My Liberty Life

Ed Burstell

Our effervescent managing director charts his journey from perfume spritzer to MD in his autobiography, out now

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Joining Liberty in 2008 after cutting his teeth in the department stores of his native New York, Ed Burstell arrived in London hoping to escape a “sparkly but repetitive rut” which began in the hedonism of 1980s New York and Florida and ended in tragedy, loss, then ultimate survival. Ed soon set about applying the lessons learned on the way up the ladder from perfume spritzer at Macy’s to senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Bergdorf Goodman.

With the addition of new brands, numerous re-workings of the building’s space and a couple of TV shows later, Burstell's seven year Great British adventure and love affair with Liberty has been a whirlwind of parties, brollies and now, “putting it all out there. . ."

On writing a book:
“I’m an intensely private person but I happen to be the most visible one on the team. I don’t speak in public; if you have a camera and it’s just the two of us I’m fine, but an audience of two or three or more and I can’t do it. I’m asked all the time to mentor - I’m a practitioner in residence with London College of Fashion - but I can’t mentor everybody so I thought maybe now would be the time to tell a story in which you can screw up royally and often, start again and eventually win. When you get to my age you know how many different lives you’ve lived, and I hope everybody has that. You don’t realise until afterwards that there was one specific part, then another one and another one, I hope life keeps doing that for me.

People I’ve known for a long time have been very complementary about [the book] but the funny thing is when someone who I thought knew me really well says ‘you never told me that!’ I left out plenty from the book, there are a couple of things that I’m going to the grave with, and it was sent back four times for a libel read. So the book is slightly less about how I really felt about some people, but at least I’m not going to get sued!”

On Retail:
“Retail is different now than when I was starting out, the internet has changed everything. We have a whole different way of shopping and that closes some doors but opens just as many others. The purpose of a store now is to get into customers’ heads, know what they want and then give them the next thing. It’s the same journey online, the two are seamless – in some ways retail is contracting, brands are opening their own stores and taking control. . .but more people are opting to do online because of the ease. That audience has got so much broader, so traditional opportunities have contracted and others have exploded. The landscape is much bigger.”

On Britain:
“At first it was a shock that we speak the same language but say completely different things. British history started in the bronze age and has built up this long foundation of tradition which doesn’t exist in the US – US history is about ten minutes long in comparison. When you have a society that’s built on a series of traditions over a long period of time, to plop yourself in the middle of that takes constant learning. I learned it’s difficult to make friends [in Britain] because everyone’s like ‘we already have our friends’ but when you do, you have a friend for life. In America everyone’s your fast friend then 6 months later they’ve gone.”

On the future of Liberty:
“I’ll probably never feel my work here is fully done, only because I’m always curious. That’s what keeps me going, and I’m competitive (in a nice way!) The pressure for me really is personal pressure to succeed, I get off on beating last year – every time you do it it’s like you’re smarter than you were a year ago. Liberty is like a family to me; what I’m most proud of from my time here is the fact I haven’t had much turnover of staff; when I arrived I was a total stranger to them and they were to me, but for the most part we work like a really well-oiled, dysfunctional family.”

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