Liberty of London: meet the staff who work at the luxury department store

Liberty department store is a temple to luxury and this Christmas it’s opening its doors to TV viewers...


Cometh Christmas, cometh the battle of the multi-million-pound television adverts. But while John Lewis has forked out £7m on a campaign centred on a two-minute “short film” lovingly created by some of the artists behind the animation The Lion King, another big-name retailer is taking a more economical approach.


Liberty, the luxury London department store known for its paisley prints, fabrics and timbered interior, has allowed the cameras in for a documentary that follows an array of eccentric employees in the run-up to Christmas.

Managing director Ed Burstell, a charismatic New Yorker who was appointed in 2010 to revive Liberty’s 135-year-old brand, is unapologetic about the aim of the three, hour-long episodes. “It presents an unbelievable opportunity to reach people at a particular time of year and to show that we’re a modern business with a real sense of values,” he chuckles. “It’s retail nirvana.”

Siobhan Kennedy, business correspondent at Channel 4 News, agrees. “There are so many Christmas adverts this year that it could be the first year they don’t have the same impact,” she says. “Retailers are going to have to think of different ways to appeal to customers and there is no better publicity than three hours of television in the busiest shopping month of the year.”

As an indistinguishably slushy array of advertising campaigns continue to flood our television screens, Liberty and its 156 minutes (when you factor in the ad breaks) of free exposure may just have pulled off their very own veritable Christmas cracker. 

32 years after joining Liberty as a Christmas temp, Julie is in charge of stocking the store’s festive shelves

I start planning for Christmas on 27 December. I begin by looking at what sold well over the past few months to identify emerging themes for next year. This year, family board games are doing really well and novelty animal baubles always fly off the shelves.

Then I talk to the visual team and we work out four distinct colour palettes. This means that when we go to the European trade fares in January, we know exactly what we’re looking for. You have to edit things out and go for varying price points because you can’t have everything at £2.95.

July is the most stressful month of my year because it’s when the stock arrives and it has to run like clockwork. This year we had 110,000 baubles arrive and they’re all colour-coded so that we know where they go on the shop floor. It takes about ten days to set up the christmas department and when it’s done I stand there before we let people in. It always looks amazing.

Christmas at Liberty is unique because we’re not restricted by price. We know our customers are prepared to pay for something amazing so we can pick more unusual things. Our best-selling item last christmas was a pug bauble — not many stores would do a whole line of dog decorations.

Last year somebody proposed to his girlfriend in the christmas department because it was her favourite place. He arranged for a choir to come in and all the other shoppers started singing along like it was a flashmob. Anything can happen at Liberty. That’s the excitement.

Tell us a secret about the store The crest above the front door borrows the coat of arms of Henry VIII’s six wives.

Liberty’s longest- serving member of staff, Shukla has worked on the shop floor since 1973

I was 29, had just arrived in England from Tanzania and had never worked in my life. A friend said Liberty was looking for Indian ladies to work in the Oriental department. I decided to give it a try.

After three weeks on the shop floor, Mr Liberty [the founder’s great nephew] asked if I would like to stay permanently. He had been watching me interact with customers and liked my smile.

I’ve sold to some great people. Remember the blue skirt Lady Diana wore for her engagement? I sold her that. Katharine Hepburn used to come in to buy fabric for her films… she called me her little Indian princess.

Tell us a secret about the store I couldn’t possibly.

The woman behind the Christmas windows and the store’s plush interior

People will think I’m mad, but I’m already thinking about Christmas 2014.

My first job is to come up with the concept for the window. Anything can inspire me from a song to a product. I was moving house last year when I came across some old gold and silver Vogue covers with stars on. They were so beautiful that I decided to make 2013 all about the star.

We start making everything over the summer so that we’re ready for installation in October. The windows at Liberty are very shallow, which makes them a challenge to dress. I have a team of 12 people and they are all either short or skinny because you have to be very nimble to get in and out of the window without knocking things.

If key items from the display sell out, that’s another sign that it’s worked.

Once everything is in, the whole team crosses the road to look at the finished display. That’s when we see how beautiful it is and we take a moment to feel proud.

Tell us a secret about the store Lunch was served in the boardroom for the Liberty family every day until the 1970s. The drinks cabinet was concealed behind a secret panel.

23-year-old Will is one of the store’s top salesmen

If Liberty is a big family, menswear are the naughty kids. We’re all jack the lads in our mid-20s and enjoy having a joke in the morning meetings. But at the same time, we’re serious about providing our customers with a very high level of service.

I’ve recently become a member of the 500 club, for staff who make sales worth over £500,000 in a year. So far in 2013 I’ve done £756,000. When you’re in the club you get some of our best clients… Katy Perry came in once and I had a bit of a moment. She’s so gorgeous!

Tell us a secret about the store Statistically, we are the most flammable building in London [the store was constructed from ships’ timbers] so we’re not allowed any candles. It’s a tinder box in here.

Liberty of London starts tonight at 9:00pm on Channel 4.