It’s curtains for clergy girls at new and groovy Liberty

New Liberty owner wants rid of the chintzy, ‘poor as church mice’ customer, but the fashion-conscious lot he desires will bring new problems, warns Iain Murray

It’s never a good idea for a shopkeeper – even a rather grand one – to criticise his customers; they don’t like it, as Gerald Ratner found to his cost. Then again, Richard Balfour-Lynn isn’t really a shopkeeper, he’s a property developer who two years ago bought Liberty, sometimes described as the “dowager duchess” of London department stores.

That’s the problem. Mr Balfour-Lynn bought a duchess but what he really wanted was a princess, and a groovy, swinging one at that. So rather like Henry Higgins trying to work the Pygmalion trick in reverse, he has lavished a great deal of effort and buckets of money on turning the aristocratic old girl into a cool chick. And would you believe it, no one’s noticed? There’s gratitude for you.

And so it was with understandable exasperation that Mr Balfour-Lynn announced on the recent occasion of Liberty’s dismal results that too many of his store’s customers were “vicars’ daughters” who refused to spend money in its cutting-edge fashion department. Quite why he chose to disparage the offspring of the clergy in this way is not clear. Perhaps vicars’ daughters are, in his opinion, a little staid and a lot poor. How they fetch up in Liberty is a mystery. As he points out, they don’t go there to spend money.

Maybe they just like the ambience, perhaps its chintzy prints and timbered staircases remind them of home. Or could it be that by some malign turn of fate every time a vicar’s daughter walks past those venerable portals it starts to rain and they have to duck in for shelter? At any rate, one thing is plain – Mr Balfour-Lynn intended to wound. Vicars’ daughters are to him an anathema. What he wants are “a more design-conscious clientele from the Soho media and art worlds”. They sound a pretty disagreeable bunch to me, but there’s no accounting for taste.

In some ways I can sympathise with Mr Balfour-Lynn. If I were to run a pub – something I once fondly imagined nature had marked me out for – I should not welcome people who drank from the bottle, talked about football, had braying laughs, spoke with their mouths full, used their cutlery to emphasise conversational points, or swore immoderately. On some days I would extend the exclusion to men with beards and/or pony tails. On others I would turn away ear-ringed men and tattooed women. In short, I would have no customers, or very few.

Mr Balfour-Lynn should be grateful every time someone steps from the street into his store. It is not for him to pick and choose who is worthy of his wares. If that were his policy, Liberty would have to become a members-only club, open solely to those who could demonstrate a sound claim to be from the worlds of media and art, be able to present fashion conscious credentials, and show proof of a Soho provenance. Janet Street-Porter comes unbidden to mind, so let us move on.

It is not vicars’ daughters whom the proprietor of Liberty should seek to turn away, rather it is the undesirable new breed of “shopping bulimics”, women who resort to retail therapy to improve their moods, then feel guilty and return what they have bought. Some are downright fraudulent. They buy an outfit for a special occasion and return it when they no longer need it. We owe the discovery of shopping bulimia to Tamira King, of Brunel University’s school of business and management, whose research unearthed women who return clothes after a two-week holiday, exchange maternity outfits after giving birth, and take back designer shoes after wearing them at home for a few hours.

John Dean, chief executive of the British Shops and Stores Association, fears the problem may get worse. “People are so much more fashion-conscious than they used to be,” he says. “So even people who do not have a high disposable income want to have the expensive labels and brands. Shopping bulimia allows them to do this.”

Are you listening, Mr Balfour-Lynn? Fashionconscious people are trouble. Far safer to stick with vicars’ daughters who, one may safely assume, have a sensibility thoroughly grounded in morality and would not dream of returning a used maternity outfit.

Not that a sense of fashion and a vicarage upbringing are necessarily incompatible. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Theresa May, is a vicar’s daughter and, according to sources close to Westminster, dresses in a way that sets senescent pulses racing. At 45, she began wearing a lavender-coloured leather jacket. Sometimes it was done up, sometimes it was unzipped to reveal a close-fitting white T-shirt. Either way, the parliamentary sketch writers salivated. One went so far as to use the word “dominatrix”. As well as the jacket, she sometimes wears penny-sized silver earrings and black trousers that are said to conceal a pair of legs not unlike those of “a moderate point-to-pointer”. If Mr Balfour-Lynn is half the man I think he is, he would surely roll out the red carpet for this electrically charged vicar’s daughter, a woman whose very proximity stirs the blood and stimulates the imagination of men previously though to be clinically past it.

Then again, Mr Balfour-Lynn’s real problem is that he’s done up his store, is pleased with the results, and wants to attract well-heeled shoppers. Has he thought of advertising?

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