New nationalism

There was a time when retail designers used predictable historic cues to evoke a sense of national identity. Things have moved on from bowler hats and red London buses, says John Stones, who finds current trends on a more contemporary tack

Wherever you are, shopping is a bit like a trip around the world in 80 minutes. While some retail brands insist on a bland, globalised ubiquity, others are rediscovering or reinforcing a sense of national identity and expressing it in their shop designs. ‘We associate retail experiences not only with different countries but also with different cities,’ Fitch chief creative director Tim Greenhalgh explains.

Take Tie Rack and Liberty – both brands have recently appended the word London to their name. A stalwart of the 1980s, Tie Rack is in the process of rebranding itself as Tie Rack London. ‘It is more about London than Britishness. Like DKNY, it gives it an aura, something that will give the products a halo in, say, Seoul or Beijing,’ says JHP joint managing director Steve Collis. He is responsible for the rollout of the new store design, the first of which opened on London’s Oxford Street in mid-August. Collis says that while the branding may be specific about location, the store design was more about creating a modern retail environment than imbuing any specific sense of London or Britishness. However, he does accept that there is a nod in the direction of the likes of Pringle and Burberry.

At the luxury end of the spectrum, Liberty this summer opened a store in London’s Sloane Street for its new stand-alone accessories brand, Liberty of London. The store was designed jointly by Paris-based Architecture et Associés and Liberty creative director Tamara Salman. ‘It had to reflect Liberty’s opulent and exotic British heritage while at the same time present a new contemporary – and international – vision,’ says Salman. ‘We took our cue from architectural points of interest within our Regent Street store and the archives, and then went about reworking and transforming them.’ For instance, British craftsmen carved the new store’s stucco ceilings and walls, taking Liberty floral prints as their starting point. Another print is picked out in black in a curtain of transparent acrylic spheres alongside the store’s staircase.

Penhaligon’s is another brand that has heritage by the truckload. While it trades heavily on its Britishness, it, too, has relied on French talents for its retail design – the posh toiletries brand’s recent stores are a collaboration between Penhaligon’s general manager Sarah Rotherham and Rosemary Rodriguez, who is also a fashion designer for Thierry Mugler.

‘To be a creative director is to be part-schizophrenic, part-chameleon,’ says Rodriguez. ‘As someone part-French and part-Spanish, I see Britishness in things that British people take for granted. For me, it is about elegance, tradition, but also humour, and eccentricity.’

Penhaligon’s most recent store opened in Upper Street, in London’s Islington, in July, with intriguing detailing, dark maroon walls and a black suede chaise longue occupying pride of place. ‘The concept was to keep the heritage and the originality, but bring an edgy, contemporary spirit,’ says Rodriguez. ‘It’s very classical, but not what it seems at first.’

‘Britishness is at our core,’ says Rotherham. ‘It’s a big part of the appeal of Penhaligon’s, both here and abroad. But it is something that you have to be very careful with. Merchandising in Japan or in France, we can use London buses and bowler hats, and it all looks very iconic, but it isn’t something that we can do here.’

Paris-based Roxane Rodriguez is responsible for the design of the recent magical environments for Ladurée, the French luxury macaroon company with London outlets. But for her, the reinvigoration of 19th century motifs is more important than anything specifically national. For instance, the gold interior of Ladurée’s eye-catching store in London’s Burlington Arcade is inspired not by Versailles, but by a grotto created by Ludwig II, the ‘Mad King of Bavaria’.

While heritage and history are the obvious sources for designers looking to instil a sense of identity, other avenues are possible too. Uniqlo, the Japanese value clothing retailer, has been busy reinventing itself, relying on the talents of Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall. Uniqlo says it wants its European flagship at 311 Oxford Street, in London, to ‘create a concrete image of a contemporary, cool Japan’. Surreal and futuristic elements, such as T-shirts in jars seemingly dispensed from fridges as if they were food, and mannequins in circular glass vitrines two storeys high, go some way to bring the excitement of Tokyo to London.

While countries such as France, Britain and Japan have very strongly established national retail identities, new flavours are being developed in emerging economies. Greenhalgh is currently working on a series of retail projects in India, and suggests new retail cultures are being created. ‘They’re not looking to implant a retail culture from abroad – there’s no McDonald’s cookie cutter approach,’ he says. ‘By forming alliances with foreign brands, they are instead looking to develop something that remains very Indian. It will be interesting to see what this looks like in a few years from now when it is exported to other countries.’ •

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