Independent touch

As big, high street brands and smaller retailers alike are embracing more unconventional store design, cultivating that ’one-off’, local look for their latest outlets, Anna Richardson takes the measure of the creative vision of a range of innovative shops

It is an opportune time for independent retailers. With the backdrop of the recent recession, people are keen to buy into services and products that are local and independent, says Howard Sullivan, creative director at Your Studio. ’People have lost their trust and are shying away from the big brands.’

For small retailers ’it’s the perfect time to leverage their independence’, says Sullivan. ’Rather than trying to brand themselves up, they should brand themselves outward.’

On the one end of the scale, there is the success over the past few years of certain’retail curators’, from Spazzia Rosanna Orlandi in Milan to Rei Kawakubo’s Dover Street Market in London. These are driven by a strong creative vision and evolve their retail environments in a considered way.

In many cases, independent retailers can be viewed ’as a creative hotspot for original design thinking’, says Lucy Unger, managing partner at retail design consultancy Fitch. ’New stores from London to Milan and Tokyo offer a glimpse of the future through their owners’ single-minded vision and their unrestricted ability to express themselves.’

But it is not just the high-end, avant-garde independents that are leveraging innovative design to achieve standout. Programmes such as the BBC’s Mary Queen of Shops and High Street Dreams have highlighted the value of design thinking to more ’everyday’ independent retailers across Britain.

Retail designer Callum Lumsden of Small Back Room, who has worked with Mary Portas on a number of episodes in the series, has noticed many more enquiries from such shopkeepers, from lingerie to jewellery and furniture shops.

’The people who are interested in talking to us are those who have ambitions and aspirations for their business,’ says Lumsden. ’It’s beholden to any designer to look at how you can generate a really great design without it having to cost the Earth.’

On Mary Queen of Shops, Small Back Room in association with Portas helped turn around the fortunes of Kingston home furnishings shop 37 Old London Road, with a dose of creative up-cycling, for example. The consultancy is currently working with other independents, such as lingerie shop Mystique.

Designing independent shops is about what’s appropriate, especially outside of London. But even if a shop is not in trendy Notting Hill, ’that doesn’t mean they can’t be aspirational’, Lumsden says. ’It’s about understanding what those aspirations are. They’ve all got different aspects of the business that a designer has to draw out – and it’s important that everyone agrees a vision for the brand.’

For Midlands-based denim retailer Eto, Your Studio created a showroom with an identity which reflected its attitude.

Retail consultancy Campaign, meanwhile, is working on a new takeaway concept for the German sausage brand Herman Ze German, which brings together its German heritage of pride in quality, sleek design, functionality and honesty alongside the humour and festival origins of the brand.

’Independent retailers need to be aware of how the customer perceives them,’ says Campaign founder Philip Handford. ’The statement made through interiors, graphic representation, product offer and service defines who they are.’

The bigger brands are also emulating this independent thinking. People are increasingly engaging in store design that is a bit more unconventional, says Sullivan. Your Studio was asked to consult Costa Coffee to make the chain’s coffee shops look ’more independent’ and move away from a cookie-cutter look, for example.

There are three key attributes that high street retailers can learn from independents, believes Unger – their single-mindedness and vision, their ability to tailor to consumers’ needs,and their agility and ever-changing approach. ’As global retailers continue to connect and act locally, this is a trend that is set to continue, as retailers try to emulate independent values and design cues.’

Sullivan’s favourite non-independent shop is Anthropologie, which has a full-time team of artists that change the merchandising every day, so that the offer is always evolving. ’They’ve hit the nail on the head and have captured the spirit of the independent,’ says Sullivan.

’It’s not going to be like this for ever – people will become tired of the vintagey higgledy-piggledy,’ predicts Sullivan. ’But people will still want touches of that, in an environment that’s cleaner.’

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