The Italian-born CEO of Selfridges has become one of the hottest retailers on the block since he turned the venerable Oxford Street store into a chic palace of dreams and led an ambitious expansion programme. But will he be lured away before fulfilment?
Up in the achingly trendy, curvy lemon-walled, fourth-floor offices of Selfridges' management block, Vittorio Radice, chief executive and acknowledged retail genius, is discussing presentation with Harry Borden, photographer. 'Ees this jacket, ees too small perhaps, too tight, not look too good done up.'
No, no, you look fine, soothes Harry, who likes his managers in done-up jackets and is posing the Selfridges boss on the office roof terrace under a blazing sun next to a giant phormium. Radice, tall, slim, balding, aged 45 going on 25 and paid half a million a year, is as smooth as the plant is spiky. Dressed in an open-necked chequered shirt, pleated black trousers and a rather expensive-looking pair of brown suede baseball boots, he had been happily posing this way and that till the subject of the jacket came up. Clearly, he hadn't seen this as a jacket-on day.
And at this moment, Radice could have put his designer foot down, could have said, no, this is how you take me, I am the boss, presentation is, after all, my forte. But he doesn't because that is not how he operates, he knows how to work with creative people. Radice is amenable, charming, lively, at times almost buffoonish in a knowingly comic way, and he saves himself for the important battles, all the while making it plain: he wants to indulge you.
'Good God, the one thing I dread,' he had said to me earlier in his accented English, 'is having to say no to someone.'
So he puts on his jacket. And that's Radice all over. The Italian-born boss, whom some in the City distrusted when he took over Selfridges six years ago, now seems to be busy winning over the world. He has rebuilt the department store group - current turnover pounds 400 million-plus, with a new image as a mecca for top brands. He has embarked on a multi-site expansion plan that should see him running eight stores in six cities by 2007. He has a new building development, designed by Lord Foster and built by Stanhope, incorporating hotel, offices and 'leisure facilities', going up behind the Oxford Street store. He has ambitious plans to take the top-brands concept overseas, revamping other famous old department stores in the world's great cities. Where will he stop?
And whereas four years ago - when the world's department stores were obsessed with building own brands - many were scoffing at Radice's strategy, now it's hard to find anyone to criticise him and easy to find many who feel very, very warm about him. Such is the effect of success, and he revels in it. Recession? Oh don't worry, he says, if it happens, we'll just change what the stores offer. People will still want to go out.
Really? He smiles smoothly. Maybe the only danger about his insouciant, self-deprecating charm is that you immediately underestimate the scale both of what he's up against and what he has already achieved. The smokescreen of amiable benevolence smothers all. And I have a feeling that is exactly what he wants.
He is prowling the executive corridor when we first meet, hot off the phone but with a ready smile. Come in, come in, he waves. We sit either side of the vast desk in his creamy office, next to French windows onto his roof terrace, through which you can hear the yuccas and phormia rustling in the wind over the roar of the Oxford Street traffic. This is retail management, St Tropez-style.
Radice has lived in Britain for more than a decade - 'a 12-year holiday!' - since arriving to take up the post of buying director at Habitat. He went on to run the store for five years, earning an encomium from Habitat's founder Sir Terence Conran, an early fan, who described him as brilliant, pragmatic and a man of 'vision' (not something he says about many who have headed Habitat).
Radice was headhunted to Selfridges in 1996, when the department store was part of the Sears group. It was demerged in '98, leaving Radice head of a plc with problems, but with considerable freedom to dictate its future. 'A conglomerate,' he says with a wry smile, 'would not have allowed us to make the changes we did ... They like to run steady businesses without big changes.'
Those big changes - downplaying own-label, opening new sites outside London, turning the stores into trendy shopping malls for major brands, tearing up the traditional delineations between departments, spending millions on environment and ambience to increase the sense of spectacle - have proved effective. Yet it was an uphill battle to convince many in the City, where analysts were sceptical about both the strategy and Radice himself. One even remarked early on that Radice was simply too trendy: how could one even think of recommending clients to buy shares in a company headed by a man who wore brown shoes? Quite.
You suspect, too, that a few felt Radice was too much gush and not enough substance, partly because, sometimes, that's how he comes across - unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the Italian language is far more verbose than English and that word-rush translates uneasily. But some colleagues note he uses it rather too often, playing up to the fact that English is not his first language, constantly apologising, so please, bear with him, maybe you could just explain that a bit slowly again so he can really grasp it ...
'Ha-ha,' he laughs. 'Fair comment. On the other hand, you do make two or three times the effort because the language is not yours, the laws, the culture. There are nuances and ways of expressing yourself and the way you say something - often it is difficult for me to capture that. On the other hand, what you are saying about taking the time to understand when somebody talks, not being expected to give an answer immediately, yes, that gives me time to ask more questions, and it helps me tremendously.'
