I thought I’d do a post on the best department stores to visit because I enjoy going to them so much. I feel like they’re an easier way to access designer brands than boutiques are and they’re certainly less intimidating. You see, designer boutiques are often empty (or at least very quiet) and I think that’s because people are too scared to just browse. I don’t go into designer boutiques because I’m not going to make a purchase and the Sales Assistants know that. They’re trained to fish out the buyers from the browsers. In department stores it’s not like that. You can enter a world of luxury, regardless of whether you can afford it or not, and marvel at the sights.
I treat department stores like museums. Often, it’s the only chance I get to see the real designer clothes in the flesh, to touch them and to see if they’re half as good as I remembered them to be. I also love looking at the pieces that actually retail from collections (especially brands like Alexander McQueen where the runway shows are mainly for spectacle and the clothes that are sold are just mildly similar) and seeing how many things that made it down the runway made it to the stores untouched. Often hemlines are changed, sheer fabrics are made opaque, and necklines are raised.
What makes a good department store is tricky. You see, there’s a department store (Debenhams, House of Fraser, and even Macy’s) and there’s a department store. The former isn’t really that exciting and isn’t the type of store that will be included on this list; fine businesses, but they don’t make my heart race. The latter includes the likes of Bergdorf’s, Saks, and Harrods, and to me they are a wonderful experience. I thought I’d compile a list of my favourite department stores and give you my reasons why. If you’re ever nearby, I urge you to visit – even if it’s just to look.
GALERIES LAFAYETTE – Paris
I visited here when I was in Paris last summer, during a week that still doesn’t feel real. I came on the Metro which, I think, is the best way to get there. You enter the store without even seeing the sunlight. Straight from the Metro, you walk into the underground shoe department. Think of a brand and it’s there. Prada, check; Ferragamo, check; Givenchy, check. But it’s not just high end brands, there are shoes to suit every price point. Taking the escalator up into the main store, I didn’t really know what I was in for – somehow I’d never heard about the store before. Then you’re hit with it; the beautiful balconies with the stunning ceiling, the hall of beauty counters, the accessories, the designer boutiques dotted around the perimeter. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was in heaven. Of course, I didn’t buy anything (besides a macaron) but I had a good look around. They stocked almost every brand I could think of, it was well laid out – all open plan – and bright and airy. The balconies made it even more special and looking down at the interlocking Cs on top of the Chanel counter never gets old. They even stocked more affordable brands (including Topshop) so it isn’t one of those stores that you feel that you can’t actually go in unless you can buy anything. Besides, half of us there are tourists anyway I assume!
Unique Selling Point: The visually spectacular stained glass domed ceiling.
Perhaps the most famed department store (in the world?), London’s Harrods is really a national treasure. Although ownership has changed over the years, the store remains the same in essence. It is a bit of a tourist trap (there’s a whole Harrods gift section) but it is a beautiful shop. Think of the most extravagant and excessive store you can imagine – that is Harrods. Everything is gilted, there’s stained glass ceilings, an indoor fountain memorial for Princess Diana, Egyptian themed escalators (the former owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed is Egyptian) – even the Food Hall is marvellous. The womenswear department is practically unrivalled. I remember walking around in awe of what I was seeing. Also, when I visited last year I saw the most beautiful fur coat in the world. It was so soft and beautifully cut (not too oversized), but unfortunately cost 20k. Really though, if you have the chance to visit, do it. There’s always rumours of Harrods staff being snobby and aloof but I’ve never felt that way about them: I was always approached politely if I was looking at something. Furthermore, there is said to be a dress code (including no ripped jeans) but I’m not sure how strongly this is enforced. Hey, if you hate it you can always walk down the street to Harvey Nichols instead (they’re both in Knightsbridge, about a 5-10 minute walk from each other).
Unique Selling Point: The insanely intricate and beautiful window displays, especially at Christmastime.
