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Interview: How Harrods is bringing ‘175 years of exceptional’ to life

Interview: How Harrods is bringing ‘175 years of exceptional’ to life

Harrods is celebrating 175 years of trading this year and the business is keen to celebrate – and is making sure the luxury brands that it sells play a central role in these celebrations.

The London luxury department store has built a reputation of partnering with the some of the world’s most exclusive labels to create showstopping brand takeovers that has seen a 15m sculpture of artist Yayoi Kusama placed outside its entrance and its entire facade covered in giant colourful spots for a playful Louis Vuitton activation.

Tasked with the challenge of bringing 175-years of history on Brompton Road to life is partnerships director Alex Unitt, the man behind the luxury retailer’s most notable brand collaborations.

Harrods Alex UnittHarrods’ Alex Unitt

The year promises to be a constant celebration of showcasing the very best of Harrods, the brands it works with, and setting the tone for the future.

“We’ve had this iconic brand and business that’s been a permanent fixture in the city for 175 years, and we wanted to reflect that and make sure that we were rooted in our heritage but also as future facing as we could possibly be,” says Unitt, a former Condé Nast and Monocle director.

Harrods kicked off its year of celebrations with a month-long Burberry takeover, which saw the luxury department store’s famous green awnings replaced with peeled-back tent canopies in a seasonal Burberry Check and the department store’s famous green doormen uniforms swapped for the label’s blue check, designed by chief creative officer Daniel Lee.

Themed around the Burberry’s history of dressing intrepid explorers, Harrods’ store windows were decorated with camping components such as guy ropes, draped waterproof fabrics and carabiners.

It also included a Burberry food truck, which sat outside the store, while inside, two pop ups sold limited-edition capsule collections, alongside camping gear such as picnic blankets and a wool-covered hot water bottle.

“The stars aligned with Burberry because its similar to us – it had such a rich history rooted in British culture,” says Unitt.

“It made perfect sense and the synergy between the two brands was really clear in terms of two iconic brands coming together to celebrate everything that we’ve done and everything that we represent for London and Britishness.”

Harrods x Burberry

Unitt says Harrods was also able to be more creative with the partnership.

Harrods x Burberry

“Burberry has gone through a change in its creative director with Daniel Lee and its very proud of projecting a new version of Burberry to the world.

“I wouldn’t say we’re saying, ‘Here’s a new version of Harrods’, but we were really looking about the innovative ways that we can take ourselves and our brand forward.”

As part of its takeover, Burberry became the first brand to take control of the facade’s lighting system to project its signature blue branding on the outside of the store.

The move was made possible by the recent replacement of all 3,890 lights with LED bulbs that are up to 80% more efficient.

“Our lights have been this key identifiable characteristic of Harrods and the Brompton Road and Hans Crescent for many years and as a business, we are protecting the integrity of that,” Unitt explains.

The change meant Harrods could bring “a lot more impact to the takeover” and match its lights to the specific Pantone colour of Burberry’s Knight Blue shade, Unitt shares.

“I think Burberry specifically was well received because,there was a sense of fun in the way that the doormen had their new uniforms on and there was an outdoor camping vibe,” he says.

“It was different and unexpected and it just brought a lightness to the whole thing.”

Bigger and better

To put the scale of its collaboration with Burberry into perspective, the biggest partnership Harrods had done until then was its tie up with Dior for Christmas 2022 which saw 44 creative window displays, a light installation that illuminated the store front with stars, roses and other seminal brand references, two boutique pop-ups as well as an exhibition and a café.

While Burberry is of a similar scale to the french fashion house’s takeover, Unitt points out this year’s partnership introduced more digital elements for the first time including a Roblox activation “which speaks to a new audience”.

“I don’t think we can say, tangibly, it is the biggest we’ve ever done but we were growing what we’re doing, how we’re communicating, and the way in which we’re activating these partnerships.

“We took that down new channels, which was interesting not only to us and the partnering brands, but the audiences as well.”

Unitt says the business was able to explore new creative avenues with its brand partnerships for the ‘175 years of exceptional’ campaign.

“It’s not just partnerships of that nature where there’s a facade treatment and a change of the doorman uniform, we’ve got really interesting integrated partnerships that are activating across the year.”

He says that more than 40 brands will be involved in a “very specific way” with many more in more subtle ways.

Its latest partnership is an immersive experience, dubbed ‘Pioneers of the Exceptional’, which mixes both Harrods’ and luxury watchmaker Vacheron Constantin’s historic pursuit of perfection, and runs from June 19 and runs through to July 21.

Putting itself in the spotlight

The Harrods Bear is also taking centre stage in the festivities this year as it looks to shine a light on its own heritage.

“We’ve given ourselves a bit of space outside of brand partnerships to let the Harrods brand sing a little on its own,” he says.

Harrods

The fluffy mascot, which was first introduced in the retailer’s catalogue of toys in 1906, has been given its own special makeover for the celebrations.

Harrods has launched its own limited-edition 175 year anniversary bear, and has teamed up with selected designers and beauty brands to release exclusive bears of which only 175 are produced.

“We’ve got collaborations with many of the brands so we had a Burberry one in February, Valentino in March, we’ve got Charlotte Tilbury coming up,” says Unitt, adding there are more exclusive drops happening throughout the year.

The retailer installed a life-sized Henry bear in its Exhibition Windows on the ground floor for its March activation, The Harrods Lounge, which put a spotlight on the retailer’s own services and offerings.

It’s also releasing over 40 exclusive products, all which pay homage to its legacy, including a limited edition made-to-order champagne bottle, designed by Dimitry Hlinka and inspired by the iconic chandelier in the brand’s champagne bar on the ground floor.

A year to remember

This 175 year celebrations come on the back of the retailer posting rising profits and sales in its last reported financial year.

Turnover at the luxury department store retailer soared year on year from £581.9m to £831.6m, while gross transaction value rose 47% to £2.3bn in the year to 28 January 2023, as trading returned to normal post-pandemic. Operating profit almost tripled from £55.5m to £158.4m.

Alongside from the improving performance, the 175 year celebrations has certainly cast a magical glow on the department store, with the occasion naturally offering a chance to reflect.

Harrods

“You look back over 175 years of history, and from bears to the facade to all of the commemorative collaborations we’ve got and the building up to Christmas season, we’ve realised quite what we have as a business,” says Unitt, adding his team have taken a moment to realise “what a cultural and brand icon we really are”.

Alongside putting on a showstopping celebration for the public, Harrods has also involved its staff in several back-of-house initiatives.

“We always look to partner with brands and we have done as I say in new and interesting ways this year, but we’ve also given ourselves some space to really celebrate that 175 years of the exceptional for us and only us if you like,” says Unitt.

“In the start in the colleague tunnel, which is where people enter the store, people are putting postcards up of their memories of Harrods such as where they first encountered [the store] or something that they really enjoy about Harrods,” Unitt says, who adds some of the messages have helped shape its store activations.

“We’ve collected everybody’s communal and shared values, interests and memories of Harrods and then translated that into how we’re taking the message out to the world in terms of reflecting on 175 years of exceptional.”

“It’s been a really collaborative experience for everybody within the business,” he says.

Harrods is now halfway through its anniversary year and its biggest activation is yet to come, with Unitt promising its highly-anticipated Christmas display will be “showstopping”.

It seems the luxury department store is looking to close out the year with a similar approach to how it welcomed it: with a bang.

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