What is indisputable is that Radice has an eye for style that was probably bred into him. He was born near Lake Como in northern Italy, the eldest son of a furniture-maker, who was desperate for his boy to follow him into the family business. 'My immediate instinct was to refuse that kind of life,' says Radice. 'I just didn't want to deal with the problems they were talking about round the table every night.'
So he studied agriculture at university, then did a stint in the army doing national service before life dragged him back to what he knew best.
He took jobs fitting out stores in Libya, then working for the American firm Associated Merchandising Corporation (AMC), first in Italy, sourcing furniture, then elsewhere in Europe and the Far East. He is not sure whether it was just the job or his father's expectations that drove him overseas, but there was clearly a complex mix of emotions at work, although Radice makes light of it. 'I was very happy at home but could see the limitations of being there. Italian parents are quite oppressive, you know. Always asking: where are you going, why are you dressing like that, you're eating too much, you're eating too little, you're spending too much - oh my God!'
He describes his own character as rooted in his father's drive and fixated ambition, but tempered by his mother's 'more holistic view' of life. 'She was always less bothered about things. She'd say: 'Don't worry, no-one's died, it's only furniture.' And so I understand the detail of problems and I like to find solutions, but I am also realistic. I'd say, in the scheme of things, this is a detail that can be resolved very quickly, but let's not - how do you say in English? - drown on a glass of water ...'
Do we say that in English? He shrugs and laughs. Write it how you want, you'll put it better than me, he says, with a dismissive wave of his left hand. He does it throughout the interview, as if he has complete trust in me to put whatever words I want in his mouth. It is, I would say, a charming form of flattery that he uses to good effect.
And he has always combined that charm with a passion for design and interiors that, for some Italians, is a way of life: the best-looking things, the highest-quality brands, the constant concern with appearance. Colleagues who work with him cite it as one of his key strengths, along with the sheer drive of his infectious enthusiasm.
'Vittorio is brilliant at visualising things,' says Peter Williams, Selfridges' finance director, who has been with the store since 1991, 'and very positive in his thinking. He encourages managers to think outside the box.'
But he never loses sight of the figures. 'You go in every morning and he always has his head over the numbers,' says Nick Cross, a former Radice protege at Selfridges, now chief marketing officer at Egg. 'People forget he is very commercially minded.'
What's intriguing is how well he has translated that combination of commercial nous and huge self-belief into a pragmatic management style at both a chain of stores like Habitat, which sells its own brand, and at Selfridges, selling the brands of others. Is his concentration on the top brands an expression of his own interests, or just something that's right for Selfridges at this time?
'It's difficult to say,' he starts, 'but I will tell you what I think.
Most people concentrate on product, and yet this business is not about product. It's about something else. I'll give you an example. If you want to buy a car that will get you from A to B, you can ring up Vauxhall and have one delivered in an hour. But if you want a new Mini, it will take six months. That decision is about emotion and buying something that gives you identity, or a business card, or some personalisation. It buys you a dream.
'Now, do people not have enough jumpers and shirts already? Of course they do. Why do you think they have collections of 20 trainers? And yes, Selfridges could make own-label trainers, but our brand is about place.'
And so on. Radice is not really saying anything new - advertisers were selling dreams back in the 1950s - but he was the first to buck the trend among department stores towards own-label, a brave move, considering the Selfridges he took over had already embarked on a strategy of opening airport shops selling own-branded goods. And he conceived his proposition in a way that excited the staff and the public, and he defined the store in a category apart for the opposition - thinking outside the box again.
So talk to Radice's colleagues and they will place the store thus: more demotic than the Knightsbridge-based Harvey Nichols and Harrods, but more exclusive than near-neighbours John Lewis and Debenhams, with an emphasis on the drama of the store itself.
In fact, Radice came in saying he didn't want to compete with anything else on Oxford Street at all, he wanted to compete with restaurants, cinemas, 'all the great things in this city'. In other words, Selfridges would be about more than just retailing, it was a whole lifestyle package - which, I have to admit, looks in print like marketing waffle. But in person, perhaps because of his charm, Radice makes it sound so logical.
'I think my biggest achievement,' he says when I ask him, 'is to help people realise that department stores are not just for older people. You can have loud music and assistants with nose-piercing. It was like taking an old institution and making it relevant for today. Oh my God, we've always had delivery vans in our own livery? So what? Now we use couriers. We always closed Sunday? Now we stay open. Always closed at 6pm weekdays? Now we open till 10. Staff always had blue suits, now ...'
(Now, jokes Williams, the only person who wears the uniform is Radice himself, who is always in a trendy blue or black suit.) And another key thing to realise, continues Radice, drawing two points on a pad in front of him, is that if you want to go from one point to the other in the public's perception, you have to stretch it further, because it will always be pulled back towards what it was, so at the beginning you have to be more extreme to make your point.
