IN THE ARCHIVE:
MOMENTS AND HAPPENINGS

Words: Thea Bichard

At Selfridges, we’ve always delighted in the extraordinary and the unexpected, all the way back to the day Harry Gordon Selfridge first opened the doors to Oxford Street in 1909. Now, as we reopen our physical stores in Birmingham, London and Manchester, we’ve started delving into our archives to bring to light the experiences you can only find at Selfridges – the live art pieces, amazing window installations and the all-singing, all-dancing events. For our first glimpse into the archive, we home in on some of the most unlikely moments and surprising happenings that have taken place over the years. Though the walls themselves can’t talk, we’ve tracked down snaps and stories from Selfridges friends and family to tell us what it was like to be there…

Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid

A CRUMBLING CITY

Song Dong, Eating the City (2006)

It took over a week for Song Dong to create an entire city of biscuits, a month for shoppers to enjoy the spectacle, and mere moments for members of the public to reduce it to crumbs. One in a series of eat-me cityscapes exploring the destruction and mass homogenisation of Asian cities, this particular metropolis spanned 12 metres on our Lower Ground Floor at Selfridges London.

 

“The artist was threatening to walk out because Health and Safety weren’t going to let the customers eat the biscuit sculpture, which was the whole point of the art piece and the big finale ‘performance’ to the month-long installation. The production team had worked hard to ‘mouse-proof’ them, so I called Paul Kelly, who was our Managing Director at the time, to ask his advice, and I remember his voice down the phone to me, ‘Let them eat the f***ing biscuits!’ I’ll never forget all the customers devouring the sculpture, filling their handbags and pockets with free biscuits.” – Alannah Weston, Selfridges Executive Chairman

 

“The Visual office on the 6th floor was inundated with packets of biscuits for weeks as we prepared for Song Dong’s installation – I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a lemon wafer biscuit without remembering this.” – Michael Ryley, Creative Manager

Photography © Andrew Meredith

STILL LIFE

Samuel Fosso, Le Chef (2005)

For a week in 2005, anyone walking past our window on the corner of Oxford Street would have done a double take: is that a man or a mannequin? It was artist Samuel Fosso, who sat perfectly still, recreating one of his vibrant photographs – a first for him (and us). Our design team sourced replicas of the patterned fabrics, red loafers and piles of jewellery in Fosso’s ‘Le Chef (Celui qui a Vendu l’Afrique aux Colons)’, an image that referenced both the politics of Fosso’s home country, the Central African Republic, and Western clichés about African tribes and chiefs.

 

“Because he was completely still, people couldn't quite figure out what it was – they didn't know whether it was merchandise, an artwork or a performance – they were intrigued. I think that was one of the main things about Selfridges – it’s part of its DNA to surprise and to create a sort of wonder about the store, and this project absolutely did that.” – Bettina von Hase, Founder of Nine AM Ltd and former Art Adviser for Selfridges

Photographer: Dave Hogan

A WONDERFUL PERFORMANCE

Stevie Wonder performs at the Wonder Room opening party (2007)

Harry Gordon Selfridges conceived of the Selfridges store as a space to share the wonders of the world with London shoppers, and so when we wanted to celebrate the opening of our Wunderkammer-inspired Wonder Room in 2007, one name came to mind. Against the glittering backdrop of fine jewellery, watches and 500 special guests (including Trinny Woodall, Kate Hudson, Joan Collins and Cilla Black, no less), Stevie Wonder performed his greatest hits in a surprise gig.

Image courtesy of Selfridges Brand Archive

CHECK MATES

Chess champion José Raúl Capablanca plays 133 games simultaneously (1929)

Winning one game of chess is hard enough; two would be a struggle. What about 133 simultaneously? As part of a special exhibition at Selfridges in 1929, chess champion José Raúl Capablanca proved it could be done, and as the press shots show, he did it in style (what a suit!). You may have spotted that one of his opponents arrived without a cloche hat. She may have been a little young to wear one, or she may have been given special treatment…

 

“The ladies on Tuesday included the little Princess Tatiana Wiasemsky, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Mr Gordon Selfridge. She made a good fight and was one of the last to finish.” – The Chess Amateur magazine, May 1929

