Retail Activist

Alannah Weston is starting with London’s Selfridges to save the world’s fisheries

Retail Activist

Photographs by Zoe Norfolk

The signs on the doors of Selfridges’ flagship department store on Oxford Street in London promote giving “the gift of self-indulgence.” Having sold an £85 sandwich, a £1,000 Swarovski-encrusted water bottle, an £1,800 Spanish ham, and a £10,000 children’s electric car, Selfridges is not exactly known for preaching restraint. And yet, in launching Project Ocean, its creative director, Alannah Weston, is doing just that.

“Just because you sell beautiful things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing,” says Weston, perched over a cup of tea in the downstairs restaurant of the 650,000-sq.-foot store owned by her father, billionaire Galen Weston. Project Ocean, which she has organized with Jonathan Baillie (a childhood friend, and director of conservation for the Zoological Society of London), promises nothing less than “retail activism”: it’s a multi-pronged attempt to save the world’s fisheries from collapse, starting by providing only sustainably sourced fish at Selfridges.

It’s also a transformation of the store itself, with commissioned artwork both madcap and meditative, a sea-themed fashion exhibit including Lady Gaga’s silver lobster hat, well-known chefs in the food hall teaching customers how to cook unpopular seafood, frogmen marching around the aisles, and cheeky but stark messages in the store’s iconic window displays about the depletion of fish stocks.

“I’m good at giving short, sharp shocks,” says Weston, who was appointed by her father in 2004. Her in-your-face approach—last year she shut down Oxford Street, London’s main shopping thoroughfare, and hired “shoe-per heroes” to rappel down her store’s art-deco facade to launch the Shoe Galleries—has helped revitalize the store, founded in 1909 by American magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Weston is also, crucially, a masterful communicator, who comes across as vivacious and genuine, her eyes often crinkling in a soundless laugh as she praises the work of her creative partners. There’s nary a hint of the spoiled heiress about her.

Over the phone, Baillie recalls how, after the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in 2009, he and Alannah’s brother Galen, Jr., executive chairman of Loblaws and spearhead of that organization’s own sustainable fish program, were scrambling to figure out how to communicate the importance of biodiversity. “The conservation community were all feeling the same thing: ‘We’ve tried books, movies, international conventions, working with governments, but ultimately people aren’t going to care unless the general public is interested.’ ”

Enter Alannah, with her massive list of contacts, from royals to rock stars, and an interest in environmental issues. “I was the head of the environment club when I was at [Toronto private girls’ school] Havergal at 16,” she recalls. “I tried to start one when I was at Oxford; it wasn’t that easy.” But times have changed significantly for her and for the world since that time in the early ’90s; in discussing Project Ocean with Baillie, she realized, “Now I can do something big and proper and real, and how lucky am I?”

Their long-time friendship enabled Baillie to win over the conservation community, which needed convincing that Weston was sincere. For Selfridges, says Weston, the project makes good business sense: “If we carried on selling endangered fish, there wouldn’t be any fish left for us to sell. Nobody claims to be perfect, and we certainly don’t; this is the first step on our journey, in terms of sustainability.”

In a business with over a million products, she explains, “Getting information on every single one is challenging, so I thought, ‘Let’s start with the thing I know I can achieve.’ ” Upstairs, the food hall, which sells cooked Canadian lobster for £46.99/kg, has been sustainable for the past month; large chains such as Yo! Sushi and EAT have adapted their concessions’ menus to fit Selfridges’ new guidelines; as well, Baillie boasts, 20 restaurants along Oxford Street have taken Selfridges’ lead and switched over to sustainable fish.

It’s days before the launch of Project Ocean, and Weston, clutching a canary-yellow Selfridges bag—“I shop here, too!” she enthuses—leads a tour of work in progress. In one warehouse space, New York artist Jason Hacken­werth shows off the playful anemone-like sculptures he and his assistants have fashioned from over 30,000 balloons; some will be hanging from the ceiling in a 70-foot installation, and some will be worn, like immense costumes, by dancers in the store: “It gets people amped-up,” the artist says.

In the Ultra Lounge—a space for contemplative exhibitions in the heart of a shop floor, resulting from one of Weston’s patented counterintuitive moves—English artist Beth Derbyshire is installing her multiple-screen, poetic travelogue film Seven Seas, as the sounds of waves sweep through the room. She says she’s aiming to “inspire people to look at the beauty of what’s around them. What Alannah’s doing now is so interesting because you have a massive public—it’s an intelligent way to message people without whacking them over the head.”

Together, Weston and Baillie have already won over organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and Weston believes she’ll be able to assuage the concerns of customers who can no longer find their favourite endangered fish in the food hall.

One hurdle, however, remains, as a Selfridges’ window display of a tuna swimming with a panda illustrates. Fish—Disney’s Nemo aside—simply aren’t that lovable.

“On the upside for fish,” says Baillie, “we actually need them. There are economic, livelihood, business and conservation arguments not to destroy our fisheries. A panda doesn’t have any of that, except it’s pretty cute. I think fish, even though they may be a bit slimy, may come out on top.”

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