The biggest retail opening of 2018 was Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. This former Victorian railway sidings for coal coming into London from the north has been transformed, thanks to Thomas Heatherwick, into a contemporary retail destination.
Left - Koibird in Marylebone
While the kissing roofs are elegant and memorable, the rest of the development is less inspiring. The brand list is the type concocted by an architect who is shopping like a design magazine rather than the realities of retail in 2019. It feels a bit 10 years ago and doesn’t acknowledge the recent Guccification of the world. We really doesn’t need anymore boring “designer” shops.
A case in point is the Paul Smith store. Housed in the former Bagley’s nightclub, you’d expect some sort of crazy ecstasy interior: testament to the many clubbers who wore Paul Smith on the dance floor. But, no. There’s even a white wall.
It’s 2019 and we’re in the “Age of Bonkers” when it comes to retail and if a shop doesn’t have you reaching for your phone to take a picture straight away then they’re clearly doing something wrong. Retail needs to wow, it needs to shock, it needs to entertain, otherwise you can get everything else online.
You need people to mouth “that’s cool” when they walk in or see something, especially when you’re trying to create a destination, as is the case here. This isn’t need: this is visitor attraction with the hope of souvenirs purchased. It’s that excitement and rush of shoppers' adrenaline that makes people glad they left the house. It’s not just about being conceptual, it’s about fun, wit and being relatable and current.
We often forget how experimental retail once was. From the Victorian pioneers of the department store to the independent boutiques of the 60s to the cool minimalism of the 90s and this was all pre-internet. Now, it’s more important than ever to give physical retail a fighting chance and bonkers it should be.
Examples include Koibird in Marylebone and Gentle Monster, the Korean eyewear brand, who opened their first UK store on Soho’s Argyll Street last year, both creating and refreshing interiors that stimulate and keep people coming back.
The Koibird store recently closed for two months while the interior was changed from their beach concept to their ski store. Founder, Belma Gaudio, established Koibird out of her frustrations of not being able to find clothes to match her holiday destinations. The new ski concept is another instagrammable interior featuring the colourfully rounded Koibird “K”. “Koibird is on a mission to inject some much needed playfulness into skiwear.” Gaudio told British Vogue when she recently unveiled it.
Right - Gentle Monster Argyll Street, Soho
Gentle Monster, a Korean sunglasses and optical glasses brand founded by Hankook Kim, was established in Seoul in 2011. “I wanted the products to look as if they were being exhibited.” said Kim in 2016. Today, they have over 40 stores worldwide and employ 6 people to design its eyewear compared to 60 people to design the store visuals. This shows the priority of their interiors within the company and the Seoul flagship is transformed every 25 days.
While these types of continual makeovers can be expensive, it can also be minimised with enough imagination. This is the traditional idea of changing windows becoming a fully immersive and experiential retail experience.
Fragrance is something physical and as such, Ostens, a new perfume brand by Laurent Delafon and Christopher Yu, has created a pop-up store in Marylebone, to showcase its debut. Open until the end of February, it is an abstract showcase of their new brand.
“We love Gentle Monster, we love spaces that drag you in , that speak to your curiosity. And this is the main idea behind Ostens: olfactive curiosity and discovery through the exploration of the ingredients.” says Delafon.
“So, we set up the space in 3 distinct areas, part of ‘journey’ taking you from the ingredient to the perfume: the Rose oil from Isparta, in the neon lit front room, magnified and presented like an objet d’art.” he says.
"All the rooms are appealing, they are fun, they are instagramable, and they are attracting people that wouldn’t necessarily been attracted by a ‘normal’ perfume shop.” says Delafon. “If you create spaces that are enjoyable, exciting and surprising places for your consumers to interact with the brand, you enhance their experience, and you make the whole purchasing act much more than simply about the product.” he says.
“The idea is to change the whole set-up of the store every two months. Like an art gallery would change its exhibitions. We intend to move Ostens to a central location, where the store will be more of a white box in which we will be able to rotate sculptures, videos installations, theatre sets, interactive displays..To parody Magritte…’this is not a perfume shop’!” says Delafon.
