How to make Harvey Nicks Ab Fab again!

How to make Harvey Nicks Ab Fab again! As the iconic emporium struggles, its former PR has a plan…

  • Lynne Franks has a ten-point plan to breathe new life into the Knightsbridge department store
  • READ MORE: Joanna Lumley reveals her Ab Fab role nearly didn’t happen after awkward first meeting with co-star Jennifer Saunders

Back in the hedonistic heyday of the 1980s, Knightsbridge department store Harvey Nichols was the place to be — as legendary for its celebrity-studded parties as for its exclusive designer fashion, traffic-stopping window displays and super-hot restaurant.

So it was with sadness that I read that its chief executive has quit the business after rumoured tensions with the owners over strategy, and its once-packed fashion floors and buzzy restaurants are quiet.

According to recent accounts, revenue is down 16 per cent on its 2019 peak, and the company is in the red for the third consecutive year.

Harvey Nichols wasn’t always a department store. Originally a linen shop, it was started in 1831 by Benjamin Harvey and taken over by his niece’s husband, James Nichols, after his death, giving it its now iconic name.

In 1920 it was bought by Debenhams and became its flagship store, before the Burton Group became the new owners in 1985, and chairman Sir Ralph Halpern’s vision of making it the best fashion store in the world took off.

Harvey Nichols’ once-packed fashion floors and buzzy restaurants are quiet while revenue is down 16 per cent on its 2019 peak

Prior to Burton’s takeover, the store was a magnet for a young Princess Diana and her fellow Sloane Rangers, who flocked there to buy pretty floral skirts, white lacy blouses and pearls.

Ralph brought on board the legendary fashion director Amanda Verdan, the amiable American managing director Richard Maney and Mary Portas, the renowned window designer from Halpern’s Topshop stores — and, er, me.

I had worked for Ralph in his role as chairman of the British Fashion Council, and he brought in my PR agency to attract press coverage for the store that he determined would be the most exciting destination for fashion in the UK, if not the world.

Collectively, our vision began to come together. Mary’s windows were the talk of the town. She worked with artists and visionaries to create images never before seen in a department store window. 

She also collaborated closely with the fashion buyers to ensure the latest looks, from Jean-Paul Gaultier skirts for men to Donna Karan’s hot New York chic were very visibly promoted.

Each month or so they had a new launch — menswear in the basement; new ideas in homewear; a whole floor devoted to accessories; their wonderful restaurants and, of course, the most exciting designer fashion in town.

Harvey Nichols was the zeitgeist, and ahead of the ‘style’ game in every way. And my PR agency was at the heart of it all.

We helped the store arrange designer fashion shows in-house in a way that had never happened in London before, and they became so prestigious that designers would fly in from New York, Paris and Milan.

Ab Fab’s Edina and Patsy. Lynne remembers wearing designer baseball caps, Rastafarian medallions and luxury sportswear — much like Jennifer Saunders’ Edina that she and Dawn French created for their Ab Fab sitcom

We invited our favourite British fashion designers Jasper Conran and Betty Jackson to our parties; looked after U.S. designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren when they came over to launch their shops on the acclaimed first floor; worked with perfume buyers who negotiated exclusive launches of designer fragrances; and made sure Harvey Nichols was on the lips of journalists worldwide. 

We were dealing with a lot of egos, but the designers generally were a delight once they relaxed. My favourite was Donna Karan, who told me years later that a crystal I’d given her inspired her own spiritual journey.

But for me, it wasn’t just business. I was a huge fan — and a loyal customer. 

I’d have every single Donna Karan outfit that arrived from New York in a size 14 sent by taxi from the store to my office. I’d try them all on and keep anything that fitted.

It definitely elevated my look, at a time when I was having one of my extreme style moments influenced by urban streetwear from my brilliant client John Richmond and the clothing spin-off from popular band Soul II Soul. 

