From rags to relevance

Fashion stores are in the vanguard of the trend to build awareness and relevancy through shop design. Lucy Johnston looks at how some forward-thinking retailers are using space to align their brands with consumers’ changing lifestyles

Retail design for fashion has always been very much about letting the clothes do the talking. Fashion is by nature theatrical, so retail environments have traditionally evolved as simple spaces that maximise on the visual quality of the merchandise. But faced with the boom in on-line shopping, and an increasingly savvy and demanding consumer – who is, in turn, faced with choice overload – the physical retail space is taking on a new, more strategic role.

Just as individuals wear fashion to make a statement about themselves, so a brand’s physical environment needs to make a statement about its personality and mission. Storytelling and entertainment, over and above simply displaying product, is one of the key developments being seen across retail, and is arguably one that is urgently needed in the fashion sector.

A simple, yet effective example of a visual ‘brand personality’ built around the product display is a new entrant on to the UK high street, the Spanish chain Desigual. Its relaxed, vibrant store on London’s Regent Street brings the character of the brand to life through large-scale graphic work and display installations that don’t just focus on imagery of the fashion itself.

As the market becomes more crowded, brands need to ensure they enhance the connections they make with consumers to stay relevant. A key trend that is set to expand further is the strategy of aligning a brand with social culture – positioning it as a ‘social commentator’ in a broader, lifestyle context.

A recent example on the UK high street is the installation by Tommy Hilfiger in the window of its Carnaby Street store in London, created by Ministry of Experience. As part of the brand’s street art-inspired advertising campaign, this interactive touchscreen window allowed passers-by to capture, stylise and submit images of themselves to be added to an evolving collage displayed in the window. Users could opt to have their image printed on to a T-shirt in-store. The display was available 24 hours a day and encouraged users to sign up to an e-mail newsletter, building a social network around the campaign.

Another interesting new retail concept is Howies. Its first flagship boutique, designed by Freshwest Design for London’s Carnaby Street, demonstrates the brand’s social credentials. It already has a strong ethical stance, but this is promoted further through a ‘top ten’ wall, where store staff feature a changing range of products from other brands which enforce and complement Howies’ ethical viewpoint. It’s a viewpoint shared by, and relevant to, a growing number of consumers, allowing Howies to position itself as a commentator on wider social culture.

The Howies concept also highlights the current wave of awareness of environmental responsibility and Green initiatives, which over the past year has started to turn into genuine action, over and above simple Green PR. Leading the field in the fashion sector has been Marks & Spencer, with the introduction of its first three fully Green stores (in Glasgow, Galashiels and Bournemouth), as part of the company’s Plan A strategy. Setting a high bar for the industry, the implementation of eco-friendly refurbishment initiatives (which cost no more to implement than a standard refurb) will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 95 per cent in each store and has also significantly reduced materials and resource wastage during construction and operation.

On the concept of building a broader lifestyle offer around a brand, a recent and strategically interesting emerging trend is that of brands as ‘lifestyle curators’. A well-established example of this is Urban Outfitters, which has a regularly changing product mix curated around a vibrant, creative lifestyle aesthetic. A higher-end example is The Shop at Bluebird in west London. This experimental, constantly changing space invites artists and designers to create temporary, low-budget installations that act as fun, textured backdrops to the products and the series of regular social-cultural events that are also featured.

Pushing this concept further are brands using their expertise and connections to provide added-value services. The best example of this is the new retail concept Ted Baker & Friends (on Cheapside, City of London), which targets the cash-rich, time-poor demographic in the city. This provides expert services that complement the brand’s fashion range, and includes a pay-as-you-go concierge and lifestyle hotline for services such as dog walking and birthday parties. There is also a barber’s shop, a tailor, a shoe-shine kiosk and a small telecoms concession, all dedicated to producing a one-stop lifestyle solution for busy workers – which in turn enables the brand to integrate further into customers’ schedules and ensure relevance.

Lucy Johnston is executive editor of the Global Innovation Report published by GDR Creative Intelligence, London

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