The mirrorball of online retail is spinning faster than ever – a 20 per cent year-on-year rise in sales of apparel and accessories is forecast this year in the US alone. But that doesn’t mean the offline retail world isn’t dancing right along. Indeed, in order to differentiate the real-world shopping experience from the virtual, fashion brands are getting physical, that is, they want you to come in person to their party, club or shop, be it underground, avant-garde or classic.
“Retail has become boring,” says Armand Hadida, founder of the Paris concept store L’Eclaireur, acclaimed for its eclectic mix of cool labels and avant-garde merchandise displays. “Everything had been duplicated. We want to develop the new concept of a lifestyle destination.”
And so in summer last year, L’Eclaireur opened Le Royal Eclaireur inside the Royal Monceau hotel; a shop styled as a penthouse suite. Aiming to fuse digital habits with a personal social touch, L’Eclaireur’s suite shares an approach with the British brand Burberry and its recently opened super high-tech London flagship, with its massive video screens and central dance floor-cum-show space.
“It’s about technology rather than showing loads of clothes,” says Hadida. “You pick something on screen, have lunch or a spa treatment here and then it’s delivered to you right after.” Hadida is also overhauling the bar and restaurant element of another of L’Eclaireur’s outposts, this one at Faubourg St Honoré, refocusing on “haute gastronomy”.
Another example of dressed-up retailing is Miu Miu’s private members’ club, which touched down at the Café Royal in London for three days last month. It featured a bar, restaurant and late-night shopping for select invitees. The edgy, directional Dalston retailer LN-CC in north London regularly holds soirées in a nightclub space at the rear of its store. And men’s emporium Dunhill has created a string of “homes” in Europe and east Asia, styled on traditional gentlemen’s clubs, among them a private wine reserve in Hong Kong, a rooftop bar in Shanghai and a barber offering traditional cut-throat shaves in Tokyo. New stores in Dubai and Beijing will have in-store restaurants.
“It’s about creating a place where people want to spend time,” says Jason Beckley, Dunhill’s global marketing director. “About staff knowing customers’ names and how they take their coffee or whisky, in a place they can invite friends and stay the whole day.”
The Rose Bakery, in London boutique department store Dover Street Market, is one of the fashion industry’s most cliquey dining spots. But the social aspects of the Dover Street brand are not limited to lunch. When a branch opened in Ginza, Tokyo, this year, owner Rei Kawakubo invited Michael Costiff, mastermind of a legendary London 1990s nightclub Kinky Gerlinky, to recreate a version of the late 20th-century store World, with its eclectic ethnic jewellery, Malcolm McLaren rarities, Brazilian football shirts and Chairman Mao cushions, in the new space.
Why bring back the old? Well, “World was more than a shop,” Costiff says. “It was a meeting place, a dating agency and place to pick up club flyers.” By transplanting World into the Comme des Garçons universe, Kawakubo is effecting a hip club vibe, while making a reference to a subculture she finds inspiring. “It’s about a time when there was still an underground, before mobile phones and the internet.”
Then there are the flagship stores of Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch and its sibling labels Hollister and Gilly Hicks – sexually charged party spaces with blacked-out or louvred windows where shoppers are frequently forced to queue outside to gain entry. The interiors are dark and loud, with shirtless Bruce Weber muscle-boy assistants and an atmosphere pumped full of fragrance. A visit is bewildering for many past their teens, but for most of its impressionable target customers it’s a rite of passage. A&F, which recently opened new stores in Dublin and Hong Kong, reported a 40.5 per cent jump in third-quarter profits this year.
After all, to sell well, a polo shirt has to differentiate itself from other polo shirts. Like clubs, brands are about identity and a collective sense of belonging. And if there’s a queue outside, that makes it all the more appealing. They knew it back in the Studio 54 days. And they know it today on Bond Street, Fifth Avenue and the rue Saint Honoré.