Retail therapy

Tokyo’s decadent flagship stores are stimulating the city’s retail scene, producing an infectious energy that is an example to the West, says Howard Saunders

You can taste the energy in Tokyo at the moment. Not the lethargy of a frustrated London or a recovering New York, but a feeling of self-belief, tenacity and progress.

Japan is emerging from a decade in the doldrums. As you would expect, its strategy for recovery was precise and resolute: keep your head down for ten years and work harder than ever. But now Tokyo in particular is starting to come out of its shell again, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in retail design.

The city has become flagship central, with a collection of glamorous and futuristic stores from the likes of Prada and Dior. But small, eclectic, independent stores are where the biggest innovations in retail design are taking place. Dark, subversive, makeshift spaces offer a welcome antidote to designer showrooms.

At the top end, Comme des Garçons set the pace a few years back with its Future Systems-designed maze of angled glass and textured partitions. Just up the road, Yohji Yamamoto’s HR Giger-inspired gothic dungeon of blackened steel and iron is still a powerful and impressive space. But these superbrands have been eclipsed by what many consider to be the world’s most impressive piece of retail architecture: the Prada Epicentre.

Herzog and de Meuron’s concept has made an awesome impact. So much time, talent and money has been poured into this retail icon that it is hard to imagine anyone attempting to compete. But they do. In a direct response to Prada, Dior opened its shiny white, five-storey flagship. Designed by Tokyo architect SANAA Partnership, this building is like a glass sculpture, gift wrapped on the inside with curtains of undulating acrylic. On the fourth floor the beauty parlour is like an art installation, with a luminescent forest of upside-down lecterns hanging from the ceiling. At night the Dior building is lit to resemble an ethereal, milky white beacon, with a presence that outshines even the mighty Prada.

Yohji Yamamoto responded with a kinetic masterpiece by Ron Arad that opened earlier this year in the flourishing Roppongi Hills district. It’s lighter and brighter than the old store, with a giant hula-hooping column that spins slowly during opening hours, then speeds up to give late night window shoppers some unexpected entertainment.

At less stellar levels, a different revolution is happening. Trendy street couture stores are springing up, largely in the narrow lanes of Harajuku. Neighborhood breaks every rule of retail. From a facia that threatens death from above, a dark, narrow entrance opens on to a gloomy bunker of a store with two short rails of T-shirts. The only light comes from a glass cabinet displaying a pretentious selection of kitsch knick-knacks, while the seat at the centre of the floor is in fact a large tombstone, engraved with pseudo philosophy.

In July, a cheeky luxury fashion emporium opened directly opposite Prada. The brainchild of Yuichi Yoshii, Loveless has four floors in total but two of these, known collectively as The Dark Side, are subterranean. The contrast of the delicate pastel leather handbags set against the stained dungeon walls is quite shocking. It’s clearly an intelligent counter offensive to the super glam battle of the Pradas and the Diors.

There is also no shortage of innovation In the mid-market. Comme Ça has grown directly out of recession to become Japan’s top selling fashion brand. Its department store in the Shinjuku district targets style-conscious families with a select range of products at sensible prices.

The four floors of fashion and gifts are topped and tailed by two brilliant retail concepts. On the ground floor a contemporary ice cream parlour, Comme Ça Ice, welcomes customers with walls of pale colour-coded cones. Five floors up is Tokyo’s greatest cake shop, a fruit- and cream-fest known as Comme Ça Café. Japan is famous for its meticulous and minimalist food presentation, but this takes things to extreme. Comme Ça has cleverly sandwiched itself between two unmissable retail destinations.

Of course, flagship stores are not confined to fashion. At the centre of the Ginza district, rubbing shoulders with the department store giants, is the Nissan Gallery. Akihito Fumita’s design takes the ubiquitous ribbed steel architecture of the out-of-town car showroom to a new level. The white steel structure twists, turns and wraps around itself to become a beautifully engineered envelope for the cars and the immaculate doll-like stewardesses who guide you around the space.

Elsewhere, Vodafone opened a flagship in the spring in the Shibuya district. Four red and white floors full of ‘stay and play’ gadgetry may stretch the concept pretty much to its limits, but it has achieved its aim of being the world’s most impressive mobile phone store to date. Apple Computer’s store in Ginza, which opened late last year, is also its most impressive flagship thus far. London awaits its Gensler-designed Apple flagship in London’s Regent Street next month with bated breath.

But for a frenzied, in-your-face Japanese retail experience, 109 Shibuya, particularly at the height of the sales, is unbeatable. The noise is unbearable. Pigtailed girls with enormous megaphones stand on chairs to scream their bargains at the flood of teenagers that pour down the mall. Somehow, hanging cardboard promotions just don’t have the same effect.

Howard Saunders is creative director of independent retail intelligence agency

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