Looking back at the pictures, I was wearing designer baseball caps, Rastafarian medallions and luxury sportswear — much like Jennifer Saunders’ Edina that she and Dawn French created for their Ab Fab sitcom. 

A great look on lots of people, but definitely not a curvaceous, North London mother of two. Thank goodness for Donna — and Harvey Nicks’ — intervention.

Talking of Ab Fab, that might have been my most powerful PR move; and, as is so often the case, it was entirely spontaneous.

Lynne with friend Ruby Wax, who was enlisted to give witty speeches at the parties she held at Harvey Nichols 

I introduced my friend, comedian and broadcaster Ruby Wax, to the store, getting her to give witty speeches at our parties. 

She was a huge hit and Mary Portas, also a fast-thinking woman with a great sense of humour, soon bonded with her and put her on the top of all our invite lists.

Little did we know that Ruby would work with the brilliant Jennifer Saunders as script editor on Ab Fab, and after spending time observing us all — particularly me, as the inspiration for larger-than-life PR Edina Monsoon — Harvey Nichols became known as Ab Fab’s favourite shop.

Mary was her usual clever self, developing this relationship, allowing the TV production to film at the store and borrow clothes in return for lots of mentions.

A relationship was born which has been perfect for all involved, but society and consumer shopping patterns have changed since those days.

After Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon took over and floated the company in the mid-1990s, Harvey Nichols began an expansion programme, opening stores in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Dublin, Leeds and Manchester, as well as overseas, including Saudi Arabia.

But to survive and thrive in these post-Covid times takes more than multiple branches.

Selfridges seems to have put more energy into keeping up with the times, focusing on a more sustainable and stylish approach, with activities in-store — even using its car park to stage fashion shows and charity auctions.

Harrods, too, has kept busy selling high-priced goods to wealthy tourists and overseas visitors — its success predicated on knowing exactly what trends and tastes its customers like.

Harvey Nichols on the other hand seems not to have realised that the world has moved on.

Modern retailers have to create exciting in-store experiences if they wish to compete with the online success of rival businesses such as Net-a-Porter, whose website reads like a magazine — whereas Harvey Nichols’ is a just basic selling site.

So sweetie, darling, here’s what I’d do… 

I’ve been thinking about what I would do if I was Harvey Nicks’ PR again and the ideas have been pouring out. 

Here’s my top ten to make Harvey Nicks Ab Fab again.

1. Firstly, we would have to put excitement back in the Knightsbridge store, and then implement the new ideas throughout the rest of the group, bearing in mind each city has its own culture and taste.

2. Wellbeing and natural health are important for all generations, so I would suggest negotiating with Gwyneth Paltrow to have her GOOP stores in all branches, plus live workshops with her experts.

3. Ask art dealers Hauser & Wirth to promote young artists in the windows.

4. Partner with neighbouring V&A to promote its brilliant exhibitions in the Harvey Nicks window displays, like the recent visual African Fashion and Diva shows.

5. I would ensure the restaurants served the latest, most delicious plant-based food, and invite top chefs from around the world to develop healthy menus.

6. Work with young fashion designers, perhaps from the nearby Royal College of Art, to create sustainable, eco-friendly pieces made by women’s collectives.

7. I would invite Victoria Beckham, Trinny Woodall, Charlotte Tilbury, Rihanna and other stars of the beauty industry to regularly live-stream and appear in person to promote their beauty ranges.

8. I would create an internet TV channel that would stream live to all stores and on YouTube, with interviews and stories on all the cultural and lifestyle events happening in the cities where the stores are based, as well as tie it in with their websites.

9. Create an immersive meditation and mindfulness room inside the stores with sound baths and beautiful crystals to chill out after a shopping trip.

10. I would promote women entrepreneurs and high achievers in all the stores, creating prestigious award dinners on International Women’s Day.

And so much more . . . so Mr Poon, sweetie, darling — do get your team to give me a call!

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