Working in retail abroad

Foreign retailers are keen to exploit the globally admired expertise of UK designers. Maeve Hosea talks to creatives who have dealt with the challenges of
working in four very different regions

A savvy fashion consumer in a high-end department store in the Syrian capital of Damascus is sifting through rails of designer jeans, a soulful audio soundtrack providing some added emotion to the retail frisson she is experiencing.

The design of the store plays a strong part in this subtle mix of desire, pleasure and satisfaction. All over the world shoppers now expect a high level of retail experience and UK designers seeking to make their mark on foreign shores are coming up with the goods.

One benefit of working in emerging markets is a sense of more creative freedom. ‘Our reputation for great retail in a highly competitive market makes UK designers good for export,’ comments Howard Saunders, creative director at retail research group Echochamber.

‘Emerging markets are often hungry to catch up, as they see it, and are more open to creative design and less cynical. It’s the “yes we can” culture versus the “computer says no” culture.’

Added to this, slacker regulations can make for a dynamic movement and energy in the design scene. ‘There is a sense of entrepreneurship and creative energy which affects branding and design projects,’ says Stephane Le Moullec, strategic director of Caulder Moore. ‘There is also a sense of confidence and pride reflected in the designs.’

But there are challenges, too. Designers need to deliver the added value their higher costs are expected to reflect. They need to adapt to different facilities and skill sets and take into account specific cultural requirements.

Eastern Europe
Jeff Kindleysides, managing director of Checkland Kindleysides, says, ‘Working in Eastern Europe is refreshingly nice. There is a lot of enthusiasm, a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to be taken on a journey.

‘The resources are good, but there might be limitations on the manufacturing side of things. With Timberland, we are working with a design that has a local interpretation in terms of materials and culture. This means working closely with the client to train the local architect, builder or shopfitter.

‘The design here is culturally relevant. Some of the stuff we do in the UK might be a step too far for areas of the Ukraine, for example, but clients are worldly. They know what is good and bad, and make their decisions on who to work with from a position of knowledge.’

Steve Collis, joint managing director at JHP, says,’Being British is an advantage in India because there is a definite level of cultural connectivity. That said, it is culturally very different, not least in the retail sphere where 95 per cent of the market is run by independents.

‘Working here is often not just about designing a store in another country, but introducing a whole new concept in retail format – hypermarkets, for example.

‘Design has to take into account the mix of Indian technology advancing, and us working on the technology that they have. Labour is much cheaper and you are working on a 4:1 basis of what it would cost in the UK. As fees look enormous to clients here, you really have to demonstrate the added value.

‘India is a land of colour and it gives you a chance to express yourself. Surrounded by such a buzz all of the time you want to be part of the fun of it.’

The Middle East
Chris Dewar-Dixon, creative director at Four IV, says,’There is a trend to take on board the cultural relevance of a place and provide something intrinsic to the location.

‘Working in the Middle East is interesting because certain techniques are more cost-effective than in the UK or US markets. We find it makes sense to spend time researching local crafts and how to use those. Experience in Istanbul has shown that local contractors might have difficulty in hanging wallpaper, but they can cost-effectively make black glass tiles inset with Swarovski crystals.

‘Because of this, the design of the Naked store made use of bespoke mannequins, a poured-resin floor surface, a famous Turkish sculptor doing a series of metallic block mid-floor units, and a series of copper and stainless steel pipes in a wave formation on the ceiling. To get someone to do all that in the West would certainly have been very expensive.’

Claudia Wulf, project architect at Zaha Hadid Architects, says. ‘There are key cultural differences to other zones. Specifically, the many levels of communication inherent within any business have a great impact for designers such as ourselves working in Tokyo.

‘As Japan faces issues of limited resources, both in terms of land and materials, this has led to the country’s architecture pursuing a particular direction. You can see this in Japanese contemporary architecture, where buildings are predominantly rectilinear to obtain an optimum area, yet their design is very simple and refined.

‘Design in Japan is less ornamental – perhaps in order to avoid the appearance of material affluence. This tradition, which at first seems conservative, presents its own challenges, and it has helped Japanese design to push certain design boundaries.’

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