Luxury brands haven't had it so good in the past three years. In the post-Internet-boom, post-9/11 world, consumer sensibilities have changed--permanently, some argue--and the economics have been dreadful. But for store designers, these are very good times indeed. Along the moneyed paths of Madison Avenue and Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, in the Ginza and on the Via Condotti, stonemasons, carpenters, electricians and designers are assembling new sales wagons for Ferragamo, Tod's, Louis Vuitton, Comme des Garcons, Jil Sander, Prada and other luxe labels. They are exquisite spaces, and they are more luxury priced than ever, now that the stores have commissioned such prizewinning architects as Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
The risks faced by these new stores have never been greater. Pressure is coming from the economy: rents on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue are hitting $1,200 per sq. ft. (your local supermarket probably pays about a hundredth of that). Moreover, such design-conscious chains as Target and Topshop have proved that they can deliver style smarts at a lower price. Indeed, luxury shoppers are now as likely to be found in Costco or Tesco as they are in Chanel. Those shoppers who traded up to luxury brands in the booming '90s fell away when the market did.
In some respects, the brilliant strategies that preserved luxury brands a decade ago have now rendered them somewhat inert at retail. "All the same streets have the same stores with the same window dressing," complained designer Paul Smith at an industry gathering late last year. That's why one of the hottest stores, Colette, in Paris, is a reseller, not a brand-name designer boutique. Colette is a store as editor, picking the hottest stuff from the hottest new designers and presenting it in a techno-style space. Given the brisk traffic in the store, it's no wonder the designer chose brushed aluminum and chrome for just about everything.
Tod's CEO, Diego Della Valle, has said much the same as Smith, and he's doing something about it. The company is developing unique stores in Tokyo and London and remodeling existing ones in New York City, Paris and Rome to differentiate them from outlets in the provinces. Tod's plans to vary both architecture and merchandise in these new stores so that global shoppers have something new to see as they travel to the world's major cities.
Similarity was soothing once upon a time, when such corporations as Gucci and LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) began to rationalize the luxury-goods industry. The corporations bought up tarnished designer labels as if they were run-down English castles. They found themselves with a hodgepodge of real-estate holdings and stores. There was little consistency of design--and large corporations absolutely abhor inconsistency. Gucci and LVMH needed to establish firmly in the consumer's eye and mind exactly what each of their brands stood for. "Consolidation intensified the development of a spatial brand identity," says Michael Gabellini of Gabellini Associates, who created Jil Sander's light, white and limestone look in the '90s.