Left - New fragrance brand, Ostens, launching with a bonkers pop-up shop in Marylebone
Retailers are fighting for people’s time. You need something to grab people’s attention, make them stop and have a desire to enter and explore. Half the battle is getting your product in front of people, then at least you have a chance of a sale.
The home page on Koibird’s website reads “Never Boring…” and this is exactly how physical retail needs to think.
Easily the most anticipated retail destination - we can’t use ‘shopping centre’ anymore, can we?! - of the year, and the final piece of the huge Kings Cross jigsaw, Coal Drops Yard mirrors the life of the entire area. From industrial power to warehouse parties to sanitised private/public spaces, this could be a micro model of London as a whole over the last 100 years.
Now reimagined by Thomas Heatherwick, who has joined the two ‘Kit-Kat’ pieces with a sweeping roof which lightly touches across the divide. This was the kiss Kings Cross/St Pancras was waiting for and not that cringeworthy sculpture greeting you as you disembark off the Eurostar.
Opening today, with over 50 new stores, it’s currently only about 50% open, and the most stunning aspect, the Samsung store inside the roof, is far from finished.
Firstly, the architecture is great. What could have been clunky, the roof is elegant and sweeping. Reslated in the original Welsh tiles, Heatherwick works his magic and creates something modern yet respectful to the original. This is the human scaled, brick built industrial Britain that is a joy to bring back to life.
Situated just down from Granary Square and up from the main stations, Coal Drops Yard opens out into a generous V shape with two main levels of shops and restaurants. This feels like the type of retail space you want to give yourself time to explore.
There’s also another space on the other side of the main block called Lower Stable Street that is for smaller and start-up businesses. It has touches of the Southbank with the concrete.
There are a few restaurants - Barafina, Casa Pastor and wine bar The Drop, but it feels the mix is too heavy on the retail, today, especially with the need to drive traffic. People don’t need to go shopping anymore, but they do need to eat. You could easily use the space in the middle for market type concepts.
They’ve made an effort to have a mix of brands - COS, Paul Smith, Tom Dixon, Cubitts, Universal Works, Rains, Aesop, Maya Magal, Miller Harris and Le Chocolat and there are a few that are new to me.
You want to explore, but there’s no element of surprise. The retail mix is dry. It’s from the Monocle school of aching design, devoid of personality. This feels like stylish retail from 10 years ago. We’re in the age of Gucci, of bonkers, of wanting-to-get-my-phone-out-and-take-a-picture-mental, not a single one of the finished shop fits was worthy of an Instagram. Even Paul Smith has produced one of the most conservative shop fits I’ve ever seen from him. You’d think he would have tapped into the rave culture history of the site, especially when you consider so many of his more casual clothes would have been worn there.
This is for one type of design customer and I don’t think that’s as aspirational as they think. It’s also needs a destination store. There was lots of talk from the lease manager about going to Paris for inspiration. When didn’t they resurrect Colette here or try a Dover Street Market type concept. It needs a pilgrimage store, or whatever that is in 2018, to get people up from the stations.
I really think Coal Drops Yard has missed a trick by not tapping into the nostalgia for the area. Those clubbers are now in their 40s with money to spend and families to bring. There are exhibitions regarding the history in the Visitors Centre, back in Granary Square, but I would have done more on site to remind people of their happy times spent at The Cross or Bagley’s nightclubs.
As I said, it’s not fully finished and all these things will evolve. When listening to Thomas Heatherwick give his welcoming talk I thought about the reinvention of Covent Garden, which he then mentioned, and was a huge success, and then I thought about the early 90s, when they tried to turn a similar concept, Tobacco Dock, into a similar retail destination. It was the wrong location at the wrong time. This is in a better position, but like I said, they need enough people to know about it to want to walk up from the stations.
I think we’ll see more food outlets eventually and also they need something like a vintage market, similar to Spitalfields, to raise the element of discovery and keep you coming back.
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