As it’s the festive season, my mind is set on the annual visit to a luxury London department store, usually Harrods, for Christmas shopping. More than ever, these delicate Schonbrunn temples seem dim at a time when they are usually most bright. Their windows (a Dada exposition of holographic birkin bags) will see less people peering through this year. I miss them. Not even shopping in your pyjamas, in your own bed, beats walking into a huge department store from the cold, only to see the baubles, smell the perfume, and be handed their familiar branded bag stuffed with goodies.
Whichever great city I visit, their most famous – often oldest – is on the itinerary. You can tell a lot about a place by how pleasant their department store is. How well furnished. How democratic. How it champions the local or global; especially the epicerie section.
More than anything, I like department stores because people leave you alone. Le Bon Marche in Paris is good for an hour’s respite from the chaotic Left Bank. Rinascente in Milan is where you dive for a rooftop spritz after visiting the Duomo. They follow the same blueprint around the world, but carry their own history, products, and style; like palaces but alive.
And contrary to what people think, everyone is welcome. The less I could afford, the more time I spent in department stores; especially as a student. For Londoners, Harrods or Fortnum’s are the city’s retail at its opulent best, and we would visit them after school just to be surrounded by nice things. In Berlin: while my then girlfriend was at work, I’d marvel at the congregation of beers and hunks of pinkish fleisch; often just musing over the product names, Tegernsee, Obatzda… And there’s a small tradition in London where young men buy their girlfriends sticky nougat from the F&M candy counter. Their Dads told them to do it, and they’ll probably tell their sons too. And so the luxury is hereditary, even if they’re only buying nougat.
As I spend the evening clicking ‘add to basket’ for my Christmas gifting, I’m reminded how the thrill of disappearing into a department store feels. The joy it adds to what we shop (the small surprises), and why, more than any other year, I’m excited to see those branded bags. Those symbols of good taste and lofty, festive ambition.
Originally posted as part of the Gents Cafe Newsletter, a bite-sized read about men’s lifestyle to enjoy over a coffee or a nice cocktail. Join now!