High-concept haute couture

Luxury retailers are doing their best to turn their stores into theme parks, messy apartments or the Museum of Modern Art. But will anyone buy the clothes?

Published June 26, 2001 1:13AM (EDT)

When the new Prada store opens in New York in December, it will feature -- besides a hanging art installation that replicates an abstract city, and a floor that curls up like a cresting wave -- an enormous photographic mural by German monumentalist artist Andreas Gursky. The photograph, "May Day IV," was initially featured at the Museum of Modern Art this spring, and depicts a crowd of sweaty youths -- in purple hair and braids, sports bras and soccer jerseys -- dancing at a massive rave. Presumably none of the frolicking kids are wearing any Prada, and the Fifth Avenue crowd that pulls out its platinum for dainty Prada dresses probably wouldn't approve of the dancers' fragrant togs, either. But art and fashion are friendly, if sometimes strange, bedfellows; and if fashion retailers believe that invoking the ravers' $10 T-shirts will help sell $10,000 dresses, so be it.

Of course, Prada is no stranger to Andreas Gursky. In fact, Gursky's new coffee-table book includes photographs of the interior of a Prada store from the mid-1990s. These photographs, which depict mint green shelves and a spotlighted display of meticulously arranged shoes, are themselves a subtle commentary on the minimalist fetishism and artistic pretensions of high fashion: shoes as expensive as an objet d'art being displayed like art, in a shop that most closely resembles a museum. (Never mind the fact that, unlike a Gursky photograph, a Prada shoe will get scuffed and worn and, eventually, bundled off to a consignment shop.)

"There is a long history of crossover between fashion and art," observes Paco Underhill, managing director of Envirosell, which researches consumer behavior, and author of "Why We Buy, the Science of Shopping." "This is also reflective of how fashion designers like to view themselves. The small irony here is that fashion has always felt that it leads; while much of fashion that is successful is fashion that follows."

High fashion currently faces a curious conundrum: The fashion industry sells its clothes at price points that would imply that the clothes are art, but if you're paying $500 for a pair of shoes, they'd better last more than one season -- and much of fashion is about trends and, therefore, highly disposable. It's difficult enough to persuade consumers to buy expensive clothes; but to make matters worse, the more affluent consumer's pocketbook is stretched farther than it ever has been, what with cellphone bills and Palm Pilots and the price of a latte nearing $3. Add to this mix a glut of competition from new shops like Zara and H&M, which sell those trendy clothes at more disposable prices, and it's clear that luxury shops need to do some serious reconceptualizing to compete.

The result is a rush to create retail environments that aren't just shops, but are entire "experiences." Don't call it shopping or (God forbid) brand positioning -- call it art. Prada has hired Rem Koolhaas, the renowned experimental architect, to design three new shops in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Mandarina Duck has opened a shop-cum-theme park in Paris, designed by Dutch collective Droog. Helmut Lang hired conceptual artist Jenny Holzer to jazz up its new Parfumerie. Issey Miyake's got Frank Gehry; Marni's got Future Systems. And the Apartment, a new furniture and clothing store in SoHo, has turned its shop into actual performance art.

"Part of the power that high fashion has is that it can be exclusionary: Them to whom it has meaning have the right to walk in the door," continues Underhill. "They aren't selling objects, they are selling into a lifestyle." In the case of the new high-concept retail stores, the lifestyle being sold is that of the artistic elite. If you can't take a picture like Gursky, at least you can pretend that the Prada shirt you're buying will make you look like the type of person who not only knows who Gursky is but might be able to afford his photographs.

Gursky's photograph (which appears in early sketches of the New York Prada outpost, but whose presence in the final store is still being negotiated) is just one of the artistic touches that Koolhaas is putting in the three new Prada stores. Each of the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco stores -- which open in late 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively -- is uniquely designed for its location but with the common intent to "fuse consumption and culture." The stores, while full of sponge walls and light shows and curvy floors, can also be used as "public spaces" -- a shoe display, for example, might convert into a theater for a musical performance. (More practical shopping features will include dressing room perks like hidden cameras in dressing rooms that will show a customer what he looks like from the back, or a computer that will allow him to check on the availability of other sizes.)

As Koolhaas put it in a statement about the project, "At the point we are reaching now, we also find an interesting moment where the separated streaks of the department store, shopping mall, etc. are congealing into one diffuse, continuous, and hybridized experience, where shopping is associated with entertainment, airports, museums, and so on, absorbing almost all activities into a single whole." It's the marketers' ultimate goal: to encourage people to consume product wherever they go, whether it be as they dash for a flight or head to a Mozart concert at a Prada store.

But Prada is not the only company to hope that the path to profitability is best paved with expensive architectural concepts. Miyake -- perhaps one of the more purely architectural fashion designers himself -- has commissioned Gehry's firm to design his new TriBeCa store with an abstract angular look that echoes Miyake's famed pleats. Marni, the quirky Italian fashion house, used British architects Future Systems to design its new shops to vaguely resemble an extraterrestrial spaceship -- including liquid Lucite hangers and stainless steel racks that arch overhead like irradiated trees -- which the architects describe as "an interior landscape ... the clothes become a part of an overall composition -- not separated from the design of the space but part of it."

