In conversation with the maverick maesto of department stores
First published in the July 2013 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
I’ve wanted to interview Vittorio Radice for an age, but it was difficult to arrange, what with his travel schedule and the fact that he shuttles weekly between his family home in London’s Hampstead and a flat in Milan, since he took over as chief executive of La Rinascente, the grande dame Italian department store chain with its flagship branch in the heart of the city. Appointed in 2005, he’s been overseeing a comprehensive overhaul of the brand, transforming it from dusty dowager to modern maven. Today, the Milan store throbs with an energy and enthusiasm that’s frankly rather unusual for a department store in Italy. But before doing this, some 23 years earlier, he was buying director at Habitat; a year later he was managing director. Five years after that, in 1996, he joined Selfridges as managing director; two years later he was promoted to CEO. He seems to have a knack of landing in a place then taking it over. Luck? ‘Most people have very short-term plans. I believe there are no more quick wins. You have to be in it for the long term.’ In other words, he has a vision of how a business could be, not just a strategy to improve day-to-day turnover. Thus, it was he who elevated Selfridges to the lofty heights of London’s supreme shopping destination. He made it sexy, stimulating and exciting, and steered it from success to success with seasonal marketing extravaganzas that imbued every aspect of the store with bold themes like ‘Bollywood’ and ‘Las Vegas’. And then in 2003, he left to be executive director of home at Marks & Spencer.
It was hardly the obvious next step after his high-profile role at Selfridges. Nevertheless, he swiftly put another big vision into action: the M&S Lifestore, an ambitious standalone ‘new concept in home retailing’ on a vast site in Gateshead. It incorporated a two-storey house designed by minimalist architect John Pawson, and included input on catalogues and products from a roster of celebrated talent such as Ilse Crawford and Tyler Brûlé. It was brave, unprecedented and certainly visionary, but early sales were disappointing and it was swiftly declared an unmitigated disaster. Radice was ousted just 12 months after he started. Famously, Sir Stuart Rose, then the newly incoming chief executive, was reputed to have said, ‘I want to put square pegs in square holes, and I don’t feel Vittorio is a square peg.’ So naturally, I want to dive straight into this sticky business. Why did he leave Selfridges? How does he feel about M&S today? Does he consider this period to be a blot on an otherwise prestigious CV?
In answer to my first question, he replies simply, ‘I got bored.’ But before I continue, let me share something I concluded rather swiftly about Radice. He is not prone to introspection. He thinks on his feet, makes decisions in the moment and likes to move even faster when it comes to actioning ideas. At one point in our meeting, I feel the need to ask if my questions are annoying him as he seems distracted and is fiddling rather a lot with his iPad. He looks sincerely surprised that he could have given this impression, protesting absolutely not. And I believe him. It seems that he can be easily distracted while staying extremely focused, which is a pretty difficult stunt to pull off. Further insight into his maverick mind is gleaned when I ask if he has a motto. He answers thus: ‘Ahh, my wife gave me one the other day that I really liked. I made the effort to write it down! Let me find it.’ [cue much swiping of aforementioned iPad] ‘The crossroads that we come to at different stages of our life are always marked by old sign posts.’ He goes on, helpfully, to clarify, ‘A crossroads is when you feel undecided. [pause] That’s maybe my problem – I just go straight! Just do it and correct as you go along. Change is the name of the game.’
And so, when I draw him on M&S: ‘That was ten years ago. Lifestore needed time. They needed to wait. But I’m totally out. I don’t look back.’ And his final word on Selfridges: ‘We needed to acquire. We had the means but no takers. I got bored of talking and not being able to expand.’ Finito, basta, as they say in Italy.
Radice grew up in northern Italy near Lake Como and lived in Milan, where his parents ran a furniture business. An early rebellion saw the young Radice study to be a farmer, but it didn’t last long. As he puts it, ‘Farming was not the language I was used to hearing. I gave up and went back to what I knew.’ And that was that shopping should be entertainment. ‘It’s not about selling product,’ he declares. ‘We’re selling a good time, an experience, a holiday without taking a flight.’ He continues, ‘If you know what you want then don’t go to a department store, but if you’re looking to be surrounded, to breathe life, then go to a department store! We’re concerned with creating surprise, novelty. The product is simply a souvenir of your visit.’ I query that the it’s-not-about-selling bit might be the sort of statement that worries the shareholders. He parries by citing visitor numbers. ‘The Louvre has 8.8 million visitors a year; La Rinascente has 14 million! You can’t argue with footfall.’
Undoubtedly, part of his success is also that he inspires not only his investors with his vision, but also his staff. ‘I’m not driven by small things. I have bigger satisfactions than a new pair of shoes.’ I ask him to elaborate. ‘Giving people a sense of purpose. It’s about people knowing what to do rather than being instructed. Knowing that their contribution matters. But you can’t do it overnight.’
So can he activate Project Expansion this time around? ‘We’ve just bought the Illum department store in Copenhagen, and we’re about to sign for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, an 800-year-old building in Venice.’ The latter is to be reconfigured by architect Rem Koolhaas. But this isn’t about creating mini La Rinascentes all over the world. As Radice states, ‘I don’t need to build a chain of stores; I want to build a collection.’ And this time, I think he just might do it.
The Q&A Vittorio Radice
Tell me five words that describe you. What? No. That’s too arrogant. I’ll let you come up with them. Maybe unpredictable. Every word would be an un.
What was the last film you saw? Zero Dark Thirty. I thought it was great. I didn’t fall asleep.
What book are you reading right now? Every book about Nordic design: Danish Modern, Nordic Light, the lot.
What keeps you awake at night? Nothing. I rarely have sleepless nights.
Do you have any regrets? [long pause] I never learnt how to swim properly?
What words or phrases do you most overuse? Fantastic!
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? I take escalators! It’s my job to take escalators.
Who would you most like to meet, dead or alive? Pink Floyd? No, perhaps Christopher Columbus when he had to convince his crew to continue. I’d be interested to meet people who struggled.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Still to come.
Have you ever failed at anything? I feel I fail every day, but then the world continues. You learn by mistakes. Most people don’t make them because they’re not trying enough, not pushing enough.
What was the last piece of furniture you bought? Two beautiful wicker and stainless-steel ‘PK22’ chairs by Poul Kjaerholm for Fritz Hansen.
Are you religious? No. Zero.
What’s your favourite snack? Fruit. Strawberries. Bananas. Apples. All fruit.
If you were an animal, what would you be? A horse. Running.
How do you relax? Travel.
When and where did you last go on holiday? Two weeks ago. First from Milan to Helsinki, and then we were supposed to go on to Budapest but there was too much snow and it was too cold, so we went to Sharm el-Sheikh.
What was your worst subject at school? Latin, because I knew it was going to be useless in my future.
How do you define luxury? An ambition that you really made an effort to get. For me, free time is a luxury.
Do you believe in luck? Definitely!