Are your memories given shape by what was on your feet? Is the home you live in arranged around your collection of foot indulgence?
If you answer “yes” to any, or all, of the above then you have probably already been to the David Collins Studio collaboration with Harrods, Shoe Heaven.
Nowhere else does it quite like Harrods. A vast, million square foot realm for the senses. Harrods exists to fulfil the everyday requirements and satisfy the wildest, once in a lifetime, desire.
To describe Shoe Heaven as a shoe department is to diminish the vision, gift and intellect of both the Studio and of Helen David. Something like Shoe Heaven does not happen quickly. Helen worked closely with David Collins for a year before David’s untimely death. The work which evolved between David Collins Studio and Harrods subsequently is an eloquent testimony to David’s gift for catalysing a team and a client.
For Helen David, the fantastic is a point of departure. She goes way beyond conventional retail environment thinking. A client like Helen is a perfect creative foil for David Collins Studio. The project becomes a trip to a realm where anything is possible.
Literally, the place is so beautiful it keeps bringing people back. It is as simple, really, as that. I, especially after being closely involved in the process, have a total belief that fantastic design is a very wise investment.
Helen, with the highly accomplished Harrods team worked closely with David Collins Studio headed by Simon Rawlings. Simon, it should be said, has a passionate, fierce, parental, custodial responsibility for arguably the world’s most-eminent department store.
Within this electric storm of idea and imagination is a clear objective: to create a devastatingly intoxicating world of beautiful shoes. From the apogee of indulgence to the weekday sneaker with every possible point between.
The space blurs the lines between retail, theatre, the provocation of art and the immersive experience. A sensory overload with the added allure of walking out with a killer pair of shoes and tiny, exhilarating shiver of retail guilt. A tiny sliver.
It feels removed from the confines and conventions of how retail uses a space. Here we find a fantasy museum imagined by Kubrick. Beguiling rooms where all of the historic objects and artefacts have been replaced with clusters of glorious and precious shoes. It defines the notion that symmetry is not the only path to perfect, sublime balance.
Everything, the staff and the customers, appear to be gently slowed down and move to a languid choreography. Quietly and discretely, a lot of very beautiful and desirable shoes are being piled in heavy boxes then bagged.
The air, gently fragrant, crackles with the subtle exhilaration that comes from finding your size in that colour.
To talk to Helen is to be pulled into a parallel place of fabulous glamour, sideways thinking and deadly purpose. A rare combination. But then, the fruit of the exercise is quite unlike anywhere you ever tried on the shoe of your dream.
The graceful pace of Harrods is a clever illusion. Time is precious and races at double speed behind the screens.
We have an hour with Helen. This includes the time to take a portrait. And ask some questions. We retire to her office. Here, she visibly relaxes.
Her complex genetic composition shines. Anglo-Lebanese, possessing a fragrant mix of Lebanese warmth and British charm and the infinite vision of a person whose upbringing was in almost constant global transit.
If Shoe Heaven is a kingdom she may be the most delicate, demure and charming ruler imaginable. We chat about the energy that resonates in people. Both the good and the bad. She reveals two small crystals. A piece of Rose Quartz and a small pebble of Aventurine. Given the demands of her role set against the serenity and poise she possesses it would seem the small stones have a gentle power.
And so, we go.
Graham Erickson: Does Shoe Heaven resemble the idea you originally had of it?
Helen David: Honestly and truly, it looks, and feels, exactly as it existed in my mind. A lot of the details are beyond what I imagined so, in fact, it is one of those rare occasions where reality is more beautiful than the imagined. A lot of this, of course, is to the credit of David and the Studio.
GE: Is this the first environment of this scale and ambition you have been involved with?
HD: It is the first entire environment, or interior design project, I have ever had this kind of involvement in. The scale, and the significance of the exercise made it something of a baptism by fire. It has, however, given me a passion for interiors and enthusiasm to do more!
At the time this was the largest capex project we had undertaken at Harrods, spanning 42,000 square feet. Every part of the customer journey was considered and poured over, the thought and care that went into the project is what you would invest in your own home.
GE: There are, of course, other amazing places in London to shop for beautiful shoes. What is it that brings a person to Harrods to buy shoes?
HD: I think what we do is beyond simple retail. It becomes an emotional experience with a shot of immersive theatre dropped in. It is, of course, to acquire a pair of shoes but I like to think that everybody remembers the ceremony of buying something beautiful from Harrods.
GE: Is there a typical Harrods shoe customer?
HD: It would be a great answer to say, “No”, but the reality is, and it’s not a bad thing, that our customers are, largely, defined by their desire for perfect quality and service. Then there is the allure that Harrods has a sense of quirky and unpredictable sense of fun. There is definitely a level of affluence that corresponds with Harrods but I think it is equally delightful that a person with a perfectly normal job and salary likes to treat themselves with an occasional Harrods trip.
GE: Do you think the ritual of entering a place and exploring actual objects, shoes in this case, will always have a place in life regardless of the convenience of online shopping?
HD: I may be the wrong person for this question. I buy necessities online but I would never contemplate buying clothes or shoes online. For me, the excitement is in the exploring, the connection and the emotional response to being in actual contact with the beautiful things I want to buy. No online resource can ever do that for me. There is no connection between luxury, beauty and convenience.
GE: What is it about the ceremony of retail that inspires and beguiles you?
HD: There is the unexpected and the thrill of wonder. I love to watch customers and see their expressions as they explore Shoe Heaven. They become slightly entranced by both the surroundings and the beautiful shoes. I find it endlessly interesting. And useful too. You should always spend time watching actual customers and their behaviour. Retail is, of course, a deeply psychological pursuit.
GE: What did you learn from working with David Collins Studio on the project?
HD: Well, I actually spent a year working with David. It was inspirational in so many ways. As a result of my time with David, Simon and David Collins Studio, I learned a deep appreciation of interior design and environmental aesthetics. I have always loved beautiful places but he, and The Studio, gave me a greater, almost scientific, understanding of material, proportion and composition. Now I am unable to visit a beautiful space without falling into a deep exploration of every detail.
The Studio who we continue to work with truly appreciates your creative vision – almost an innate understanding of what one is hoping to create with an unparalleled ability to bring this to life, an uncanny habit of making it just that little bit more special than you had even hoped for.
GE: Is it possible to define how working with David Collins Studio connects to actual retail performance? I guess I’m asking if it is possible to begin to quantify the investment in good quality design in relation to commercial performance?
HD: There is no question really. A customer is extremely clever, astute and perceptive. They respond by buying more enthusiastically and frequently in a space which is flawlessly beautiful to visit. Literally, the place is so beautiful it keeps bringing people back. It is as simple, really, as that. I, especially after being closely involved in the process, have a total belief that fantastic design is a very wise investment.
GE: Perfection, we know, is never, fully, attained. It is a life commitment. Are there any ideas you already have on how to evolve all of this?
HD: Well, there is no respite. Fashion moves fast. Of course, this entire floor evolves with every season. It means a lot of work but the results are worth the effort and investment. Then, outside of Shoe Heaven we are well into the design of our Men’s Superbrands space. Without revealing too much it is, again with David Collins Studio, incredibly exciting and will redefine the curation and retailing of contemporary menswear.
Graham Erickson is a freelance editor and writer living in London.
Alexander Coggin is an American photographer living in London.
Richard Powers is a British photographer living in the south of France specialising in interiors, architecture and the built environment.