Chateau Marmont, just south of the Sunset Strip. It was sunny nearly every day and we had a pool, but it had always been my dream to live in London. So my husband and I relocated in the summer of 2004.
My first job in London was designing TopShop stores around the UK and Ireland. Then I moved on to a big global architecture practice. I was working on this wild project in Kuwait, designing ‘The Avenues’, one of the largest shopping malls in the world. It was kind of like designing DisneyLand, which was quite fun. I travelled a lot from London to Kuwait, into this whole other dynamic and exciting world. I really enjoyed the work, and I remember I had just got a promotion when I received a call from a head-hunter who vaguely described this new opportunity. I turned them down because I was happy where I was, but the head-hunter kept nagging me and eventually revealed the role was at Selfridges. That made me take notice. I went for the interview, where I met Sue West, who was the Operations Director at the time. The minute I met her and we discussed the job, that was it — I resigned and joined Selfridges. That was over 11 years ago. When I started, the Shoe Galleries were in the planning stages and there was an immediate flurry of massive and exciting projects to work on, so it felt like I had joined at just the right time.
The Duke Street Masterplan was the most exciting project I've ever worked on, not just at Selfridges, but anywhere. It was a true masterplan project in that it was very complex — it involved moving around infrastructure, demolishing a building, stitching the remaining buildings back together and actually creating a piece of architecture in central London.
My role is really varied which suits me, I’m quite a speedy type of person and I like variety, which is good because my job changes constantly! I mainly work on projects within the Selfridges stores but also with Selfridges Group, which involve areas outside of the four walls, and speaks to my architectural background. The Duke Street Masterplan was the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on, not just at Selfridges, but anywhere. It was a true masterplan project in that it was very complex — it involved moving around infrastructure, demolishing a building, stitching the remaining buildings back together and actually creating a piece of architecture in central London. It was the biggest intervention on the site since Harry Gordon Selfridge built Selfridges. Being involved from the very start was such a privilege, from proposing David Chipperfield as architect, working closely with him and the Weston Family, and drawing on all of the different areas of my expertise and experience — from buildings right down to interiors. There was a real feeling of magnitude to the project, and rightly so, it was a 300-million-pound investment, and a huge undertaking.
Looking to the future, I have been thinking about how the pandemic will affect store design. In terms of the immediate impact, obviously, it was catastrophic, everything came to a screeching halt. We had to spend months in emergency work providing Covid screens and working out social distancing in every part of the store. Our number one priority was the safety of our teams and customers. Despite all of that, I am optimistic about the future, the pandemic has completely shifted our mindset in relation to what design and architecture needs to do, and in a positive way. Architects and designers are by their very nature resilient problem solvers.
In relation to sustainability, we have to really consider everything we do and why we do it, particularly in the construction industry which is one of the most polluting sectors. Historically in retail design you would just continuously refresh, or redesign, but now we are really questioning the impact of our strategy, asking ourselves if we need to intervene, what the purpose of the project is, and how to make it last. We only want to use resources if it adds meaning to people’s lives, and if it makes a real difference to how people interact with the space.
Creativity is the heart and soul of our business. It is what defined Selfridges from the start, and what has always made us stand apart. Now more than ever, we need creative problem solvers to rise to the challenges in the sector.
Creativity is the heart and soul of our business. It is what defined Selfridges from the start, and what has always made us stand apart. Now more than ever, we need creative problem solvers to rise to the challenges in the sector. It’s not just about solving problems; it’s about unlocking opportunities where it seems there are none. We can’t afford to stand still, and this is where the particular skill set of creative thinkers comes in.
Selfridges will come out of the past year in a position of strength. Unlike some retail spaces, you shop at Selfridges for the experience, for the feeling you get being in store, hearing the music, seeing the people, touching the product. You can’t replicate that experience shopping online. It’s a visceral need to engage with people in a place. It’s that sense of kind of magic, where your heart starts pumping because you see something beautiful or unexpected, and in this beautiful space. The experience has to be special.
The department stores that have a healthy future will be the ones that create a feeling of community. Take what we have recently done in the men’s designer street room. When you go in there you hear the music that you like to hear, you see people working in the space that have passions that align with your passions, and you can do a lot of different things there that add value — like getting a haircut, going skateboarding, or getting your health and wellness products. It speaks to a whole lifestyle, all in one place. When you build those little worlds, you create this feeling of excitement and belonging. Department stores used to be about the convenience of getting everything under one roof, but now that online giants have supplanted that convenience, successful department stores are much more about experience and discovery.