Joining the Conversation

The Converse store in NYC´s Soho district mimics a high school gym in the 50´s, nods to the 80´s and yet has an overall strong contemporary wibe. The high school gym is the theme of the store decor. Details like old wooden benches (from which to cheer your team), tiled walls (like those in generic changing rooms), industrial elements like steel bars and exposed brick walls makes the place ooze with ambition for an autentic feel, far from the modern glossy polish adopted by brands like Adidas and Nike, long considered as competition. Positioning themselves within a nostalgic American paradigm, Converse sticks out as a successful lifestyle brand. Given that the brand is near 100 years old, it has seen the birth of America as we now it today.Using the gym as a thematical symbol is a smart move. The gym is and always have been the place where all have to get together, whether belonging to team jock, freak or geek. Of course, subcultural clashes and divisions like these are timeless. Yet, happily for Converse, so is the appeal of their Chuck Taylor shoe. Hence, the shoe, just like the gym, becomes a shared experience in which all take part, no matter who you are or where you come from. In a broader perspective – is the Chuck Taylor shoe the American dream translated into a retail hit? No matter how far you want to stretch it is it clear that the All-Star, All-American image is an important part of the brand with its frequent use of the American flag and its elements (the star being the central feature in the Converse Logo, with theme colours white, red and blue). Although this might seem obvious, one can note that in comparison, Nike does not play (at least as effectively) on the chord of homeland nostalgia. Channeling a high school wibe is a smart move for Converse, as the brand has such authentic claim to this heritage. This is a rare and exclusive quality for a high street brand. But, without getting too nostalgic, Converse also have a strong contemporary wibe, with it´s bet on the trend for customization.

In the back of the store the frenzy is evident, as customers line up with minds swamped with creative vision for their new shoes. A bright shining rainbow of branded Converse laces evoke interest, as do the arty. The openness of the process creates a nice and engaging conversation. Ideas are exchanged between brand to customers and vice versa. However, and more imporantly, ideas are exchanged from customer-2-customer. More or less consciously, customers are studying others and letting themselves be studied in the customization game. Just like in the school yard, meanings are attached to symbols and signs that evoke interest, categorization and familiarity along the following exemplifying and simplifying lines of thought 1.) aha!…he likes green shoes and blue laces 2.) as do I! 3.) Must be my soulmate!”. Given this arena for social interaction, I would not be surprised if the line to the customization booth at the Converse store will be the start of many out-of-store relationships,  and how´s that for a relevant brand story?!    For many customers like myself, the typical American suburban highschool experience has only been experienced through the lens of popular culture. The endless fascination of the American high school setting is clearly a collective obsession, with steady inflow of new films and TV shows circling around the enticing adolescent drama. Perhaps as it allows all to identify and remember: the games in the school yard and hallways, the romantic dreams of boys and girls next door, the dreams of success against the odds, the inherent power of social and generational rebellion? Speaking of young rebels, it is perhaps no coincidence that the store features a big framed photograph of James Dean (in low rise, white Chuck Taylors). The American icon and star in of flick Rebel without a Cause, which takes place at a High School and which, is often cited as the first one to portray youth as misunderstood by the older generation. Of course, this old photo, in all its black and white historical glory, further accentuates the connotations of autenticity in the Converse Store. An other photo in the store features an afro-american basketball star. All in all, the old photos of youthful dreaming echoes a universal dreamscape with a universal appeal. Although we would all like to be as courageous as the heroes in the photos, dreams of today are both mainstream and nisched. Hence, what better than to let Converse help you channel your inner hero in the purchase of a pair of new unique pair of Chuck Taylors? They will surely, help you take a few steps on the path to the customized life of your dreams.

Check it out for yourself:

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Darling Dean & Deluca

Uniquely Uniqlo

The Japanese street label of Uniqlo, sometimes referred to as “Japanese H&M” is stepping up its game in New York City. Having first launched in Soho (546, Broadway) in 1996 its Manhattan store count is soon up to 3 with new prestigious venues opening this fall at Fifth Avenue/53rd Street and at 31 W 34th Street

The mother company of Uniqlo is Fast Retailing (also with subsidaries of Helmut Lang, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Theory, PLST, Princesse Tam-Tam and japanese G.U). In a Uniqlo press release FR mentions expansive strategy for the U.S:

FR plans to continue to open UNIQLO stores in major U.S. cities, expanding its presence in the U.S market to provide consumers with an unparalleled shopping experience and the best in innovative high quality, affordable apparel. /…/ Uniqlo´s mission is to empower all individuals through the clothing they choose to wear.  Rather than become characterized by a brand, UNIQLO encourages its customers to integrate its pieces into their own unique style.

Designed by the retail miracle worker Masamishi Katayama, head at Tokyo based WonderWall it is little wonder that Uniqlo U.S spaces stand out from the flagship mainstream. Large quantities of goods in large variety of colours are neatly stacked along the high raised walls. The neat organization provide a calming repetition and a visually soothing backdrop to Tokyoesque intensity in avantgarde elements such as the revolving t-shirt display, manga animations and flickering TV-screens. The Uniqlo stores has generated lots of engagement online sphere with over 800 reviews on Yelp.com and a mean grade of 4/5 (in comparison to the 5th Avenue Apple store with a humble review count just over 300 with same average score).

