Luxury reaches the high street

In the 1980s film Mannequin, the hero saves a department store from closure by creating a series of window displays that bring customers flocking to buy its merchandise.

The reality today is somewhat different, with advances in technology and communication greatly altering the retail playing field. Retail designers are now asking, ‘What can we do to keep customers connecting with brands and spending money in stores?’.

Progressively, a customer’s discretionary spend can be channelled towards products traditionally considered non-competing. For instance, a customer may choose between an iPod, a night at the theatre, a bottle of perfume or an evening dress. Many of these are now bought online.

Caulder Moore managing director Colum Lowe is one of the designers behind New Look’s retail concept at shopping destination Liverpool One (DW 17 July), and has worked on stores for Marks & Spencer and Gina Shoes. He predicts that, ‘the market will eventually be split in two: commodity products bought entirely online; and value-added, indulgent products bought on the high street’.

A trend in fashion store retail design is the movement towards luxury. Retail environments allow customers to interact physically with merchandise prior to purchase. It is this strength in tactility that retail designers can use to their advantage when they need to ‘wow’ and entertain shoppers while not losing sight of the identity of the brand.

Universal Design Studio director Jonathan Clarke, responsible for sleeker-looking Reiss stores (DW 6 September 2007), says his retail concepts are about making buying clothes an experience. ‘When a person buys a Prada bag they want to have a “Prada experience” which involves visiting a store and enjoying its luxury,’ he says.

Shops at the high end of the high street, such as Reiss, Jigsaw and Banana Republic, are taking the concept of exclusivity from the luxury markets and appointing designers to apply it to their interiors. The idea behind Universal’s work for Reiss was to simplify its shop interiors and display products in a confident way, says Clarke.

David Dalziel, the creative director of Dalziel & Pow, the consultancy behind store concepts for Gap, Next and Primark, identifies a ‘push for posh’ movement, meaning retailers selling value goods are paying designers to create stores resembling a more luxury proposition.

Value clothing stores such as Primark have squeezed the middle market, encouraging them to compete with the ‘posh end of the market’. Dalziel says that some high street shops need to engage designers to work across their portfolio of stores rather than focusing on flagships, because ‘customers judge a brand by their local experience’.

This has been noted by clothes store Jigsaw. Its window displays are consistent across all of its 43 stores, according to the chain’s visual director Faye McLeod. Speciality is not confined to its flagship.

To entice customers into Jigsaw, McLeod – who worked as head of visual for Liberty from 2002 to 2005 – has created ‘British eccentric’ windows with postboxes and letters, rabbits and garden gnomes.

These change every month to continually stimulate customers. In May, Jigsaw displayed ‘traffic sign’ windows by fantasy photographer Tim Walker to draw customers to look at the fashion line. These coincided with his exhibition at the Design Museum, which runs until September.

Other stores investing in design include Oasis. Last year, Household Design made the concept of ’boutique experience’ central to Oasis’s stores on London’s Regent Street and in Manchester’s Trafford Centre. Key areas Household made luxurious included the cash desks, window displays and fitting rooms.

The challenge in creating a luxury feel with a smaller budget is that designers have to create spaces that can hold and display a high density of products. Household creative director Sarah Page says, ‘We focused on being able to tell the customer what is hot now by placing a catwalk in the middle of the store.’

Another retailer making itself ‘exclusive’ is US brand Abercrombie & Fitch, which opened its flagship store on Burlington Gardens, just off London’s Savile Row, last March. It has taken its brand experience, centred around the concept of good-looking people (just see the naked torsos on its outdoor advertising campaigns or the 20-something semi-naked, rippling-muscled male models who greet customers at its entrance) to the extreme. Being represented by a single store in the UK, it presents itself as a niche fashion brand, and this branding is reflected in its website offerings.

Designers are urging other retailers to follow A&F’s lead in the way its website and store both reinforce its brand experience, and to consider store design when building websites in order to align the design of the two. Online and store designers can work together to create a cohesive brand offering, says Dalziel.

He points to Banana Republic, a higher-end Gap, which has a ‘tidy and restrained design’ in its Gensler-implemented store in Regent Street, that reflects well its website offering.

The push for posh trend

Stores that have invested in design

• Reiss by Universal Design Studio

• Oasis stores by Household Design

• Abercrombie & Fitch’s ‘exclusive’ UK store

• Jigsaw’s window displays designed in-house by Faye McLeod

• Banana Republic’s Regent Street store design implemented by Gensler

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