Shopping has become the modern equivalent of visiting museums as a cultural phenomenon. Where once we walked through galleries, taking in the artwork (at the same time keeping a lookout for anyone we know), today it happens in the vicinity of a pair of Prada shoes. And if stores are today's museums, then shopping bags are latter-day souvenirs: the Tiffany baby blue, the Hermes orange and the Selfridges hot yellow. These days everyone recognises brands at a glance.
Five years ago the Selfridges brand would have been on a par with House of Fraser. Selfridges was not a destination store. The Voguettes around the corner at Conde Nast would sooner have crossed town to buy their Wolfords and Mac lipsticks than be spotted carrying a Selfridges bag in their manicured hands.
But now a stroll around the fashion department on the second floor or a smoothie stop in the 'Lab' is more likely to result in a chance encounter with Zoe Ball, Marie Helvin or Liam and Noel Gallagher than with granny.
Selfridges - the House of Brands, as it now calls itself - was recently described as a 'modern temple for the worship of shopping if there ever was one' by Vogue magazine. The bright yellow Selfridges bag is on every fashionable London wrist, right up there with the Fendi baguette and the Prada bowling bag. It's even there when you leave one of the parties at the Serpentine Gallery (Selfridges has sponsored three shows so far).
Somehow in the past two years Selfridges has gone from the school of dreary to the school of positively racy. Yet the man credited with bringing Selfridges back to its former glory, CEO Vittorio Radice, was considered outre by the financial community just a few years ago. Here was the man who was chastised in the City for wearing brown shoes (he now wears only black Prada loafers), an Italian who was called naive and, as a finance man put it, 'lacking in Anglo-Saxon attitude'. After the demerger from Sears in 1998, it seemed a questionable choice to bring in the former managing director of Habitat (albeit Terence Conran's wonderboy and a charmer by reputation), but a virtual unknown in the City.
Still, the facts are that, although nine out of the 10 major retailers in Britain are losing money, Selfridges has announced respectable pre-tax profits of pounds 27 million for both the London and Manchester stores.
Sales in the Oxford Street store were up 11.3% on last year to pounds 325 million.
In Manchester, which opened in September 1998 at an investment of pounds 20 million and made a contribution for the year of pounds 1.3 million on sales of pounds 35 million, figures were up 17.9% over last year. And Selfridges has just announced plans for a pounds 40 million store in Birmingham, designed by radical architectural firm Future Systems, to open in 2003.
The word radical comes up often when talking about Radice. Although the 'Masterplan' (the pounds 93 million pound refurbishment plan that started in 1993 and finished in 1999) was already in effect when he arrived, it instantly took a different tack with Radice at the wheel. He turned to two of Europe's most notoriously difficult and chic designers, the Frenchman Christian Liaigre to redesign the cosmetic halls - now one of the biggest in Europe - and the Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen to develop the fashion area. Although these names are well known in the niche retail community (Liaigre is famous for the Mercer Hotel in New York), they're new to Oxford Street and even newer to shareholders.
Birmingham represents the biggest gamble yet for Radice in his high-stakes game plan. In spite of the city's growing reputation as an international trade and conference centre, the image of 'dreary Brum', the Bull Ring, and some of modern architecture's most desperate monstrosities will live long in the memory. Uncertainty over the West Midlands business climate persists with the Rover plant at Longbridge in intensive care. The city and the region stand at a crossroads, and it is not the most likely spot, you may think, for a glittering new store.
Radice had big plans for Selfridges from the start: 'If you want to run a corporation, the biggest store in Oxford Street, you can do it as it was done before. But if you want to play a big game and be a really good store with international aspirations and plans for expansion in cities around the country, you have to send a message. Selfridges was an acceptable store, providing an established service, but it was never going to capture anyone new. Inflation went up 3% a year and volume went up 3% a year.
Our idea was to make the most of the differences that exist in the lives of people.'
The differences? Radice explains: 'Look, you have the Dorchester on Park Lane and you can have breakfast around the corner. You can spend pounds 40 or pounds 400 in the same night. Fantastic! You have Mezzo on one street and a fish-and-chip shop on the next. You have the Opera House and Stringfellows in the same block.'
And if convincing customers to come in the front door involves using shock tactics, then so be it. Radice mounted a controversial advertising campaign with the help of his marketing director, Nick Cross, that did not go down well with some shareholders. 'They were a bit shocked,' admits Radice, 'but they noticed something was changing. I think you have to break the rules. If you hit them violently on the first day, they may say Jesus, but they notice.'
Says Cross, whom Radice poached from advertising agency BBH: 'The campaign certainly raised a few eyebrows. It was his way of saying Selfridges was changing to the outside world as well as to the staff. It was doing it by example. The ads went over most people's heads, but the right people got the message.'
