Felicity Cant is a Christmas elf in human form. She is not wearing a costume but she might as well be. She positively exudes joyful Christmas spirit as she stands stroking the life-size reindeer she has nicknamed Gandalf, while keeping a watchful eye on two small children who are play-fighting in a bundle on the floor next to some hand-blown crystal baubles, each constructed with a miniature ship floating inside.
For the directors of Making Liberty, the latest fly-on-the-wall television documentary to go behind the scenes of a great British institution, Cant is a dream. She is the newest recruit at Liberty , the landmark department store that has been trading on Regent Street since 1875. After a rigorous selection process, she, along with 19 others (there were more than 600 applicants), was appointed for a three-month contract in the Christmas Shop, which opens each year from early September until Christmas Eve. Having recently graduated from the University of Exeter, where she was studying drama, she saw an advertisement for the job in The Stage magazine. There were four parts to the interview, including having to bring something to a presentation and talking about why it represented Christmas at Liberty. She chose writing paper. ‘I write a lot of letters myself,’ she tells me.
As with Inside Claridge’s, the three-part series shown on BBC Two last year (the final episode had four million viewers), the secret of making a really great documentary is to have a small team, to be totally trusted, and to become almost invisible. The production company Rize USA, which had previously made the four-part series A Very British Wedding, shown on BBC Two in the spring, set up its base in an old hat-storage cupboard amid the rabbit warren of corridors and offices backstage at the store in August. The production team comprised the producers Katherine Anstey and Anna-Rosa Coppi, and three directors, who each made an episode, roaming the shop floor with a small Canon C300 camera and being as unobtrusive as possible. Over the weeks, they each built up close relationships with the lead characters in their films, from Judy Rose, the warm receptionist who greets visitors at the staff entrance round the back of Kingly Street, who has an eye for charity-shop clothes, to the all-important head of visual identity, Maxine Groucutt, who is like a fairy godmother sprinkling sparkle-dust over everything to make the store look magical in the run-up to Christmas. ‘The problem is that you could make a 10-part series,’ Tanya Stephan, who is the director responsible for the first episode, says. ‘Round every corner there is another character.’
Cant’s story as the newest Liberty recruit (the Christmas staff are sometimes offered permanent jobs after their three-month stint is over) is told by Stephan in episode one, alongside that of Shukla Harjit, the sales associate for furnishings, who is Liberty’s longest-serving member of staff. Harjit reigns supreme over the sofas, cushions and luxury light fixtures in the furniture department on the fourth floor, and has worked at Liberty since 1973, starting out in the Oriental department in the basement that was the heart and soul of the store that Arthur Liberty created in the spirit of the arts and crafts movement.
‘I’m a fixture here now,’ she says. She came to London from Tanzania in 1973, aged 29, because of the political situation there. ‘I’d never worked in my life,’ she says. She had a friend who knew the buyer at Liberty and helped her to get a job there. ‘Liberty still is like a family,’ she says. When she celebrated her 40th year of service in October, her colleagues held a party for her, and some of her longest-standing customers came in to see her on the day. Her nephew Charajeev Singh Rattan works next door in carpets, and his sister Jasmine works between stationery and the Christmas Shop. ‘I am very proud to be working for Liberty – it is the best company,’ Harjit tells me.
‘The present owner takes great interest in people who are hard working,’ she continues, before trying to sell me a sofa. She remembers when she started, Arthur Stewart-Liberty, the founder’s great-nephew, would come out of his office to check she was OK. ‘He said, “You must be feeling nervous but please don’t feel scared.” He knew everyone by name.’ She approves of the current owner, Marco Capello, saying he reminds her a bit of Mr Stewart-Liberty.
Characters such as Harjit are gold dust in the fly-on-the-wall business. And her total belief in, and loyalty to, her employer are worth more to the brand than any advertising campaign. It is the people who work at the store – and some of the customers who shop there – who will make this series so compelling. In the first episode we meet the store’s best customer, the publisher Felix Dennis, who treats Liberty as his corner shop and has been shopping there for as long as Harjit has worked there. ‘I wouldn’t mind a tenner for every carpet I’ve bought here,’ he quips, admitting that he has been allowed to take items home and pay later. By the end of the series, fans of the show will be going to Liberty simply to chat with Harjit, or in the hope of bumping into the fast-talking, slick-haired managing director, Ed Burstell.
Previously the managing director of Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Burstell joined Liberty in 2008 as the buying director, and was made managing director in 2010. ‘There are going to be a few stars,’ he says. ‘We certainly have some characters.’ Burstell is on a constant mission to find original ideas to maximise the retail space within the confines of the 1920s building. ‘When we started five years ago it was 70,000sq ft of selling area, and now it is 80,000,’ he says. ‘There is not much more space left.’ Then he thinks for a moment. ‘We have a roof. The employee cafeteria is in the roof – in central London. With a view.’ He laughs. ‘Could be an opportunity.’
Liberty is more than a department store. It is a great piece of British heritage as well as a prime London attraction, with five million tourists visiting its mock-Tudor building each year. It was founded in 1875 by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, whom Burstell describes as ‘one of the world’s greatest merchants’. The son of a draper, Liberty had a very Victorian obsession with the Orient, and opened his shop selling decorative ornaments and fabric from the Far East with a loan of £2,000 from his future father-in-law. The current building was constructed in 1924 out of the timber frames of two Royal Navy vessels, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan, an 80-gun ship launched in 1841 and scrapped in 1921. If you look up into the atrium of the store from the ground-floor scarf room, the heartbeat of the shop, you will see the timber frames of the two ships.
