It’s hard to say when the notion of the concept store was first conceived, though most people think it all began when Carla Sozzani (sister of Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Italian Voguesince 1988) opened her cute little store at 10 Corso Como in Milan in 1991. It was, of course, followed by Colette in Paris’s Rue Saint-Honoré in 1997 and since then all manner of brands – from Tesco and House of Fraser to Apple, Nike, Nestlé and BNP Paribas – have been given the epithet. All of which has rather debased the very notion of the concept store: if they’re so ubiquitous, surely they can’t be as singular as they’d have us believe.
Another change that sullied the genre, according to FT columnist Tyler Brûlé, was when “big brands that were running out of gas and looking for legitimacy began to pay for space on the shop floors of concept stores and the consumer quickly began to see through this”. Once the taste barrier to entry gave way to commerce, the “concept” itself became diluted.
So what exactly defines a concept store? “It should be created in the image of a single highly itinerant, very driven, very passionate owner with a highly attuned, very individual aesthetic,” says Imran Amed, founder and CEO of The Business of Fashion. “If you take somewhere like Just One Eye in Los Angeles, it is like entering a different world.” Here the highly unusual mix of Alexander Calder carpets (from $39,000), Diane Arbus photographs (from $30,000) and beautifully curated gifts and clothes from unusual designers is pulled together by the artistic eye of owner Paola Russo.
Above all it is the concept store’s capacity to surprise, to make a customer feel they have embarked on a voyage of discovery, that sets them apart. “Somewhere like J’Antiques in Tokyo,” says Amed, “which specialises in mostly American vintage fashion and furniture, pulls it off brilliantly. Wherever you turn you get the impression of an enormously fastidious, idiosyncratic eye.” But creating the element of surprise is infinitely harder for retailers today than it used to be. “The bar is set much higher and it isn’t enough just to have a singular or eccentric mix of products – it has also to offer a unique experience,” Amed continues. “Which is why many owners are creating communities around their stores, making them places where like-minded people can spend time, where they are introduced to new food and books, and encouraged to linger.” Excelsior Milano, for instance, is a 5,000m2 Jean Nouvel-designed space spread over seven floors that couldn’t be more different from 10 Corso Como. It offers a very carefully edited selection of fashion, fragrance, fine food and design in a futuristic cinematic setting with huge digital screens in the windows. It nearly always has large crowds milling around to see what the latest excitements are.
So if we take the concept store to be one that sells a wide range of items that are thrillingly different from standard department-store fare, that is overseen by a single brilliant “eye” and that continually surprises, then Leclaireur’s five shops (all distinct from each other) in Paris – and it’s new one in LA – must be considered true beacons of the genre. The original store, a tiny place opened by Armand Hadida in 1980, was also clearly the first, by a long way, of this new wave of retailer – predating 10 Corso Como by many years.
Leclaireur, meaning “scout” or “guide” in French, may garner much less publicity than 10 Corso Como, Colette and their ilk, but that’s because Hadida likes it that way. He thinks to be a real cult store (while I’m interviewing him in the biggest of his five Paris shops, a customer who lives between Dubai and Lebanon is so overcome at seeing the owner of what he declares his “favourite store in the whole world” that he comes over to have a hug and a selfie) you need people to make a little bit of an effort to discover you. There is no sign outside his Rue Hérold shop near the Place des Victoires, and no windows; only insiders know that there is a small bell on a side wall that gives admittance to a vast cave of highly individual merchandise of every kind. Yet Goldman Sachs once named it one of the world’s best luxury shopping experiences – from Chinese wax masks (€28,000 each) made to record the distinctive features of various ethnic tribes, to limited-edition collaborations (from €420) with Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, to jewellery (from €200) from niche designers such as Werkstatt:München and the extraordinary complex tailoring (from €1,200) of Austrian menswear designer Carol Christian Poell, the store offers a cornucopia of revelations.
But Hadida, too, realises he has to keep raising the bar, to keep adding new things to the mix. Last year he launched the No Name Kitchen at the Rue Hérold store. Designed by Roland Szélé, who used to run Bulthaup in France, it may look like just another minimalist kitchen but it hosts a raft of technological innovation. It is in a secret room – “It used to be a cabinet de curiosités,” Hadida tells me, “until everybody else started devising them” – where the executive chef of the Alain Ducasse Cooking School prepares a series of discreet classes and supper clubs for privileged customers. “We always aim to offer visitors an atmosphere totally different from what they’ve previously experienced,” he says. “I want to open doors and help them discover things they might like – whether that’s a new designer or a new flavour.” He also deems it entirely necessary to take chances. “Without risk,” he says, “there is no success, only certain failure.”
