Designing Brand-Building Stores

High-end fashion labels like Prada and LVMH look to inventive architects like Frank Gehry to set themselves apart. Critic Raul Barraneche explains

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In an age when star architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry have the global brand recognition of high-end fashion labels like Prada or Issey Miyake, it's only natural that both sides join forces. In fact, Koolhaas has designed shopping emporiums for Prada, and Gehry collaborated on store design for Miyake. But do such fashionable stores really translate into increased and sustained brand visibility?

The best-case scenario that keeps brands spending big bucks for starchitects is exemplified by luxury-goods behemoth LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. In 2002, the same year LVMH opened a sleek Louis Vuitton flagship store in Tokyo designed by Jun Aoki & Associates, the company's overall fashion and leather-goods sales totaled $4.9 billion. By 2004, after LVMH opened three additional Aoki-designed Vuitton stores (two more in Tokyo, and then a fourth in New York), total fashion and leather-goods sales increased to $5.1 billion.

In the first nine months of 2005, according to figures released by LVMH in October, its total fashion and leather-goods sales reached $4 billion -- up 10%, from $3.6 billion, in the first nine months of 2004. LVMH also reports double-digit sales-revenue growth from Louis Vuitton-brand products, specifically, within the first nine months of 2005.

In his book New Retail, published this fall, journalist and architecture critic Raul Barraneche follows both the trend and the history of splashy store architecture. Here, he talks with BusinessWeek Online about inventive architecture's role in retail sales and brand-building, the typical life span of a daring store designed by a high-profile architect, and what retailers might learn from other companies' triumphs and mistakes. Edited excerpts from the conversation follow:

How do you explain the current trend of innovative architects taking on retail projects?

Consumers now expect it. If brands want to compete, they're going to have to hire recognizable architects to come up with interesting new designs.

But what interests both the company and the architects involved is the fact that retail spaces are, by nature, building types that allow for innovation. Stores offer quick turnaround times, as opposed to, say, a residence or a museum.

Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Prada have deep pockets and a willingness to invest in really good design to reflect how design-conscious both they -- and their customers -- are. A store is a really important factor in terms of helping to establish a complete brand.

An effective store answers the question, "Is a store a bastion of good taste, or is it hip, cool, and open-minded?" The Prada store in Los Angeles, which opened last year and was designed by Rem Koolhaas, is an interesting mix of both. That store has no front door, no façade. For practicality's sake, of course, it has guards and security. But the fact that there's no façade says something about the type of customer it wants to attract.

The new flagship store for Fendi on Fifth Avenue in New York, which opened on Nov. 3, reflects the very Roman identity of the brand. Architect Peter Marino incorporated many kinds and colors of travertine [the stone used in Roman landmarks such as the Colosseum], carved in billowed shapes to suggest drapery and clothing. Clearly, the architect didn't incorporate traditional heavy masonry, but instead probably used very sophisticated engineering or up-to-the-minute carving techniques to achieve a lighter, more contemporary feel.

Can imaginative store architecture raise the visibility of a brand that doesn't already enjoy the global name recognition of Fendi, Louis Vuitton, or Prada?

Absolutely. Just as Gehry's Guggenheim Museum drew many tourists to Bilbao, an interesting store can produce a "Bilbao effect." The Selfridges store that opened in 2003 in Birmingham, Britain, is a good example.

Like Gehry's museum, the Selfridges store is curvy, coated in a shiny metal skin, and emerges from the skyline of an industrial, blighted city. It's big and controversial -- you either like it or you don't. But the theatrical design, by the London firm Future Systems, certainly has gotten a lot of attention. The store's goal was to commission a building that could be recognized and identified with the brand immediately from far away, even in photographs, without any signage.

Can you give an example of a flop?

Rem Koolhaas's Prada store in New York's SoHo. When it opened in 2001, there was so much hype around it. But that store's design is more about provocation and visibility than providing a comfortable and inviting place to shop.

There's a long stretch of empty floor, ostensibly intended as a stage for cultural events that never seem to take place. To accommodate this unusual design, the men's racks are in the basement, which can seem somewhat insulting to a consumer who's paying for very expensive clothes. The furniture and details seem to be weathering poorly.

But there still are crowds of tourists. People come to see it as a destination. It's a store that gets people talking about Prada, either good or bad. It's advertising.

What is the staying power of a store-as-billboard?

The Calvin Klein flagship store in New York, designed by minimalist architect John Pawson, provides an influential and early example. Opened in 1996, it was a bold statement, designed to communicate the Calvin Klein aesthetic of minimalism, and in terms of its spareness, and has been very well maintained. To me, though, it evokes a design moment that has past.

We're beyond 1990s minimalism. That style ran its course. It will soon have a nostalgic feel to it. So, in a way, I'm surprised the Calvin Klein flagship store hasn't changed a stitch. But to alter a strong store design might suggest changing the look and identity of a brand.

It's important to stay fresh and new. Trendiness is part of fashion's nature. The fashion world is fast-paced and evolutionary, and based on change. Some innovative retail stores just don't last.

The Mandarina Duck store that opened in Paris in 2001, for example, designed by NL Architects and Droog Design, doesn't exist anymore. It will be interesting to see how many other buildings built in the early-to-mid-2000s are still fresh in 5 to 10 years.

Does the architect also benefit in terms of brand-building, when he or she teams with an established retail brand?

To paraphrase [architect] Zaha Hadid, shopping is an effective way to see a city; these days, to see what's new in architecture, the most efficient thing to do is to go and look at stores. When a traveler goes to London, Tokyo, Paris, or Los Angeles, there's usually only one new, architecturally innovative museum to visit -- but there are many new stores. They're open to the public and charge no admission.

Some architects are benefiting from this trend. Marino, for example, is now known for designing many high-end boutiques. There's the new Fendi flagship I mentioned, but also the Tokyo Chanel store, to be followed by the upcoming Chanel store in Hong Kong.

Whether Herzog and de Meuron need to build a store is another matter -- they have won the Pritzker Prize, and don't need to build a higher profile. That said, I think the Prada store by Herzog and de Meuron in Tokyo is one of the best buildings made recently, of any kind. Norman Foster doesn't need to make shops either, but his firm has designed the Asprey flagships in New York and London, which both opened in 2004.

The reality is that retail stores are very visible projects -- for both the brands and the architects.

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