Thank you for subscribing to Back Row! Please tap the heart at the top of this post and tell your friends about this newsletter if you like it. Back Row is free to read and not beholden to advertisers (allowing me to run columns like “Retail Confessions”), which is why reader support is everything. If you are new here, tap subscribe to get more posts like this sent to your inbox around twice a week.
For the last installment of this column, I spoke to two former employees of Saks Fifth Avenue. If you’ve worked in fashion or beauty retail and want to share your experiences anonymously for future posts, you can reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a DM. If you don’t have retail experience but there are stores you want to hear about, please let me know. I always love hearing from readers.
For this second installment of “Retail Confessions,” I spoke to a personal shopper employed in the aughts at fancy department store and London landmark Harrods. It was owned at the time by Mohamed al-Fayed, father of Dodi, Princess Diana’s boyfriend who died in the car crash with her in 1997. (Al-Fayed sold Harrods in 2010 for $2.4 billion.) It’s long been a destination for tourists, but of course, as the former personal shopper reveals, those weren’t the people who had real money. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you end up at Harrods?
I had finished university and I had worked in retail before but it wasn’t to this intensity. Where I’m from, you didn’t have that kind of proximity to luxury. So for me to work at a store that carried all the major brands that I only saw in the pages of Vogue was so beyond everything that I ever imagined.
Was it hard to get the job?
You have to go through several interview phases. So you go through an initial interview with the HR people, then you go on to a group interview, and after you do that, you have to do your training period. And if you don’t pass probation, they let you go. I can’t remember if it’s one or three months but it wasn’t like a two-week probation.
What was the probation period for?
To see if you were professional, to see if you were the kind of person they wanted representing the company. So if you were late or didn’t dress according to dress code — if you had a hair color that was unacceptable or visible piercings, that was against dress code. Or if you spoke to customers in a way that wasn’t up to Harrods standards. Or most importantly if you didn’t meet your sales goals — you were out.
What were the customers like?
If you wanted something edgy you’d go next door to Harvey Nichols. People who shopped at Harrods tended to be old school English people who lived next door and had generational money from centuries ago. At the time there were a lot of newly rich people from Russia who had [moved to] the area, and you also had a lot of really rich people from the Middle East shopping there. You wouldn’t get anyone necessarily young unless they were shopping with their mom or their grandma.
Did you feel like you had to sell really hard all the time when you were working?
Every single day, every single hour that I’m on the shop floor, I feel pressure. You have ebb and flow, and you knew if you had a slow day you had to make it up. Although Harrods clientele was quite jet set, you get a whole bunch of tourists, and you know you’re not going to make your goal [with them] because tourists mainly shop in the food hall. They bought a lot of handbags and shoes, but they’re not going to come in for me to dress them.
They had encased the last glass that Princess Diana drank out of with Dodi al-Fayed. People loved it. It just looked like two champagne flutes with some lipstick. It was on the first staircase, and it was just really weird, but everyone came and everyone paid their respects to Diana there.
That’s definitely unique to Harrods. What else was unique about working there?
Mohamed al-Fayed [backed] a Scottish bagpipe band and so every day at 11 in the morning, the bagpipe band would come and do their round on the floor. And you would just sit there, and it’s really loud, right? And they’re dressed in their tartans and stuff, and if you have someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, everyone stops and turns to look at the bagpipe player.
They were really quirky because they also had their own fire brigade and their own police department. In the 80s, the IRA [set off a car bomb outside], so that’s why outside of Harrods there are no garbage cans, because they’re afraid of bombs. So during training they teach you what to do if you’re bombed.
What were people buying at the time?
You had a lot of people coming in for Dior. Those were the Galliano days — everyone wanted a saddle bag, everyone wanted the accessories with the monogram. Shoes and bags are always popular, and obviously they had Hermès, they had Vuitton, they had Fendi, which at the time was doing alright. A lot of English people came in to buy sporting wear — hunting stuff, Barbour jackets and Wellies and things like that. And then Pucci was really popular but only with a really specific subset of people. And Gucci. Those were the Tom Ford years.
Did you worry about returns?
If it was within the 30 days, most likely we would take it back. Tom Ford did a series of bikinis that were quite slim — a lot had a thong back — and there were some that came back with stuff back there. As well as shoes with stuff on there. Oh my god, we had shoes that had, like, literal shit on the bottom. People would be like, “We didn’t like it, it’s really uncomfortable.” In theory, we said we had to be able to resell it, so if they’re going away for a quick little holiday and they wanted to look really hot…
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Back Row to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.