Dover Street Market sits in the secluded, sleepy Murray Hill - a mere footnote to the bustling metropolitan core of Manhattan. On the 7th and top floor of DSM, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci is positioned next to the infamous skate brand, Supreme. The gaudy and glittery embroidered Gucci silk bombers sit right next to the static, modest Supreme crewnecks and snapbacks. Gucci has announced that they are “thrilled” to be placed next to Supreme in Kawakubo’s invented retail space. While this may seem to be some hyper-bizarre surreal fantasy, it isn’t. It’s just a concept store.
Such jarring merchandising is totally outside of convention or established boundaries, but it just works. It is decidedly eclectic, but it is also driven by a cohesive, unitary vision for a retail space. Taking two disparate concepts, products, or designers and pairing them together can create a synchrony that makes it difficult to ever imagine them apart ever again. This kind of bold, daring edit to product presentation evokes ‘beautiful chaos,’ and is a perfect affirmation of the unique utility of the physical, brick and mortar location for retail outlets in the digital age.
How is the concept store defined? To answer this we turn to the words Guillaume Steinmetz, one of the founders of Broken Arm in Paris. Talking about his vision, Steinmetz stipulates “We don’t push ourselves through marketing or anything like that. Just like when you find a great dress, we like the store to be a great discovery. We love to discover new things organically, be it through a friend or through something we read. We take a long time to decide on which designer to introduce to the store and the customer, and they have to be the right fit.
There is even a Broken Arm fragrance, which was created from the scent of the materials that were used to create the store.” His remarks, while obviously unique to his own store, showcase what is really at the heart of every concept store – discovery, experiment, and coalescing disparate realms of design across existing boundaries.
All three Dover Street Markets, along with Colette, LN-CC, and Broken Arm are perhaps some of the most famous retail outlets in the entire design world. What these concept stores offer is a much more expansive experience than simply being a distributive channel for product. They are each platforms for curated ideas across design, art, culture, and politics, fusing these disparate areas together into their respective cohesive visions. Relying heavily on experimental curatorial sensibilities in organizing a diverse array of products from various design arenas and more obscure international brands, these concept stores provide a challenging and memorable experience for the shopper.
Books, stationary, and homewares are frequently paired side by side with high fashion in the concept store. A salient example is when a collection of plates was merchandised next to a Thom Browne women’s runway collection at Colette. By placing these items next to each other, they are in a sense annexed from their original context, and a new way of experiencing them is born. This way, viewer can take ownership over how they experience the products.
Central to concept stores is this sense of discovery and physical experience, and products and shop design tend to change regularly as a means to continue to update and alter their vision in original and thought provoking ways. Concept stores emphasize the experiential in their design, frequently featuring cafes and restaurants to serve as a space for creatives to mingle and socialize.
Colette features the only water bar in Paris (serving 80+ different types of mineral water), making it a destination for a wide variety of patrons. The Dover Street Market in New York is famous for its chocolate cake served at its ground level café. LN-CC has what they call the Late Night Chameleon Café, is at once a record store, library, galley and club space for private late events, hosting on the most impressive sound systems in London. Each concept store has its own unique socially powered experiential draw, something that pulls the shopper into the physical realm by offering an experience that the digital cannot replicate.
Concept stores function beyond the realm of the normal for retail stores, as they appeal to a broader sense of an aspiration ‘lifestyle.’ The definition of what ‘lifestyle’ constitutes is left purposely broad to create intrigue and curiosity. Rather than offering a selection of standard products, they instead offer an array of products to match the wider desires of their customer base. The beauty of the concept store is that this customer base, much like their product selection and sensibility, can’t be perfectly segmented or defined. The pull towards what concept stores provide draws in a broad cross-section of the artistically and creatively inclined.
Pop-up stores are also emerging as experimental retail spaces that compliment concept stores. These temporary stores with known expiration dates on their existence allow brands to showcase their vision, in a context that creates a fresh experience for the customer. Often located in off-beat areas, they provide exclusive merchandise for a short period of time, and the fleeting nature of the pop up store serves to create a stronger, more intense connection with the customer. 032c recently launched a store in the British Virgin Islands, as a means to present their Pyrate Society Collection. The Berlin based magazine drew from the intense beauty of the island itself and the pirate heritage of the Caribbean, while also drawing on contemporary theories of globalization. This contrast between history and the present, combined with the raw natural appeal of the region, coalesced into a truly fascinating and original presentation of their collection that blurred the boundaries between art and commerce. Playing on perhaps only true experience of humanity, entropy, these transient stores are enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity amongst brands willing to experiment with their product and brand presentation.
In the modern age when shoppers can buy virtually everything and anything online, retailers are being forced to reimagine the strategic purposes of their stores. The concept store and pop-up shop operate less like distributive outlets, and more like a media channel, offering up engaging experiences and visions that can not be entirely replicated by pervasive algorithms and the virtual world. Pop up stores and concept stores are cultural conduits within the capitalist structure, offering unique experiential reactions to art, design, and culture at large. When looking strike a balance between the physical and the digital in a world characterized by a permanent state hyper fluctuation and instability, one should look to the experimentation and loose boundaries that characterizes concept and pop-up stores.
COMME des GARÇONS. New York
Dover Street Market. New York
The Broken Arm. Paris
Just One Eye. Los Angeles
Addition Adelaide. Tokyo
Très Bien. Malmö
032c Pop-up Imagery
Kanye West's "Life of Pablo" Pop-up. Los Angeles
THE PARK · ING GINZA Pop-up. Tokyo
Fragment x Louis Vuitton Pop-up. Tokyo
The Alchemist. Miami
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text: Aaron Gray