Sir Terence Conran is very much a fan of Radice and his handling of corporations. 'Institutions are difficult to work for because they want change, but when they get it they worry,' he says. 'Generally, they don't give people long enough to get results. Vittorio has changed the store physically - that's the easy part. What's harder is changing the attitudes within the business. It takes a long time, especially in a business as mismanaged as Selfridges was.'
For Radice, the bottom line is getting the customer to walk in the front door. Who it takes to lure them in - the marketing, advertising, beauty and fashion folk (and of course journalists) - get his attention, which is to say (or so I am told) that he doesn't spend enough time seducing the City. 'If the shareholders went into the dressing rooms of Miss Selfridge instead of trying to squeeze as much money as they can from us, they would see why we need to do what we're doing,' he says. 'But instead of them coming to see us in our shabby offices here, we go to their offices in the City, which are full of marble with tanned receptionists.'
Radice likes to make out that numbers talk is Japanese to him (playing a bit dumb is all part of the package designed, no doubt, to lower defences).
'When I go to shareholder meetings, I seldom speak. It's not because I'm bored. It's because I'm trying so hard to keep up,' he insists.
Says Vogue's publishing director Stephen Quinn: 'Radice could easily have become more concerned with turnover and junked the big ideas, but he stayed with it. I admire Vittorio because he is such a creative person.
Many business people are afraid to be creative lest it be regarded as irresponsible. Radice's view was that this store is too dull. We must offer the consumer something better.'
This meant giving the customer luxury brands and scrapping the Selfridges label. 'When I came here, Versace was locked up in a glass cupboard and the key was in the chairman's office.' Radice takes a magazine from his desk. 'Look,' he says, rifling through the glossy ads, 'BMW ... Escada ... Clinique ... Lancome.
We're inundated with brands. Why should Selfridges or Marks & Spencer do it when there are better people? Why should I copy it and put a Selfridges label on it when I can sell the original?'
Radice, who hails from Eom near Lake Como (population 20,000) and is the son of a furniture retailer, is a true Italian. He may wear the same blue suit day in, day out and drive an old Mercedes rather than a flash Alfa or Porsche, but his incessant enthusiasm about brands - new brands, different brands, better brands, latest brands - has a lot to do with understanding the fickle consumer. After all, Italy is the country that practically invented shopping and where the average man on the street compares brands with the same ease as the English discuss football results.
But Radice's curiosity goes way beyond the average Italian's. 'I'm curious about how people do things and what they want out of their lives,' he says. 'The things I'm attached to are travel and experiences. I like to go places and see how things are done with love and passion. That's what excites me.'
Radice expects the same level of enthusiasm from his staff, and what seems to annoy him more than anything is complacency. Radice is a man whose father has never been to London and who has spent the better part of his life trying to escape the small town, and small-town mentality, from which he comes. He has been moving ever since. He narrowly avoided his original destiny, to become an agri-chemical farmer, with a conscription into the army. He made it to London and worked for the Associated Merchandising Corporation before moving to Habitat, where as the managing director he transformed its ailing business fortunes.
Radice's attitude to his staff (4,000 in London alone) is the same. Says Cross: 'The essence of Vittorio's management style is creative and off the wall. He lets people get on with it. He's not the type of person who will claim to have all the answers. If he's unhappy he'll ask questions and gets you to solve them. That makes for a fluid style - you're either a self-starter with Radice or a non-starter. He doesn't want people looking to him for the answer. Certainly, there were senior people around when he came who expected to be told what to do.'
Sir Terence agrees: 'Vittorio listens carefully and he has a great visual sense. He's terrifically open-minded. The most important thing is that he creates an atmosphere where everybody wants to work for him and do their best. It's not bullshit.'
Ian Cheshire, director of strategy and development at Kingfisher, the European retail group, spent three years working with Radice. 'There was a feeling that Selfridges had a fantastic historical position with lots of money being pumped into it. When Tim Daniels retired, we needed someone to breathe fresh life into it, who could lead the updating. What was great about Vittorio was that he was very focused on what he wanted to do.'
In other words, Radice created major waves. 'When he first came in there was this feeling that he would alienate the staff and create stress within the business with his vision of where he's going,' adds Cheshire.
Radice doesn't disagree. 'When I arrived four years ago, I said: This is the shape of the company, we'll go in this direction. This store is not going to compete with any store on Oxford Street, it's going to compete with restaurants and cinemas, all the great things in this city. Some people were enthusiastic. Some people said: 'Why don't we do what we've been doing for the last 20 years?' They left of their own accord.'