Large black textile shopping bags open up for serious bulk buying and are quickly provided to customers by casually uniformed staff as clothes pile up on your arm…Store employees are accommodating without ever being sticky and I witnessed high quality floor problem solving on various occasions in the store. As the speed is high paced, quick and umprompted employee action is often needed. This experience might echo the fact that employees are trained in a corporate program called the FR Way“Changing clothes. Changing conventional wisdom. Change the world.”   FR calls this program a “unique and specialized training program ensures the same quality of service and shopping experience in all stores and teaches all employees to think globally while putting the customer first”.

I kind of like the idea of changing conventional wisdom. The “Wearable Sunscreen” collection (with campaign starring Hollywood star and South Africa native Charlize Theron) seems like an extension of this notion into the retail philosophy. It could be regarded as conventional wisdom that all clothes are in fact Wearable Sunscreen, yet Uniqlo creatively twists the concept and launches it at innovative and uniquely Uniqlo. Also, the brand has launched collaborations such as +J with fashion house Jil Sander and also for more street cred, the Designers Invitation Project featuring among others designer Charlotte Ronson (with famous sibings music producer Marc Ronson and DJ Samantha Ronson).

During rush hour, the queues to fitting rooms may seem neverending. Although a potential source of irritation, they are ultimately a sign of success. Customers would not wait if the reward was not considered potentially great. Furthermore, as visits to a flagship like this one tends to be one-offs during shopping holidays, the waiting line is not experienced as a recurrent problem.Summing the U.S Uniqlo is best described as being crisp. However, in order to remain so, new energy must eventually be injected in to the Soho space soon, as the decor has remained unchanged since 2006. It will be very exciting to see what the new venues will bring – the new flagship will be the 5th Avenue store which will be 2,5 times bigger than the Soho store!

As the expansion continues, I am certain Uniqlo will grow out of the notion of being “Japanese H&M” and into being simply and uniquely Uniqlo – and that´s not too bad either. Prices are low, yet Uniqlo gets high scores for innovation, shopping experience and service. All -in-all the Uniqlo recipe smells like great retail potential.

See it for yourself:

  • 546 Broadway (Soho)
  • 31 W, 34 Street (opening Nov 2011)
  • 5th Avenue/53rd Street (opening Nov 2011)
  • Stores worldwide

ps. Also by Wonderwall in NYC, japanese cult label Bape @ 91 Greene Street. Founder DJ Nigo sold 90% of the company on Feb 1st 2011 to Hong Kong congolmorate I.T (also the owners of French Connection and a bunch of other brands). Nigo will stay on board as creative director until Feb 2013.  ds. Read more…

Anthropologie Philosophy

The Anthropologie brand and stores provide lots of inspiration with an abundance of creative attention to detail. Although a french twist on the spelling of the name, Anthropologie was first launched in Wayne, Pennsylvania back in 1992. The brand name evokes obvious association to the academic discipline of anthropology which is the “study of humanity” with main concerns of topics as “What are humans’ physical traits?” and “How do humans behave?” 

Given that Anthropologie is a recurrent winner of “Most popular Store” in New York City´s Zagat Shopping Guides, they seem to successfully apply the questions of antropology to the Anthropologie retail philosophy. On the website under “About us” i found some unusually spiritual mission statements:

Anthropologie offers a one-of-a-kind and compelling shopping experience that makes women feel beautiful, hopeful and connected”. We invite you into our world – whether it’s our store, website or catalog – with the hope you take a deep breath and explore until your heart’s content.

Although you enjoy the clever details and fine craftsmanship of our products, you come to us for more than that. You come to escape and to connect, to spend time and to make time. Complex as you are, you remain our inspiration and because of this, we endeavor to bring you an unimagined experience.

In 2012 Antropologie will celebrate its 20th anniversary. They could choose to stick over 130 candles into the birthday cake, as they currently have that many stores in the world. Of all stores, there are only 3 (in London and Edinburgh) located outside of the U.S and Canada. Hence, in spite of the French twist on the spelling of the brand name, there are yet no stores in France.

The established Anthropologie catalogue (launched in 1998) and the online store ensures a broader geographical range and future scalability. For the time being, Anthropologie creatively maximizes every squareinch of its physical retail space to impress its customers. As customers go home, the online presence is never far. A new online launch – The Anthropologist – supports “creative individuals” by displaying their work. The boomerang effect is evident, as the new lanuch further elaborates on inspirational and emotional aspects in the online sphere – aspects that are often overseen in the online race and that poses the true challenge in translating successful physical stores in to equally successful online ones.

Check it out for yourself:

Selfridges being on their retail toes…

The Shoe Galleries at Selfridges Oxford Street impressed with a distinct sensibility to elements of tactile contrast and surprise. Walking through the vast rooms one was never bored as each room provided a fresh take on materials, lighting and general ambiance.

Large polished retail space always poses an intimacy challenge: “to touch or not to touch?” Given that purchases of womens shoes tend to be of tactile nature, stroking the smooth suede and leather and studying clasps etc, one would think that department shoe spaces would be more obviously intimate. Yet, in spite of the vastness and grandeur of the galleries lighting and texture makes customers come closer.

Throughout I succumbed to invites to touch and feel the display settings of rugged drift wood, shiny brassy mirrors, gleaming yet unpolished marble pillars, Dalíesque velvety sofas etc. However, as I was lured into the touching game, the step was not far to touch all the lovely shoes. As seating opportunities were built in to many displays, sudden urges to try shoes on could easily translate into action.

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