Similarly, the Paris outpost of Italian designers Mandarina Duck was designed by Droog as a conceptual exercise. The shop consists entirely of a series of "cocoons" inside which the clothing is displayed. A leather wallet, for example, would be enclosed inside a plastic vitrine that customers can reach into and manipulate using attached rubber gloves (think of a baby in an incubator); or a shirt might float inside a see-through wall that suspends clothes using a vacuum.

"Space can be considered the biggest luxury of all. In many stores this is apparent in the virtual absence of sellable items. The objective is to stress the exclusivity of the brand. The aim is to create a series of freestanding objects that are 'countable,'" explains the Mandarina Duck store manifesto on its Web site. "The cocoons express their content in an indirect, derivative way. In a sexy fashion they conceal the objects of desire."

It's a rather opaque concept, perhaps, for a shop that basically sells expensive T-shirts and overnight bags. But it can't be any more pretentious than the Helmut Lang Parfumerie in New York, which is entirely empty but for one counter with a few bottles of cologne and a long LED installation designed by artist Jenny Holzer that scrolls a poem along one wall: "I walk in. I see you. I watch you. I scan you. I wait for you. I tease you. I breathe you. I smell you on my skin." Helmut Lang's P.R. department describes its 21st century "apothecary" thus: "Just like the parfum bottle, it is very modern, solid and sculptural, yet gives the sense as if it has existed forever."

The Apartment, a design shop in SoHo, has done Helmut Lang and Prada one better: The shop doesn't just contain art, it is performance art. Instead of merely displaying its quirky home products and international tchotchkes, it is set up just like a normal, lived-in New York apartment (albeit an abnormally large and well-appointed one), with dirty dishes in the sink and used socks on the bed; customers are invited to "live" in the apartment for a few hours. Co-owner Stefan Boublil describes it as a kind of theater in which the customers are the "actors"; apparently it's confusing enough that people regularly call asking how much tickets cost. "This is where retail is going: making the retail journey more of an experience that involves the person shopping, and doesn't just present the person with stuff," says Boublil. "Because at the end of the day, stuff is stuff, and it's mostly stuff we don't need."

This is all mildly entertaining, at least the first time you walk into the store: Any shop that deviates from the norm of whitewashed walls and theatrical spotlighting, after all, merits at least an amused gawk during your normal shopping excursions. As Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's New York and a columnist for the New York Observer, puts it, "Stores are highly trafficked spaces and very democratic -- they are not like museums which charge an entry free. Retail is a great venue for avant-garde architecture -- why not? Like wacky, kooky!" (Of course, the risk is that people might visit these theme-park luxury stores for sheer entertainment with no intention of buying a thing -- an activity that your average sales staff on commission might not appreciate.)

But while grateful consumers of art might enjoy visiting a Koolhaas installation for free, it's all simply part of the escalating war for customers' dwindling attention. Koolhaas vs. Gehry, or Droog vs. Future Systems, is, of course, just a more expensive version of the same kind of retail branding that most clothing companies, from Levi's to Louis Vuitton, now engage in. As Underhill puts it, "All retail is trying to find ways to make it more visually and physically fun ... What is it that defines the retail experience? Some of it is fun and the other piece is theater." For the madding crowd, that means video walls and shoe tubes at Nike Town. For the moneyed classes, apparently, it's attempting to replicate an afternoon at the MOMA or an avante-garde design exhibit.

But your average customer is perhaps not the first priority in the luxury stores. "These people don't just worry about communicating with the customer, but about communicating with each other: Prada wants to look groovier than Gucci, Gucci than Hermes," says Doonan. "Everyone's cross-referencing each other. Prada knows that when they use Koolhaas, it will send a little shockwave through the industry and everyone will have to think about what they're doing. There's a spiraling upwards of grooviness which tends to take the customer out of the equation -- it's art directors talking to art directors and designers to designers. The customer has increasingly become a spectator of the circus rather than the focus."

All that high-concept theater for each other's benefit can become rather expensive, especially if you need to redesign your stores every few years lest your shops get "stale." This is the ultimate conundrum of fashion and art: Art and architecture are intended to be permanent -- a Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry building should last at least a few decades -- while fashion tends to reinvent itself every three years (or three months, as the case may be). And while the first gawk may entertain just about any shopper, even if she isn't intimately familiar with the dense conceptual underpinnings intended by the artist and architect, will those pricey Lucite hangers and the shoe display that's actually a theater really translate into increased sales? Just because the shopping environment is abstract does not mean that the act of plunking down your credit card is less fuzzy. Once you've oohed over the architecture once, do you really need to go back and visit it again, or are you instead going to head to Zara, where the walls are merely whitewashed but the prices tags are less painful?

Notes Underhill, "If we look at our retail landscape, it's littered with stores that looked good and functioned poorly. The proof of the pudding isn't the number of design magazines that write you up, but the number of receipts you ring up in the cash register."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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