Radice's staff policies were as radical as his ad campaign and choice of architects. He removed the uniform. Teenagers got teenage shop assistants with tattoos, and the sports departments got Australian jocks with pierced noses in Nikes. 'There is a store in London where everyone wears a black suit. How can you wear black if you're trying to sell jeans?' says Radice.
'I employ a person with pink hair to sell jeans; the person selling cheese wears a white apron. Uniforms just hide problems.'
Radice's attitude towards staff training is similar to his attitude to management. 'My background is product so I surround myself with people who can do numbers,' says Radice. 'I know very little about the logistics of delivery vans: I'm not supposed to do that. We have a good training course, but the first thing you have to realise is that if you have a group of people thinking the same way you spend less time training.'
The Radice team - finance director Peter Williams and Cross - make for lively travel companions. Williams is clearly the man Vittorio depends on for numbers and the 30-something Cross is more Radice's doppelganger, coming up with as many ideas (in quick succession) as Radice. It was Cross' idea, for example, to wrap the Selfridges facade in a 900-foot photograph (the biggest in the world) by artist Sam Taylor-Wood. What happens to the photo afterwards is the subject that occupies a part of our journey to Birmingham. Should they turn it into a travelling exhibit, sell it as individual photographs, turn it into postcards, and so on.
A heated discussion ensued on who should kit out the interior of the Birmingham building, which the project people are already calling Radice's Bilbao. Radice has his sights set on making waves with this building.
Jan Kaplicky, the architect behind the building and winner of the prestigious Stirling award for Lord's Cricket Media Centre, was, like most of Radice's circle, left to get on with it. Now Kaplicky - like Liaigre - can be difficult to work with and is normally visibly outraged by the lack of vision among his clients. But here in Birmingham, he is positively purring.
'It takes a brave man to do something like this,' says Kaplicky, who is impressed by Radice's grasp of the fundamentals of architecture. 'He's got more than a grasp, he's artistic and he can read drawings. He can spot trouble spots, which is remarkable.'
Birmingham is one step closer to turning the Radice concept of shopping into a total experience. Already Radice has taken the step of opening a Tate store within Selfridges London, and now he wants Nicholas Serota to take notice. 'We had 21 million people walk through the door of Selfridges last year. How many go to the art galleries?' he asks in a manner that suggests he has asked this question many times before and knows the answer. 'How many people go to the Design Museum? Less than 150,000 - that's almost as many who come through our doors in a day.'
Will Birmingham repeat the success that is London and Manchester? Well, as Radice discovered, brands are most important to those furthest from the places where they are easily had. The story goes that when Manchester first opened, it was more of a discount store; Radice's insistence on selling brands made a swift commercial difference. 'We discovered that people care much more about brands there than they do in London. They've been exposed to them for a long time, but nobody sold them.'
But though Radice has won the PR war hands down in London and Birmingham (he is undoubtedly one of the most charismatic men on earth), the City is still not convinced.
'Two things have happened,' says a key City retail analyst, 'the actual performance is pretty strong, but you have to remember a lot of capital was already invested; Radice came in on the tail end of that pounds 94 million.
He's been the beneficiary of a boost in sales that makes him look good, but shareholders are doubtful. The central core is that Radice can't make a profit on Oxford Street because the costs are too heavy. It's near impossible to make a return so he had to have more than one store. He's had a return in Manchester so it's not a disaster, but I would say the regional expansion is less fervent, less brilliant than it seems.'
Cheshire responds: 'I think people selectively look at bits of the financial record. You have to take a balanced view. No money had been put into Selfridges in 15 years. The hype is either pitched for or against Vittorio, but I think he's a very strong leader.'
Conran adds: 'I think to achieve what he's done in an atrociously difficult environment, taking over Ford Open prison would have been mild compared to what he had to cope with at Selfridges - the politics, the infighting, the backstabbing. I had the same thing to contend with at BHS and he succeeded where I failed.'
Judging from my own small experiment in Birmingham - a visit to Rackham's (the competition), Cross in tow, to seek out the new 'Desert' blusher by Chanel - I would say Radice is on to a winner. First, the saleswoman had to be told that this was the item of desire of the moment (it had sold out at both Selfridges and Harvey Nichols). After a few minutes, she managed to find it buried away in a cupboard. Upstairs, the hottest labels in London hung on cheap plastic hangers (an item that Radice has virtually banned from his stores), which leads me to conclude that the people of Birmingham badly need Selfridges.
For Radice, shopping is a sensual experience so the question of the internet is met with a blank stare. Brands are there to be stroked, admired, desired, got in trouble with the bank for, not to be punched up on the screen.
The internet seems about as menacing an idea to Radice as John Lewis around the corner. 'As I see it, a shop is a place where people meet and have relationships and start talking to each other. You have the pub.
You have the church. You have your work, your home. And you have Selfridges.'