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When it comes to the architecture of mall stores, Gap (GPS) is like apple pie: comfortable and familiar. But as shopping experiences go, it's a little mushy in the middle. So as Gap begins its rollout of Forth & Towne, its new retail chain targeted at women over 35, improving the shopping experience is a top priority. But don't expect hip music, interactive displays, or grand "flagship" stairways. The Forth & Towne experience is all about social interaction.
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Palisades Mall in Nyack, N.Y., Forth & Towne's "style consultants" buzzed about, handing out bottled water and trying to help shoppers get comfortable in a place that wasn't even listed on the mall directory yet. This store -- as well as four others, in the Chicago area -- glows in a way that befits its price point, which is about even with Banana Republic's. Art-deco-looking furniture recalls the golden age of department stores, and sketches of the collection bring a sense of provenance to a brand new brand.
GETTING OUT TO SHOP. But from any angle, the store is dominated by an illuminated circular wall topped by stainless steel- and crystal-beaded curtains and sculpted with niches filled with mannequins. Within its beaded pleats is the elaborately decorated "fitting salon," which is the centerpiece of the store experience -- and, by extension, the Forth & Towne brand itself.
"Why would you go to a store vs. shopping online? What's going to draw you out?" David Rockwell, Forth & Towne's architect, wondered recently, recalling his design process. "A lot of it is social interaction. We're in a world where there's more and more reason to stay at home. Forth & Towne is really about making a commitment to going out in the public realm."
And Rockwell is known for creating places that people want to be in. His designs for Nobu restaurants -- all seven locations in the U.S. -- transformed superb sushi into crowd-pleasing theater. He put the style in Starwood Hotel's high-style W brand with designs for two New York locations. And he often works in the theater, designing sets for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the Tony-winning Hairspray. What ties all his work together is a sense of celebration, of theatrical extravagance, that transforms going out into an event.
LIKE THE CLOCK TOWER. At Forth & Towne, the real stage is the fitting rooms, so his design literally pulls them to the center of the store. The narrow anonymous fitting room hallways are replaced by an inviting round room furnished like a little hotel lobby, with comfortable chairs and a "style table" laid out with fashion magazines, fresh flowers, and water bottles.
Twelve fitting rooms, each with its own unique wallpaper, surround the central space. The concept is to create a place that encourages interaction with friends, other shoppers, men-in-tow, and Forth & Towne's "style consultants." Like the clock tower in a town square or the large chandelier in a department store, the fitting salon marks the symbolic and celebratory center of their place.
In the absence of an existing brand identity, Rockwell and his client are turning on its head the conventional wisdom that a retail environment reflects and enhances its brand. Instead, the Forth & Towne architecture defines the brand -- and both are squarely aimed at improving the shopping experience.