Architecture & design

The store that tells a story

The retail design space has shifted dramatically, with architects expected to harness and encapsulate specific brand values, as well as create a heightened shopping experience. Abi Millar looks at trends and developments in this area, as well as speaking to the design studios behind some of the finest recent examples.

 In May, London’s Selfridges unveiled the Body Studio, a radiantly lit third floor space spanning some 37,000 sq ft. Designed by the consultancy Neri & Hu, this is Selfridge’s largest ever retail department and also perhaps one of its most eclectic.

Less a homogenous display area and more a progression of spaces, the studio brings together lingerie and loungewear, sportswear and swimwear – any women’s fashion category ‘designed for the body’. With a plushy carpeted hosiery bar, a more utilitarian-looking athleisure space and a Japanese-influenced loungewear area, each section riffs on the distinctive qualities of that product.

“We approached the Body Studio via the idea of creating a journey through a series of rooms,” says Rosanna Hu. “The experience is inspired by the tactility and materiality of the garments we wear in the most intimate way, next to our skin.”

She and partner Lyndon Neri wanted to avoid a boudoir feel, shying away from the literalism that plagues many lingerie outlets. Equally, it needed to be more than a showroom, which, perhaps in the interests of avoiding seediness, has itself become a lingerie store cliché.

Instead, they wanted to play with opposites – private versus public, personal versus playful, intimate versus overt – tying together these contrasts through a consistent underlying architecture.

The Designer Luxe section, then, is conceived around the idea of ‘East meets West’, with ink-washed timber panels of Japanese landscapes, and metal fixtures creating a room-within-a-room. Meanwhile, the Holiday / Swimwear space has a pared-back, California feel, its finishes evoking weathered driftwood and beachfront fences.

“The architecture works like a background,” says Hu. “We wanted to work more with the products and their display apparatus, using different details to showcase the products and create ambience.”

This is just the latest in a series of renovations at Selfriges, each by a different design firm. Priced at a record £300 million, the five-year project is being described as ‘the world’s most ambitious architectural transformation of a heritage department store’.

Take the International Lounge, which opened February 2015 – a grand series of halls designed by the London-based studio Waldo Works. With its hand-painted glass and marble floors, it harks back to the golden age of travel, restoring some of the features of the original Beaux-Arts building.

Then there is the best publicised part of the redesign: the redevelopment of the Eastern side by David Chipperfield Architects. This includes the entryway and architectural façade, as well as an expanded accessories department slated to open later this year.

Personal touch

Projects of this kind, naturally, pose significant challenges for designers. As well as considering the building’s heritage and physical limitations – constraints common to any renovation – they also need to factor in the retail items. Ideally, the design should be more than a backdrop, but it shouldn’t command more attention than the products being sold.

“The department store retail doctrine had many strict rules and conditions, which made some more creative ideas for the design more difficult to realise,” says Hu. “With all our retail projects, we aim to extract the spirit of the brand and create a spatial experience that enhances the brand’s ideology.”

Jason Holley, director of Universal Design Studio, says that retail design is changing across the board, largely in response to internet shopping. Given the impersonality of online retail, brands are keen to do what they can to lure people back into stores.

“Physical retail may lack the convenience that online affords but it does offer the opportunity of real engagement with the brand,” he says. “You can provide unique physical experiences, building brand affiliation and loyalty.”

Paradoxically, this may involve de-emphasising the product – downplaying the brand itself and turning the attention towards the customers.

“It means understanding their needs and their desires – what is driving them to the space?” he says. “Is it for relaxation, to be part of something, to be alone, to explore? Providing a framework that supports these experiences builds brand engagement and loyalty and a purchase will occur eventually, either online or in store.”

The modern classic

A London-based practice, founded by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby in 2001, Universal Design Studio has an extensive retail portfolio to its name. Its back catalogue spans luxury retail (such as Mulberry and Fortnum & Mason), specialist boutiques (Hedonism Wine), pop-ups (Seek No Further) and department stores (Selfridges Manchester).

One 2014 project, a flagship store for Hardy Amies on Savile Row, provides a case study on the centrality of the customer. Designed for the self-styled man-about-town, it needed to be contemporary yet traditional, aspirational yet understated, all the while nodding to the city that created the brand.

“We wished to position the suit as the everyday clothing of the urban flaneur,” says Holley. “The store was constructed from curated materials evoking London, alongside curated objects and accessories that would augment the lifestyle of the Hardy Amies Man.”

As to what this man’s lifestyle might be, Sir Hardy Amies himself provided some pointers. An author as well as a designer, he frequently sounded forth on what constituted good taste. “To attain style in dress, you must look perfectly happy and relaxed in your clothes which must appear part of you rather than a wardrobe you have donned,” he said in The ABC of Men’s Fashion (1964).

Correspondingly, Universal’s design is anything but staid, mixing heritage and modern elements (not least concrete from the Savile Row pavement) in a bid to reflect the dynamism of British style. The boutique might be selling bespoke tailoring and designer furniture, but it is not going to do so in a way that looks ostentatious or contrived.

More recently, Universal turned its hand to a Mayfair boutique for the fashion brand J&M Davidson. An elegant, 850 sq ft space spread across two floors, this store marks a departure from the brand’s other retail outlets. Rather, it revisits the designers’ core values – a sense of romance and discovery; commitment to quality and craftsmanship – and reinterprets them through fresh eyes.

The colours, then, are muted; the materials light and soft. There is a sculptural cantilevered staircase, along with vintage furniture pieces and hand-made display plinths in cast glass.

It was important to create a contemporary look for the store while using the timeless and understated design language characteristic for the brand,” says Holley. “The location on Mount Street in Mayfair was a key inspiration – the material palette references the terracotta tones of the building façade and the soft curves of bespoke furniture echo the exterior detailing.”

This kind of approach is becoming increasingly central to retail design – treating each outlet as a single entity, linked to the others by shared values rather than by visual motifs.

Good news, perhaps, for those concerned by the creeping homogenisation of the high street. The architect Sophie Hicks, who recently designed Acne Studios’ flagship store in South Korea, has remarked that however powerful the brand, however strong the identity, it nonetheless leaves room for a sense of place.

“As a visitor [to Seoul], my impression is that western brands and Korean urban culture have given something to one another; that they have cross-fertilised to exciting effect,” she said.

Her own store, which she has described as a “heavy, brooding, concrete monster”, is intended to pack a punch, in keeping with the goals of the Acne brand. And yet its otherworldly feel is pure Gangnam, channelling the sense of sanctuary that pervades this shopping district.

A journey through fashion

Retail design is arguably becoming more complex. While it has never been simply about displaying items (certainly a department store like Selfridges has theatricality in its DNA), it would be fair to say the demands placed on designers have intensified. These days, the focus is not just aesthetic, but experiential: how are you going to take the customers on a journey; harnessing and encapsulating brand values to tell a story about what’s being sold?

On the other hand, the task boils down to something simple – creating a place that people will want to be. With success measured less by reviews and more by footfall, the environment first and foremost needs consumer appeal.

“Fundamentally what all spaces need to be successful is people. If you can drive people to your space then you already have something that is successful,” Holley says.

This article appears in the Summer 2016 edition of LEAF Review 

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