Why The Hell Do People Go To Harrods?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 35 months ago
Why The Hell Do People Go To Harrods?

In 1986 the small town of Otorohanga in New Zealand changed its name to Harrodsville. This was a nod to Europe's biggest department store, Harrods, but the nod was not a friendly one. On hearing that Otorohanga businessman Henry Harrod had had the audacity to name his business Harrod's Family Restaurant, then-owner of the London Harrods, Mohamed Al-Fayed, let fly with legal threats. Otorohanga's answer was to change the name of every single one of its business enterprises to Harrods — sticking up two solid gold digits to the Egyptian mogul.

The 'Harrodsville' gambit worked; Al-Fayed was made a laughing stock and the threats were dropped. But the story perhaps sums up many Londoners' perception of the department store — a louche palace for the bolshy, where money talks and the hoi polloi can go do one. Yet Harrods is a London institution too. And when it bears the motto Omnia Omnibus Ubique (All Things for All People, Everywhere), can it really be such a bad place?

The first thing to whack you around the chops as you walk in is the Egyptian Escalator. Since 1998, this meaty bit of ersatz Luxor has formed Harrods's spine. It'd be easy to shrug it off as a pricey piece of Vegas tat (a vain one at that — Al-Fayed's face is resembled in some of the busts), but that's missing the point. All looming sphinxes with headdresses aglow, pudgy pillars etched with hieroglyphics, and a slow ascent to a celestial ceiling climaxing at the Salon de Parfums — if the sense of theatre doesn't dazzle you, the accumulating cloud of Estée Lauder surely will. Once when we were here, there was an opera singer trilling from a balcony overlooking the escalator; the pure melodrama worked somehow. The escalator also apes those previous times London fell in love with Egypt — after the Battle of the Nile, and again in the 20s — and though it might be no Carreras Cigarette Factory, we're going to say it: this is one of London's great staircases. Any chance of getting one on the tube?

Treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.

From the escalator you can splinter off and explore 4.5 acres of retail space, over seven floors and 330 departments, each offering up its own kind of lavish loopiness. In the Millionaire Gallery — presumably called because it sells stuff for the person who has everything — Marilyn Monroe's autograph is on sale for £16,000, Gandhi's for £25,000. Further exploration around Harrods's upper decks reveals a silver plated Millennium Falcon flash drive, BB King's guitar, and a box of six Christmas crackers for £499 (the socks stuffed inside may be cashmere but they're still socks).

The madness continues in a Buckingham Palace department (relations must have thawed since Al-Fayed sold up in 2010), where there are official Palace towels and room scent. The royal connections don't stop there of course; Harrods, has not one but two memorials to Diana and Dodi. At the time, they were an eerie touch — they're still eerie now — but have melted into the fabric of the building, part of its nuts history.

Harrods is a slice of London's history in its own right; Charles William Stephens's consumerist palace was built after the previous one on this spot burned down in 1883. Though the store has almost continually been tarted up, you can still take in many original features; the glazed tiles in the food halls, the lifts with their bulbous 'up' and 'down' lights. And, unlike Selfridge's, you can explore the back staircases with their wrought iron railings — a subtler alternative to that escalator. Here's the thing: treat this place as a museum or a cabinet of curiosities, and it can be a hoot.

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Like every museum worth its salt, Harrods has a well-stocked gift shop. The atmosphere here is notably different to anywhere else in the store — less studious, more touchy-feely. That's probably because the people are buying jam and tea towels, rather than pondering whether to blow the daily allowance on Marilyn's autograph. Kat, from Devon, is on holiday in London, and has got herself a few key rings. Why Harrods? "I just heard loads about it, heard it's ridiculously expensive... Would I come again? I want to think yes but maybe when I win the lottery."

She seems typical of the kind of person browsing this part of the store; though lots of tourists here are obviously from abroad, it's surprising how many English accents are floating about. But wherever they come from, visitors are sold on the idea of Harrods, rather than coming to buy anything in particular. That, or they just want a bag emblazoned with the famous logo. And despite these being the best-known plastic bags anywhere, you don't fork out for them here; an assistant tells us that Harrods pays the government for the privilege. Snobby behaviour? Well, when you've bought a £100k Harry Winston watch, having a 5p surcharge bunged on might seem a bit of a liberty.

You can also come to Harrods just to feel a bit special. In a department store like this, staff can run the risk of seeming specious but here they've got it just right (apart maybe from the guy dusting wine bottles — that's a bit much). People greet you randomly, as if they've been expecting you, but then leave you to get on browsing all those products you're never going to buy. The average staff member is also so crushingly beautiful, the briefest stroll through the corridors of 'Shoe Heaven' means you risk having your heart broken five or six times.

When Charles Henry Harrod opened his first store in 1824 — a humble enough drapers on Borough High Street — he could hardly have dreamed the global brand it would one day mushroom into. Harrods may be overpriced, it may be gaudy in places, it sells some right tat, the website may has the poshest drop-down menu ever, it may make enemies with the odd antipodean town, and some of its regulars are probably downright abominable. But it's also a fine London attraction, and won't cost you 15 quid to get in. Come for the madness, stay for the key rings. Then step back onto the tube, and into reality with a jolt.

Last Updated 12 November 2015

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