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Harrods’ 175th anniversary

The world’s most famous luxury department store celebrates 175 years of retail magic

Arguably the most famous luxury department store in the world, Harrods is marking its 175th anniversary with all manner of exciting celebrations and special-edition products. From its iconic teddy bears to its renowned Festival of Lights, there are many highlights in store for customers throughout the year. Embodying the very essence of luxury, tradition and world-class service, Harrods still retains enormous allure 175 years after it first opened. About 15 million people pass through its doors every year, more visitors than the Eiffel Tower.

The Knightsbridge institution is celebrating this milestone in a variety of ways. Harrods’ motto, “Omnia Omnibus Ubique” (Latin for “all things for all people, everywhere”), has never felt so appropriate. Customers can buy almost anything in this iconic shop, from an heirloom diamond in its Gem Room to bespoke baby furniture to a superyacht. Until the mid-Seventies, one could even purchase exotic animals from Harrods’ Pet Kingdom, with this department attracting some very high-profile customers. In 1951, Canadian actress Beatrice Lillie bought the playwright Noël Coward an alligator as a Christmas gift, with Harrods flying the “pet” out to his home in Bermuda; while in 1967, the department supplied Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, with a baby elephant.

Harrods 175th anniversar window display

Harrods’ window displays are regarded as some of the most sophisticated in the world.

Sebastian Wormell, the store’s archivist, says Harrods’ rich heritage is what makes it unique but he is also keen to emphasise its ability to keep up with the times. “In the world of retail, the focus is very much on present and future trends. Businesses that get stuck in the past get into trouble,” he says. “Harrods has always been a forward-looking business, but to understand its DNA, you must be aware of the history of our brand: beginning as an East End grocer, it grew to become London’s biggest and most luxurious store, with a worldwide reputation.

From its modest beginnings as a grocery shop in Stepney in 1834, Harrods’ founder, Charles Henry Harrod, grew the business before relocating it to west London ahead of the Great Exhibition of 1851, laying the groundwork for its phenomenal success. His son, Charles Digby Harrod, took over in 1861, and transformed the premises, expanding the shop into a huge retail establishment.

Harrods historic picture 1904

Hand-coloured photograph of Harrods on Brompton road, London (1904).

By 1880, Harrods was operating with a vastly increased workforce. A fire in 1883 provided the impetus for a monumental overhaul. Seizing this opportunity for reinvention, Harrod rebuilt the premises into a grand department store. By 1905, the 4.5-acre Brompton Road building we know today was complete. The Harrod family maintained control until 1889, when the business was floated on the London Stock Exchange as Harrods Stores Limited.

The claims to fame of the store, which has been owned by the investment arm of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund since 2010, are so legion, it’s hard to know where to start when paying homage to its incredible legacy. When it first opened its doors in Knightsbridge, it was the most exciting retail project the British capital had ever seen. “In Edwardian London, Harrods was unique. It offered a totally new experience in shopping: no other department store came near it in size or opulence,” says Wormell. “Even when Harry Gordon Selfridge opened his store in Oxford Street in 1909, Harrods easily maintained its position as the largest and most luxurious department store.”

Harrods is now home to more than 3,000 brands, spread across 300 departments and 1.1million square feet of floor space. It is home to 24 restaurants and employs more than 4,000 staff. Customers include an array of celebrities, royalty and even heads of state. 

One of the store’s most lavish details is its grand Egyptian escalator, which was commissioned by former proprietor Mohamed Al-Fayed. Linking the lower-ground level to the fifth floor, it features carved walls depicting scenes of Egyptian life. Escalators are ubiquitous on the high street now, but back in 1898 when Harrods installed its first one, these mysterious “moving stairs” caused a huge stir among its Victorian patrons. Legend has it that the store stationed staff at the top armed with smelling salts and tots of brandy to calm nerves.

A number of Harrods’ iconic teddy bears are being released this year in collaboration with luxury brands such as Burberry and Valentino.

Naturally, Harrods’ iconic Christmas teddy bear has a place in this year’s anniversary celebrations. It was introduced in December 1986, with the original, Snowy, dressed in a knitted hat and scarf. Harrods brings out a new version every year, each with a different name and outfit. But the store’s long and famous association with teddy bears dates back further than this. In 1921, author AA Milne bought a bear in the store for his son Christopher that became the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.

This year, historic photographs, vintage advertisements, iconic products and other memorabilia are being exhibited throughout the store for visitors to learn the many interest facts about Harrods’ glorious past. But this anniversary is also about the future. Michael Ward, Harrods’ managing director, says: “We want to mark the occasion by celebrating all that is wonderful and unique about the Harrods brand – our place in British culture and history, our unparalleled brand partnerships, and our relationships with our customers, while also looking firmly forward. Harrods has been celebrating the exceptional for 175 years, and we look forward to being at the epicentre of luxury for another 175 years to come.”

With this in mind, the store is set to unveil more than 40 exclusive products to mark its birthday. Moët & Chandon has released a limited-edition champagne bottle by French designer Dimitry Hlinka inspired by the iconic chandelier in the store’s champagne bar. Bamford Watch Department recently released a limited edition watch designed in the famous green and gold to honour Harrods’ anniversary, featuring a gold Snoopy with green accents.

Left, Moët & Chandon champagne bottle by French designer Dimitry Hlinka inspired by the iconic chandelier in the store’s champagne bar. Right, Bamford Watch Department x Harrods watch featuring Snoopy in Harrods’ colours.

In May, the first of its anniversary tea collections was launched starting with a gunpowder green tea with vanilla, orange and apricot notes, which takes inspiration from Harrods’ Victorian tea shop. Harrods has also presented an exclusive fragrance with the acclaimed perfumery house Maison Francis Kurkdjian. The scent, named Reflets d’ Ambre, has been created in tribute to the glowing lights of Harrods on Brompton Road. Dating back to 1959, the renowned Festival of Lights, which comprises 12,000 bulbs that adorn the building’s façade, is a cherished tradition. From 8pm every evening this year, these exterior beacons on the Grade II-listed building are creating a dazzling spectacle illuminating the Knightsbridge skyline.

Harrods is, and will always remain, the brightest of shining stars in international retail. Find out more about its 175th anniversary HERE.

Words: Lisa Marks

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