by John Michael O'Sullivan
Pleasure and provocation, seduction and surprise; ever since the dawn of the modern department store, their design has been built on the notion of stimulating customer desire.
Sex and the City, Season 6, Episode 5. It’s the episode where Miranda has a cupcake meltdown, Samantha kick-starts Smith’s acting career, and Charlotte tries dating synagogue-style. It starts, though, with Carrie and new boyfriend, Berger, going on their first shopping trip together. It was a sequence I’d seen before, many times over – but I’d never before noticed where they were.
In the winter of 2001, Prada opened their first Epicenter, a block-long 23,000 sq. ft. superstore in the heart of Soho. It was, at the time, a retail space unlike anything else. “Forget the shoes,” the New York Times declared, “Prada’s new store stocks ideas.” Amongst those innovative ideas were browsing rails with screens that provided the customer with each product’s options and availability, fitting rooms that switched from clear to opaque at the touch of a button, and time-lapse 360-degree projections instead of mirrors. And the entire ground level was given over to a giant wave of timber that doubled as a space for performance, assembly and interaction – with the product itself displaced to a supporting role.
It was a singular, revolutionary statement, from a time when retail design was at its most unashamedly radical. A few years before, Harper’s Bazaar had announced the start of the “Store Wars” – an era that saw the birth of agenda-setting concept spaces like Helmut Lang, Oki-ni and 10 Corso Como, of re-invented power brands like Gucci and Calvin Klein, and one-of-a-kind experiments like Vexed Generation and The Pineal Eye. But at heart, the Epicenter was about the same thing retail spaces have always been about, going right back to the mid-19th-century; spaces to encourage pleasure, excitement and desire.
Look at Le Bon Marché, where most histories of modern retail begin; the Parisian department store whose transformation (at the hands of Aristide Boucicaut and Gustave Eiffel, the Miuccia Prada and Rem Koolhaas of their day) made it one of the most spectacular spaces the world had ever seen. Its soaring, glass-roofed atrium, swirling staircases and opulent displays were an instant sensation, offering an utterly new kind of experience. Democratic and accessible, yet opulent and exotic, its customers were thrilled at every turn, with magnificent displays, witty installations and imaginative experiences.
In the decades that followed, the Bon Marché’s retail model proliferated around the world, infiltrating every aspect of popular culture. Newspapers and magazines breathlessly reported on new innovations and ideas, as department stores vied with each other to deliver the ultimate experience – art galleries and playgrounds, tearooms and cocktail bars, beauty salons, celebrity appearances and Santa Claus grottos. Depression-era movies like The Shop Around The Corner and Employees’ Entrance enraptured audiences with retail-set fairy tales of glamour, romance and escape. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvelous to start absolutely fresh?” a frustrated shopper muses in Dodie Smith’s hit 1935 play, Call It a Day. “Heavenly,” her friend replies. “I should like to be naked with a checkbook.”
That sense of possibility and excitement has endured across the decades. Just think about Todd Haynes’ Carol, and the thrill of the moment when Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s affair sparks up across a toy department counter. Or Pretty Woman – a romcom whose final destination may well be about marrying a billionaire, but where its most memorable sequence leads from a no-expense-spared makeover to the ultimate retail putdown: “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. HUGE.”
Today, of course, Julia Roberts needn’t worry about facing off with shop staff. Provided she has Wi-Fi access, she can shop anywhere, anytime. (Just as she lives an era of hassle-free returns, and gets reminded of her browsing history every time she opens her email or Facebook page.) But for both retailers and designers, it can often feel as though the factual aspects of shopping – commitment, conversion, transaction – have come to dominate the conversation, especially now that e-commerce’s promises of speed, choice and no-limits convenience have set such a dominant benchmark.
But here’s the thing. Shops are only about shopping insofar as hotels are about sleeping, or airports about travel, or cinemas about screening movies. The purchase of products is the anchor that gives these places their purpose, not the thing that defines what we want from the experience. For proof, look at the way new concepts continue to make waves, and establish new stars in spite of the near-daily headlines we read about the coming apocalypse. Gentle Monster’s chaotic surrealism, Everlane’s radical transparency and Story’s endless transformations have become instant sensations – just as Louis Vuitton’s re-invention under Virgil Abloh, and Bjarke Ingels’ boldly conceptual scheme for Galeries Lafayette ChampsÉlysées, have propelled some of retail’s most established names back into the vanguard.
But back to Carrie and Berger. Five minutes in, he’s high on champagne and dazzled by the Epicenter’s topsy-turvy approach. “You know. On my planet,” he says, “the clothes stores have clothes.” But the reality is that product is just the starting point. And it’s everything else – the magic, the drama, the surprise – that makes the physical retail experience so utterly unique.