I think Selfridges is the least intimidating department store I’ve ever visited. As with almost every store you walk into the cosmetics and accessories section. Selfridges is the only UK stockist of Charlotte Tilbury make-up and the counter is such a treat. I could’ve spent hundreds of pounds there, but I managed to restrain myself and just get an eyeshadow palette. One of the oddest things about the store is that they stock inexpensive brands on the ground floor (Topshop, Miss Selfridge, H&M, and even a little bit of Primark) because in most stores that I’ve visited, the clothes start at the £100 mark. You go up onto the first womenswear floor and you see almost every brand you could imagine. There was Pucci (I love Pucci, I can’t deny it), MaxMara, Tom Ford, and Prada, so much Prada. I know that for most people that doesn’t sound like much of a treat but I really adore Prada and rarely get to see the clothes in person. For some reason they pulled out of a lot of department stores a few years ago and only the accessories are sold online, so seeing the clothes outside of a fashion editorial is a rarity for me. Selfridges is really a great store and its Oxford Street location is welcome. Sometimes walking down Oxford Street can be such a headache, it’s just too busy, but Selfridges provides you an oasis away from the hustle and bustle. The shop is huge, you could spend hours and hours in it.
Unique Selling Point: Variety of restaurants and cafes for you to stop at mid-shop.
Known affectionately as Bergdorf’s, this shopping institution is my favourite store in New York or perhaps even the world. I love it so much, as do so many others. In fact, working there would be my ultimate dream come true and I am so envious of everyone who already works there. The store is so adored that there’s even a documentary all about it (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) which made me love it even more. From the insanely good windows to the prime location taking up an entire block to the huge range of brands available in store; there’s not much I would change. When you enter from 5th Avenue, you see the accessories. You can go down to the beauty level or up to the clothes. Immediately stepping off the escalator, you enter the Shoe Salon and if you’re a shoes girl (like me, I prefer shoes to bags), you’ll be in heaven. They also carry a wide range of clothing brands (including The Row, which I’d never seen in stores before) and have individual boutiques, too. The Chanel boutique looks out to Central Park, as does the 7th floor restaurant. And if you’re a guy, the men’s store is directly across the street.
Unique Selling Point: Central Park views.
SAKS FIFTH AVENUE – New York
Another Fifth Avenue landmark, Saks is a department store beloved by many. There are so many pop-culture references to the store (from tv shows to rap music) so it’s pretty cool going in there. The difference between here and Bergdorfs is that Saks is a chain of stores, focused mainly in the North East of the States. I’ve only ever visited the Fifth Avenue store so I can’t vouch for any of the other locations, nor have I visited its “off-fifth”, outlet style stores. I can’t really make a comparison between Saks and any other British department stores that I’m more familiar with, purely because I can’t tell where it stands. You see, you enter the store into the beauty hall and the accessories floor (same set-up as most department stores) and then can either use escalators or lifts to reach the upper floors where all the clothes are. The store itself looks pretty nice, it is well laid out and is open plan (mainly), and I never felt intimidated by the Sales Assistants (a common complaint in high-end stores). In the Dolce & Gabbana boutique section the Sales Assistant and I conversed about the collection and just how beautiful it was, that doesn’t often happen. Also, I loved the fur department (I’m a sucker for fur) which had a sale on when I was there (still didn’t have enough $$$ for it though, I’ll stick to pre-owned for now). Also, luckily for me, when I visited this March they had the Cinderella dress in the window. It was magical.
Unique Selling Point: Off-fifth, cheaper locations making it more accessible. As I’ve said before though, I’ve never visited these so if it’s just another TK Maxx type store please let me know.
HARVEY NICHOLS – Edinburgh
This list would be incomplete without mentioning my local department store. It may not be as visually stunning as Galeries Lafayette or as big as Selfridges, but it is a darn good store with stellar window displays. The selection of clothes available in store is usually tightly edited so only the best merchandise is out. They always have a decent sized MaxMara selection and also other big name brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, and Gucci (in a separate in-store boutique on the ground floor). Harvey Nichols always stock a range of smaller designers too that you might not think of, and also accessories from brands including Givenchy, Celine, and Saint Laurent (but for some brands they only have accessories and not the clothes, unfortunately). The staff are always friendly, the store is a small enough size that you can have a look around without it taking hours, and the top floor has a variety of places to eat and drink (including a spot exclusively for chocolate). Also, the store always has a good vibe and is buzzing with people.
Unique Selling Point: Super friendly staff who don’t appear to be just driven by sales targets.
Now of course this list is missing a few of the great stores there are out there, some of which I haven’t yet visited. I’d still like to visit Jeffrey and Barneys in New York and also Kitson in Los Angeles (just because back in the mid-2000s that was the place to be, think Paris and Nicole). Also, I really liked Brown Thomas in Dublin which has a massive shoe department. What is your favourite department store? Is it on this list?