The door to Burstell’s office is usually open, and he starts his day with an exchange of horoscopes with Gina Ritchie, the beauty buying director. He also checks the trading figures from the day before. I accompany Stephan on one of her daily visits to Burstell’s office, when each morning they discuss the day’s events. ‘It has been interesting, that’s for sure,’ he says of the filming process. ‘Not really disruptive… it’s just a bit foreign in the beginning. You have to be a little careful what you say. But I think we have a nice business that is true to its DNA yet at the same time relevant and modern. We’ve given them access all areas, unfortunately.’ He laughs, before calling to Louis Matthewman, the events and team coordinator, who looks like a younger version of his boss, and brings a proof of a book about Liberty, which is also out this month. The whole package ties in neatly. ‘This is a business that came from old-fashioned family values, and I think you can still see that, but at the same time business moves forward and business has been quite good, so the customer is responding to what we are doing – they are liking it.’
When he first arrived in London, Burstell was surprised at the amount of goodwill people had towards the shop. ‘When I talked to anyone in England about Liberty, it was like they owned a piece of it,’ he says. ‘This is one of the last great emporiums left on earth, it really is.’
Next month 50 of their most important customers – including Felix Dennis – will be sent a Christmas hamper, each one specially chosen for the recipient. The hampers were the idea of Ashley Boyd, the head of VIP relations and clientele, who joined the company two and a half years ago. Preparations began in September, when Boyd began to draw up her wish lists. ‘They are always personalised,’ she says. She was busy choosing scarves for the hampers before the shop opened that morning. ‘This year we want to showcase Liberty of London products.’ She knows all her special customers (special because of their regular shopping habits) personally, and is familiar with their style and taste. In the first week of December she will spend three days criss-crossing London, personally delivering the hampers.
At Liberty Christmas is not only about shifting stock, but also about nurturing relationships. It is an opportunity to stand out from the competition. This year Burstell and Groucutt had planned to turn the shop front into a giant Christmas cracker, but the plan had been refused by the council, so plan B was for a light show – and a gospel choir (Burstell’s idea, inspired by the gospel choir at the church of his friend at American Vogue, André Leon Talley). On the day, a rainy Saturday afternoon in November, Regent Street was packed with people enjoying the choir and oohing and aahing at a light show that illuminated the shop’s facade – projected from a van on Argyle Street.
‘The logistics aspect is so interesting,’ Stephan, who was following the build-up to the grand unveiling of the Christmas windows, says, ‘because we as the audience only ever see the final reveal.’ And it’s true. The fact that the planning for the window displays and the Christmas Shop started in January is not something most of us even think about as we go shopping for tinsel and baubles on a last-minute dash the weekend before Christmas. ‘We buy our Christmas ornaments in January,’ Burstell says. ‘A lot of them are still hand-blown, so if you are ordering thousands and thousands, the sooner you get them ordered, the better.’
The Christmas Shop is the responsibility of Julie Hassan, who is the senior buying manager for home. In fact, she says, she started planning this Christmas last December. It was then that she decided to do something ‘really bright and fairgroundy’. In the 12 weeks between the opening of the shop on September 7 (when, Stephan tells me, there were already 20 people waiting to buy their baubles) and Christmas Eve, Liberty will sell £1 million worth of decorations – that’s two shiny, glittery glass balls a minute. The film follows the building of the Christmas Shop from scratch, starting with the delivery of the first 30,000 baubles. ‘Some people will buy everything, some people will choose one bauble. Families come and buy a bauble each year as part of their own tradition.’ And once the decorations are sold, they cannot be reordered. By Christmas Eve, all going according to plan, the shop will be reduced to a single table, and desperate shoppers will scramble to buy whatever is left.
The day Hassan talked me through the brilliantly bright and gaudy carrousel baubles that look as though they have been made in 1950s Technicolor, the dogs (which were selling well), the Scandinavian wooden houses, the peacock-themed balls (peacocks are part of the Liberty arts and crafts heritage) and the endless boxes of beautifully wrapped Christmas crackers, some of the styles had already sold out, and it was only October. Some Mexican Day of the Dead-style sparkly skulls sold out in the first three weeks. Hassan was confident that she would also sell the enormous brown bear (£1,995) and a few of the lifesize reindeer (from £695).
‘I think it will be amazing for the business,’ Burstell says of the series. ‘Even though people think they know it, there will be an awful lot of people who have not been [to Liberty] in the past five or 10 years. In a city of nine million people, the fact that we can still be this amazing secret – that to me is mind-blowing.’ And what if all nine million decide to go to Liberty to meet Felicity Cant in the Christmas Shop, or become inspired to buy a metre of Tana Lawn Liberty print from the haberdashery on the same day? Burstell smiles. ‘I’ll be ready for them,’ he says. He will, too, with open arms. And as he checks his figures, he and his team will already be thinking ahead, dreaming of ways of making next Christmas even more special and more Christmassy than this one.