In the early 1990s, a plucky young fashion buyer, Mary Portas, was working at Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge. She had the bright idea of giving the producers of a new BBC show clothes in exchange for a reference or two in the script. The show was Absolutely Fabulous, and it helped make “Harvey Nics” – as it’s referred to by the show’s protagonists – the jewel in the crown of London’s shopping scene.
“Where it led, others would follow,” says Lynne Franks, who handled the company’s PR at the time (and is said to be the inspiration for Ab Fab’s Edina Monsoon). “It really was the fashion beacon for London; it was way ahead of any others.”
Thirty years later, the famous department store has lost its shine: its latest results show a loss of £30 million, compared with a £2.7 million profit before Covid. More uncertainty lies ahead. In August, chief executive Manju Malhotra stepped down after 25 years at the company. Her departure is understood to be related to a disagreement with the chairman, Sir Dickson Poon, over its growth strategy. Poon’s 29-year-old son, Pearson, has temporarily taken the helm as vice-chairman.
In its heyday, Harvey Nichols had an eye for finding up-and-coming designers before they were stocked elsewhere. “It had this really interesting curation of designers,” says Fiona Golfar, a former Vogue editor. “I remember going there and somebody said, ‘try this,’ and it was Alber Elbaz for Lanvin. They always had their nose on who’s a great designer and which pieces to buy. At the beginning of my shopping life in the mid-80s, early 90s, we’d go to look at the windows. You went for a wander because you understood it had this clever, eclectic edit.”
The flagship started life as a linen shop on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street, founded in 1831 by Benjamin Harvey. It expanded until it occupied an entire block and was then demolished to build the illustrious department store you see today. In 1975, a top-floor restaurant opened, Harvey’s – a favourite of Princess Diana’s which cemented its popularity among the “Sloane Ranger” social set. It was the first British stockist of Cartier and the first British department store to stock Lanvin, Balenciaga and the then-up-and-coming Alexander McQueen.
Along came Poon, a retail titan who had made his name selling luxury goods in Asia. His purchase of the business in 1991 for £53 million initially raised eyebrows. But the store just went from strength to strength, aided by a refurbishment, the addition of a fifth-floor champagne bar and Portas, who fostered relationships with young designers and staged fashion shows. Expansion to Edinburgh, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham followed. It now also has stores in Riyadh, Dubai and Kuwait, and two in Hong Kong.
“Breakfast at Harvey Nics with your girlfriends before the office was a lifestyle statement,” says Sadie Mantovani, former vice-president of communications for Ralph Lauren, who now handles PR for the fashion rental platform My Wardrobe HQ. “It was such an ‘It’ place.” So, how did it fall out of fashion?
When I visit on a Tuesday afternoon after work, the womenswear floors and famed fifth-floor bar and café are quiet, with a staff-shopper ratio of almost one to one. The top floor houses a ‘foodmarket’, stocked with champagne, and five restaurants including a branch of Burger & Lobster. Each low-ceilinged floor is meticulously curated, but devoid of atmosphere. The design of the shop is partly to blame, says Mantovani. “Some Harvey Nichols designer corners still remain as windowless and smaller, and where the actual [products] often remain strong, they are not showing [them] off to their best advantage.”
Golfar can’t remember the last time she shopped there. “I don’t have that connection with Harvey Nichols anymore. And I think they’d have to work quite hard to pull me back,” she says. Even Portas scathingly concluded that by 2013 it was “more kitten heels than cool”.
This is in contrast to nearby Selfridges, which has art in the windows and is so overrun with tourists and shoppers it is a battle to reach the beauty hall. At the front, it currently has a pop-up news kiosk stocked with merchandise created for Vogue World: London, the one-off theatre show staged by the magazine earlier this month.
“A social centre, not a shop” was the slogan at Selfridges’ opening, and that is as true in 2023 as it was in 1909. Of course, Selfridges does benefit from an Oxford Street location, but it has mastered the art of reinvention in a way Harvey Nichols has not. Harvey Nics also specialises in fashion – as opposed to Selfridges, which sells a broader range of products – meaning it is now in competition with e-commerce giants like Net-a-Porter and Matches.
Malhotra, who started as CEO just 10 days before the pandemic hit, has previously said that cost of living challenges had a significant impact, despite the relative wealth of Harvey Nichols’ customers. “After all, there’s a limit to how much people will pay for a glass of champagne,” she said. Other department stores have all but disappeared from high streets, including House of Fraser and Debenhams. John Lewis made a pre-tax loss of £59 million for the 26 weeks to July 29.
At the luxury end of the spectrum, Harvey Nichols just hasn’t adjusted as well as its competitors to the changing landscape. “They’ve just been left behind a bit,” says Mantovani. “No matter how much we loved going to Harvey Nichols, if we go in and it looks a bit tired, we’re not going to [come back].”
There is no issue, she points out, with how quickly it adopts new trends and adjusts to shoppers’ needs – it was Harvey Nichols that first hosted a My Wardrobe HQ pop-up in 2020 and embraced the rental revolution in fashion, just as it gave a platform to young designers in the past. The issue lies in what it does with them.
“In terms of being first, they’re very forward thinking, but they’re not good at keeping it up,” she says. “They welcomed rental [fashion] early on. But was that developed as well as it could be? It wasn’t, in the end. Now we have a huge presence in Harrods.”
The difference between Harvey Nichols now and in the 1990s is that it was more than a department store. It had a cool, glossy customer magazine featuring interviews with a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet and Jerry Hall. It played host to star-studded fashion parties. It was a scene. When management trimmed back on those “extras”, it began to feel generic.
It has an iconic name it isn’t taking full advantage of, Mantovani adds, but the solution isn’t harking back to the height of the store’s fame in the 1980s or 1990s. “Wealthy shoppers of designer clothing are getting younger and younger, and there is just no familiarity for them with the faces that Harvey Nichols has until now always been connected with – its heyday was the Ab Fab era and its personalities.”
In order to bounce back it will need to get to know its new customer better. For example, “Harrods has really moved with the times and [now has] designer shops within the store; a whole world of independent designer boutiques,” says Golfar. This goes down well with designers, and Harrods recently recorded a £131.3 million increase in pre-tax profit.
“[Harrods] knows its audience. And Selfridges knows its audience… If you’re going to go out and have fun with a friend, you’re probably going to wander around Selfridges,” says Golfar. “They respond very quickly to trends. But I don’t think Harvey Nichols knows who its person is anymore. To get people back offline and in store you’ve got to offer them more than rows of rails.”
Mantovani agrees. “The ideas are there, the brand name is there. But in terms of developing that, taking advantage of it, and aligning themselves with brands and people who will take it to the next level, that’s where they fall [short].”
But there is one key trend that presents a unique opportunity for Harvey Nichols to take back its crown. “Fashion is having a 90s moment,” she says. “They could show that they had a hand in creating those trends originally, and that they can now reinterpret them for a new audience, using a new generation of voices to market them.” Perhaps an Ab Fab renaissance is the answer, after all.