Designing luxury retail for men

How do you do luxury for young males, without alienating them? John Stones takes the measure of a tricky – but up and coming – part of the retail market

Credit crunch or not, luxury seems here to stay. And while the world chooses to turn a blind eye to hedge fund managers and energy oligarchs’ increasingly avaricious demand for ever finer and more conspicuous trophies of their power, luxury is also being dissipated into other social groups. ‘Premiumisation’, or the advent of minor luxuries in all categories, from toilet paper to supermarket ready meals, is now well documented and almost taken for granted. But there are still some areas where it is only just making inroads.

Young men, for instance. Resistant to any too obviously pre-packaged trends, males between 18 and 28 have always presented marketers, designers and advertisers with their biggest challenge. And yet they are living in the same culture in which luxury and celebrity are conjoined, whether on MTV or in a magazine, as almost the only worthwhile currency. But finding a way to offer these young males a luxurious experience and exclusivity without alienating them is far from simple – aping Hermes’s kid glove-wearing assistants in Seoul, for instance, just won’t wash. And the word ’boutique’ will have them running a mile.

But two recent stores in the US have developed novel, luxurious formats to entice young males, junking the ubiquitous garage grunge retail look for something very different. And given the US’s track record, it is very possible that these stores may form the start of a wider trend.

Concepts is a men’s streetwear store that opened in March in Boston, and was designed by Soldier Design. The main shop is an eye-catching expanse of wood ribbing – suggestive of skateboards – and replete with a central (false) fire. At the rear is a sound booth, with pretend sound proofing, subtly emphasising that it is a shop that famous people attend, some of whom will record interviews or podcasts in the booth. But it is the cellar that is the store’s coup de grace.

There you find a members only club, which the store likens to a secret society. But rather than sword scars, its invitation-only shoppers are perhaps more likely to have bodies marked by gunshot. While the ‘club’s’ presence is not trumpeted, awareness is managed just enough so its presence has a halo effect on the store above. ‘It’s a new concept of retail,’ claims Bobby Riley, creative director of Soldier Design. ‘These guys may spend $10 000 (£5100) per check out, but the stress is not on sales but on giving the next level of service. It is experience more than retail.’

Walking down into the members club, called Concepts Reserve 210, once the privileged shopper/member gets past some shielding privacy glass, he is greeted by a lounge with zebra wood lockers (‘member boxes’) on one side, and an array of armchairs upholstered in distressed brown leather on the other. As upstairs, false fires burn, and the wood ribbing maintains a sense of continuity. ‘There are 210 boxes, each member gets their own, a bit like a cigar club,’ says Riley. Sitting on a sofa and offered bourbon, the member is presented with limited edition clothing from brands such as Nike and Timberland, unavailable elsewhere so guaranteeing exclusivity. Flexible opening hours also allows it to cater to its favoured clientele.

Ubiq, a sneaker and menswear store in Philadelphia, designed by Rafael de Cardenas of New York-based Architecture at Large, takes a different approach. Rather than hide its luxury away, it presents it with deliberate brashness to the street.

‘I wanted there to be a certain level of discomfort,’ says Cardenas. ‘The store is elevated about a metre above the street, so you can be seen shopping, which all adds to the self-consciousness.’ The shopper feels as though they are a rap star, on display and in the glare of spot-lit attention.

It is, quite literally, dazzling. Harsh lighting bounces off black, lacquered furniture, competing with busy black-and-white, Op art-cum-Roman patterns on the side walls. The sneakers themselves are presented in mini displays as if they were precious items. It is no surprise that Cardenas is a big fan of ‘classic’ late 1980s Versace, and its full cheesiness is emulated here.

Relief from this experience comes in the form of a contrasting, luxurious room at the back, featuring restored Victorian plasterwork, a massive restored mahogany fireplace, bespoke wallpapers and Ebay-sourced antiques. Cardenas says he wanted it to feel like ‘a traditional, old-school gentleman’s tailor’. However, here the actual clothing references the street rather than the fox hunt. But when aristocracy visits, such as the recent shopping trip by rap artist Kanye West, you know the design has done its job.

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