'Mr Selfridge' Series Puts Spotlight on Legendary Retailer

The lavish costume drama, which stars another Chicago native, Jeremy Piven, is based on Harry Gordon Selfridge's quest to sex up British shopping.

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Gregory Fitoussi as Henri.

Photo By ITV Studios Present

The cast reflects the grand sweep of the show. There are 30 major characters and scores of supporting actors and extras, all of whom orbit Piven’s charismatic, game-for-anything Selfridge.

“Beside being an innovator he was an incredibly colorful character. The guy loved nightlife, gambling and women!” said Piven from his trailer, in between filming. Indeed, Selfridge would famously doff his hat to the public waiting outside the store in the morning and don white tie and tails to go to the theater. He was a man-about-town, and the press loved him.

Piven said he knew the stores before he knew about the man. “I’m lucky enough to be from Chicago and to have known Marshall Field’s. It really struck me how much influence his work there had on Selfridges, especially the steel [building frame], the marble columns and having stores be incredibly ornate and larger than life. It was all very over the top — but he meant it.”

Unlike the hard-partying Selfridge, Piven has been keeping a low public profile during filming in London. “You won’t see me falling asleep in the corner of a pub — what you’ll probably see is me walking in circles around Primrose Hill learning my lines.”

He did, however, attend the party to celebrate Tom Ford’s men’s collection at Loulou’s in January. Because it was so dark, guests were having trouble telling the two men apart. “People are looking confused,” Piven, who is a big fan of Ford’s, kidded at the time. “Like, they think there’s two of us.”

Another actor on the set that day was Michael Brandon, who took a short break from his role as the producer R.F. Simpson in “Singin’ in the Rain” in London’s West End to play another big personality, F. W. Woolworth.

Brandon’s Woolworth is less charming and more streetwise than Selfridge, an expert in piling high and selling cheap. Upon arriving in London, he tries to convince Harry that their stores will complement each other rather than compete.

“The five-and-dime has a history for me,” said the actor, referring to Woolworth’s. “My mother used to take me there to have a charlotte russe — a sponge cake with a cherry on top. But I’m not a shopper — trying on pairs of pants is like having a root canal,” said the fast-talking New Yorker.

While so much of the show is about retail bling and the heart-racing buzz of a shopping spree, the costume and hair and makeup teams were measured in their approach to the different characters.

Selfridge’s dark suits, colorful ties and brocade waistcoats were all made to order from original period fabrics. In addition, the wealthy women — including Selfridge’s wife, Rose (played by Frances O’Connor); the sexually voracious aristocrat Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly), and the celebrity showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper) — all wear furs, hats like wedding cakes and acres of lace. But not everyone was so lucky.

Costume designer James Keast said, “1909 was our frame of reference for the main characters, but for the working and middle classes, including Agnes [Towler, the poor, aspirational shopgirl], the clothing has to look older — from the 1890s.

“Those classes mended and altered their frocks, so there is a ‘made-ness’ to them,” said Keast, showing off a bit of a sleeve that had been stitched over for effect to cover a hole.

Hair and makeup was inspired by the dreamy portraits of the early-20th-century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini, who specialized in society figures, aristocratic ladies and popular cultural figures of the day.

“The faces he painted were very contrasty — lots of dark eyes and red lips,” said the hair and makeup designer Konnie Daniel, adding that she worked with products including foundations from MAC Cosmetics, Chanel and Giorgio Armani, layering mineral powder on top to give skin a “porcelain look.”

She used a cheek stain; created soft, glossy lips and kept brows light, using powder to define them. In 1909 the feminine ideal was very natural — dark hair, a pale face and rosy cheeks. Color cosmetics had yet to make their breakthrough, something that would not happen until after World War I.

As for the hair, it’s Lady Mae who has the biggest updo, as the wealthy of the era famously wore hairpieces under their hats. “It’s a top-of-the-range look,” said Daniel. Mr. Selfridge could not have put it better himself.


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