Q&A With Liberty’s Ed Burstell

For Ed Burstell, moving from Bergdorf Goodman to Liberty in 2008 was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“It was a chance to work at the last emporium of its kind left on earth,” said 47-year-old Burstell, Liberty’s managing director, while munching on a mid-morning muffin in the store’s downstairs tea room.

That year, Liberty was the first London department store to overhaul its Kurt Geiger-operated women’s shoe area, growing the second-floor space to 3,000 square feet from 700 square feet.

Footwear now accounts for 7 percent of sales, with shoes from 45 different brands, including Isabel Marant, Lanvin, Dries Van Noten, Miu Miu, Burberry, Ash, Opening Ceremony and Prada.

Burstell also has been instrumental in Liberty print collaborations with Merci in Paris and Target in the U.S. And he persuaded Manolo Blahnik to create a range of shoes and merchandise, such as scarves, candles and notepads, exclusive to Liberty for a pop-up shop in September.

And last week, he launched the Shoe Weekend, a series of events including personal appearances by Nicholas Kirkwood, Rupert Sanderson and Raphael Young.

To further draw attention to the store, he will soon star in a new seven-part BBC reality series called “The Buying Game,” set to debut in the New Year.

Now, private equity firm Blue Gem Capital Partners, which purchased the retailer in June for $48 million, is seeking to reverse previous losses (Liberty reported an $8.1 million loss for the year ending Dec. 31, 2009, and shuttered its Sloane Street store). The new owners are concentrating on the flagship store and expect it to turn a profit by year-end.

Here, Burstell opens up about the experience he’s brought with him across the pond, from retail innovations to Summer Fridays.

FN: What is your long-term goal for Liberty?

EB: World domination, of course [laughs]. Seriously though, it’s such a great name in retail that it deserves to succeed and thrive, and I’ll certainly do my damnedest to make it happen.

FN: Have you brought new ways of doing things from the U.S.?

EB: Summer Fridays, although here people end up at the pub. Also [I try to] be determined with a smile, [and be] hardworking, direct and use a bit of American theater to help animate the business.

FN: For those in the U.S. who are unfamiliar with Liberty, what store best compares?

EB: Henri Bendel in the 1970s, before The Limited bought it. Back then it was eclectic, quirky and a jewel box of discovery, even though it’s far apart in its aesthetic these days. Liberty is [now] best compared with Barneys, which is also true to its identity.

FN: How different is footwear retailing in the U.K. compared with the States?

EB: In footwear, the difference is concession. Here [in the U.K.], you work with someone externally — in our case Kurt Geiger — on an internal assortment. We treat the concession team as part of the family, and I work closely with Neil Clifford, [Kurt Geiger CEO], Rebecca Farrar-Hockley, [Kurt Geiger creative director], and Scott Tepper, Kurt Geiger’s head of buying for external brands. I personally see every showroom and show, so it ends up being a dialogue between all of us. After all, six heads are better than one.

FN: Is footwear your first love?

EB: It’s my second. I love cosmetics because it was my first job: Marvin Traub hired me at Bloomingdale’s. However, footwear is a guaranteed sale after makeup.

FN: How much of a coup was the Manolo Blahnik pop-up shop?

EB: It’s actually rather historic in the U.K. It’s the first time Manolo Blahnik has been available here outside his own store. When I was at Bergdorf, the commercial activities with him there were amazing. He’s actually been a Liberty fan for years, but I also have to thank his niece, Kristina Blahnik, who really helped make it happen. The crowd was local and some people drove in from the provinces. What surprised me, though, was the level of emotion from the crowd. I saw people bursting into tears talking to him.

FN: Do you have a follow-up planned?

EB: I have had many calls about buying the [Manolo] merchandise. But it’s not for wholesale. This is because with the overriding culture of sameness — same brands, same location in the same fit — a store wins by making the assortment different.

FN: How important is London tourism to Liberty?

EB: You have to fiscally embrace tourism here with London-centric merchandise. However, it’s not the typical tourist-bus types here, but many serious shoppers from Russia and the Middle East. New York doesn’t have a timed influx of Middle Eastern customers like London does in the summer around Ramadan.

FN: What other initiatives do you have up your sleeve?

EB: We have not animated the business the way we should have here, so we are going to add American theater, starting with the Shoe Weekend.

FN: Do you think shoes will continue to move away from over-the-top silhouettes?

EB: It’s all about height. However, a lot of women won’t give up the platform. But with a gradual move toward more single soles and shifts in attitudes, designers will be forced to be more creative and give customers more reasons to buy.

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