ELVIS, ELVIS AND ELVIS HAVE NOW LEFT THE BUILDING

Elvis impersonators break a world record (2005)

Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, 77 for a Guinness world record. Yep, 77 Elvis impersonators (or ‘Elvii’, as they are collectively known) gathered in our Oxford Street Atrium on 17 April 2015 to break the world record for the most fans singing and impersonating Elvis Presley at one venue. It was part of our Supernova creative scheme inspired by Las Vegas (we also had slot machine sounds ringing through the store). Naturally, the song they chose matched the theme. All together now: Vivaaaaaa Las Vegas…

 

“It was a total non-rock’n’roll time, it being early one Sunday morning before store opening, that a record number of Elvis impersonators flocked to Selfridges. We had Elvises from everywhere. I will never forget the moment they all gathered on the escalators and the sheer euphoria when the adjudicator from the Guinness Book of Records confirmed we had a world record on our hands!” – Caroline Parker, Selfridges Senior Operations Manager in Creative

Photographer: John Voos

THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD

Tatsumi Orimoto, Bread Walk (2001)

Inspired by two very different concepts: the biblical notion of the bread as the body, and artist Marcel Duchamp’s he-swore-it’s-not-a-urinal ‘Fountain’ sculpture, Japanese artist Tatsumi Orimoto had a crumb of an idea: why not treat bread as sculpture, not food? He began tying bloomers and baguettes to his face, and Bread Man was born. In 2001 he recruited a troupe of ‘bread men’ and brought this well-baked idea to Selfridges as part of our store-wide Tokyo Life creative scheme that celebrated Japanese culture, tourism and products.

 

“The bread men, as we called them, would form processions inside the store randomly, and sometimes on Oxford Street, with bread tied to their faces.” – Michael Ryley, Selfridges Creative Manager

Photography © Andrew Meredith

SHHHHHHH...

No Noise mass meditation (2013)

We had a quiet start to 2013 as we ran ‘No-Noise.’: a creative scheme all about dialling down the volume. We turned our Ultra Lounge space on Lower Ground at Selfridges London into The Silence Room, installed Headspace pods throughout our four stores for shoppers to escape the buzz of the outside world, and hosted our most subdued event yet. Headspace’s founder, Andy Puddicombe, led 500 people – including our Executive Chairman (then Creative Director) Alannah Weston – through an en-masse meditation at Selfridges London. Our Beauty Hall was packed out, but you could still hear a pin drop.

 

“When the giggling and jostling for space gave way to stillness, I was astonished to find myself experiencing something quite powerful. Sitting amongst friends and colleagues on the floor of the shop in a moment of pure peace and contemplation was genuinely moving. We came away with an unexpected sense of togetherness and buoyancy. A morning’s ‘work’ that could only happen at Selfridges.” – Sarah McCullough, Selfridges Director of Creative Direction

Images courtesy of Brian Eno Studio

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Brian Eno, Luminous (2007)

Ever wondered what it would look and feel like to stand inside a kaleidoscope? In 2007, we found out when musician, sound and light artist Brian Eno created a specially commissioned installation of ever-evolving lights to fill the Ultra Lounge at Selfridges London. He based it on an earlier piece, 77 Million Paintings, a generative artwork (one created autonomously by a specially programmed computer). Eno described the effect as ‘visual music…a slow-changing light painting’.

 

“It was black when you entered – you weren't quite sure if there was anything in the room, your eyes had to get used to the darkness, and there was this very beautiful music and these extraordinary images. Selfridges did the opposite of what a shop normally wants to do – give people the chance to shop as much as they can – and they had the confidence to say: ‘no, we think it's really important to change the mood and give the people the chance to breathe, to relax, to meditate, to enjoy a little bit of off-time’. It was glorious.” – Bettina von Hase, Founder of Nine AM Ltd and former Art Adviser for Selfridges

 

“The purpose of work like this is to create mental space for people, to give them the chance to surrender to something rich and seductive enough to change their pace. It’s an experience we don’t get much of in a city, where so much of our activity is directed and purposeful.” 
– Brian Eno, as quoted in Ten Years in The Bag

Looking for more stuff to make your world brighter?

Scroll for inspiration (and look out for our next mystical instalment), right here.

Visit the MOODBOARD