A new Leclaireur is due to open in West Hollywood – and since Hadida doesn’t believe in “me too” stores, he knows he has to keep the surprises coming. Set in a grand 1960s Haussmann-style building and run by his daughter Meryl, it will launch with just one fashion designer – the extraordinarily unconventional Poell, whom Hadida stocks on Rue Hérold. “Have you heard of any other store doing that? When we saw his workshop it was like a laboratory and we decided to protect him and support him.” Each of his pieces is like a work of art, and, as Hadida freely admits, they are not for everybody (very little in the Leclaireur stores is). “You need to understand his work, to respond emotionally to what he is doing. His is a crazy world.” Karl Lagerfeld, Hadida tells me, was blown away when shown Poell’s clothing for the first time.
Hadida doesn’t want to call this new store a gallery – “that sounds too pretentious”; instead he prefers to describe it as a residence. “It will be like a home for these designers, where they can have space to showcase their work.” As a newcomer to LA, he wants to try especially hard to seduce his clientele. There will be another No Name Kitchen, as well as an exhibition and entertaining space. He’s also very excited about bespoke portraits created by glass artist Hugh Findletar. “Visitors will be able to commission a portrait in glass that will be made in Murano and will – handily – double as a vase.”
While Hadida is working out how to renew and refresh the Leclaireur proposition for LA, he is not alone. Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe have just presented London with an enlarged version of their much admired Dover Street Market. Though much of the press persist in believing it to be a paradigm of the concept store, Joffe himself rejects the notion. “No,” he tells me firmly, “we are not a concept store. I don’t know what the word ‘concept’ means any more. We are just a clothes shop that likes to share its space with other designers who have something to say. It’s a place where the relationships between customers and staff, and between us and the designers, are paramount. It’s also a place where the visual elements
are crucial and preconceived ideas dispensed with.”
Chris Sanderson, co-founder of trend-forecasting consultancy The Future Laboratory, has observed a fundamental change in the role of what we have come to call concept stores. “The idea depended on shifting the focus away from a purely transactional relationship towards giving the customer a real experience,” he says. “Shops were no longer merely places to buy, they were also places of learning and inspiration, even if this meant slowing the journey to purchase. Now the experiences have evolved to become much more immersive.”
Take The Apartment by the Line in New York, which makes the customer feel as if they’ve been invited into a private home, where everything just happens to be for sale. It states on its website, “The storied objects – encompassing fashion, home and beauty items, as well as original works of art – gain new meaning and relevance through context.” Autor Rooms, by graphic design agency Mamastudio in Warsaw’s fashionable Sródmies´cie area, does much the same thing, showcasing furniture and artwork by Polish designers in a series of residential spaces and a four-bedroom hotel. Guests can meet the designers and buy directly from them.
Today’s retail concepts further blur the lines between shopping and hospitality. Dutch fashion brand Scotch & Soda last year invited consumers to live the life of fictional character Lola, as told through a short film in its The Story of Things campaign. Living in Amsterdam, Lola receives letters and trinkets from her brother Oscar, a wayward wanderer. Customers could book to stay at Lola’s Amsterdam apartment – which was identical to the one in the film, complete with Oscar’s gifts – through Airbnb. On arrival they would find clothes in their size from Lola’s fictional wardrobe (taken from Scotch & Soda’s autumn/winter season) that they could wear for the length of their stay. The film, of course, also served as an elaborate lookbook for Scotch & Soda’s new collection.
One of the most avant-garde retailing concepts involves using GPS to generate a sense of wonder and discovery. Last summer, sports brand Peak Performance created 17 mobile-activated virtual pop-ups. The “Magic Hour” shops opened for one hour before sunrise and sunset – but were accessible only to people who had hiked or cycled to locations such as lighthouses, golf courses and mountain tops in 11 countries across Europe. Consumers, who discovered the locations via Peak Performance’s campaign website, used GPS to find the specific place at the precise time and could then choose something from the catalogue for free in return for posting a photo of themselves on Instagram. This year, the scheme involves actual pop-ups and participation in a fitness challenge.
As the concept of the concept store continues to evolve – catering for an increasingly sophisticated and indulged clientele – the virtual world is opening up all sorts of exciting possibilities. Keeping up – for both retailer and consumer – has never been more creative.