Hence the spectacle events like hiring artist Sam Taylor-Wood to project giant photos on Selfridges facade, and the regular theme happenings at the store, ideas like Bollywood and Tokyo Life keeping the store front-of-mind for the retail and fashion press and suppliers. And he is incredibly well liked for it. One glossy magazine publisher describes Radice to me as nothing less than a 'creative genius'. Another says his genius is actually just getting others to be creative in a commercial way. A third cites his achievement in overcoming the tortuous old internal politics of Selfridges.
And the effect? 'The single most important thing Vittorio has done,' says a fourth, 'is to make the store much more contemporary.'
Which is the key to the turnaround of any flagging old name. It sounds easy, but you suspect that, like the duck of legend, it requires frenetic energy below the water-line. Just the sheer variety of deals with brand-owners that Radice is prepared to negotiate, everything from simply selling the goods to letting them set up their own shop inside Selfridges, must give the finance team continual sleepless nights.
'We have 3,000 brands we are selling, and we have 20 different ways of doing business,' grins Radice. 'We can buy and sell your products, or we can put your name up, or if you are Louis Vuitton you can build your own shop in Selfridges with your own employees. Instead of one format, we have made it flexible enough to say: Where are you? How do you want to do business with us? OK, we'll adjust to you ...'
So Radice cruises the world, studying shops and brands that interest him, trying to inveigle them to put their products into his emporium.
Nice life, you might think. And he is lucky in that he has a stunning environment to lure them into. The grand old Oxford Street store, originally opened by American-born Gordon Selfridge in 1909, was just completing a near-pounds 100 million refit when Radice took over. He has a better base to work with than many of his predecessors, but he also took the bold steps that convince many that it is the right place to be.
Can the same approach be replicated over a growing number of stores?
Radice already has one Selfridges outpost in Manchester and opened a second last month. He has a radically contemporary flagship building, designed by Future Systems, opening in Birmingham next year. He is looking for the right spots in cities like Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds and Newcastle.
He wants eight stores, and then, with those up and running, he'll see if he can take the Selfridges concept overseas, not using the same name but simply the same skills to transform other famous department stores in other big-name European cities. Ambitious? Of course, but necessary if Selfridges is to move up to the next level, he says.
'The world is full of fantastic names with monuments in city centres still running departments defined by products - socks, ties, trousers. That's where our experience can be of help ... not as a name, but as an operator of place, so if it is in central Paris, you ask: What are the ingredients to make this the place of Paris? And you let the retailing bit be done by the brands ...'
But if it is such a good formula, won't others be trying it first? And how different is this formula? Maybe Radice just executes it better than anyone, because it doesn't, to the layman, seem that different from what stores like Harvey Nichols do anyway. When I look puzzled, he tries to paint a picture for me historically. 'In the 1960s, it was all about location, location, location. By the 1990s it was environment, environment, environment. And now it is senses, senses, senses. If you go along this line to 10 years from now' - he is drawing on his pad again, as if he can only explicate visually - 'it is going to be about how you feel and want to be part of a particular place.'
Hence his interest in creating more leisure space in his new Oxford Street development, to move the group on from just selling product. And hence maybe his indifference to the threat of recession. He will always find some way - bars, cinemas, health clubs - to lure people in.
But will he stay to see it through? He's done six years as boss already, and when you're the hottest retailer on the block, the offers come in thick and fast. He has worked in America before, for AMC, wouldn't he be tempted to take his skills into an even bigger marketplace? No shortage of grand old retail names there ...
He shrugs. 'Nah, I've been here 12 years and my kids are very rooted here now.'
He has two teenage sons and an Italian wife who have all settled happily into London life, nice house in Hampstead, good base for holidays, Radice's main love. The family all still go back to Italy every year to see their parents, and they own a small place in Venice, which they rent out, but they don't have a home outside London, and he doesn't really see them pitching up anywhere else. 'London will be our base, certainly until the kids are old enough to do their own thing. As for other jobs, I would have to feel I had exhausted my energy and ideas. I am not the sort of person that will go and run a company just for money.'
He pauses, as if suddenly conscious that he should get this right for the record. 'Actually, if I get a job where I can be a real leader, a trailblazer with brands, well, that combined with money, then I might say yes!'
Aha. Anyway, he says, he would miss his season tickets at the Arsenal.
Well, that is boring - yet another Arsenal supporter. You'd think Radice, the radical trendster, could think of somewhere more innovative to take his sons.
So who do you support? he asks suspiciously. Tottenham. He grins maliciously.
'So when was the last time they won the championship,' he says, his English suddenly very good, 'I can't quite remember ...'
And then he is up and away with a smile to argue appearances with Harry.
Hats off to him - and jackets on, of course.
< RADICE IN A MINUTE 1957: Born 2 April, Como, Italy. Educated at Liceo Marie Curie, and then at Milan University 1980: Begins work as merchandise representative at Associated Merchandising Corporation 1990: Appointed buying director of Habitat International 1991: Made MD of Habitat 1996: Joins Selfridges as MD 1997: Selfridges demerges and becomes a separate plc. Radice appointed chief executive 2001: Appointed a non-executive director of Abbey National