Vienna is so steeped in history and tradition that visitors could be forgiven for thinking the wave of concept stores that has swept through the shopping capitals of Europe had bypassed the city’s retail scene. But while old-world luxury will always define Austria’s capital, a growing number of stores are satisfying even the most avant-garde clients – and adding a new dimension to the city’s appeal.
Song is an example. Founded by Korean-born Myung il Song in the late 1990s, it is a fashion, art and interiors boutique hybrid that occupies a large space on Vienna’s celebrated Praterstrasse. Pre-war industrial French furniture is in stark contrast to the concrete floor, while soft lighting and small curiosities create a warm and inviting enclave. Much lke the city itself, Song pays homage to luxury in the modern era.
Song has built her following on her initial desire to bring avant-garde designers to a city that had yet to find its fashion feet. ‘Selling Martin Margiela in those days was like nothing else, and the clientele was as interesting, surprising and encouraging as the collections,’ she recalls. ‘One woman paid for a piece of knitwear with a stack of tiny denomination bills. A couple of weeks later we saw her wearing the sweater in the market – she was selling vegetables.’
Today Margiela sits alongside labels that include Céline, Dries Van Noten, Christopher Kane, Carven and AF Vandevorst, and work by artists such as Erwin Wurm and Haim Steinbach. There is a gallery space and men’s boutique, as well as an atelier where clothes are manufactured and artists prepare their exhibitions.
Bold new vision
While Song has created a curious, intimate space for its customers, Park is an exercise in discipline and clean, open space. The boutique was founded by Helmut Ruthner and Markus Strasser, who formerly assisted Raf Simons at Jil Sander; their vision was a store that would bridge the gap between Vienna’s often imposing design shops and the city’s department stores with their high turnover of mass-market fashion. The result is what they call a ‘medium of communication for contemporary design.’
Ruthner describes how they transformed the original building in the city’s seventh district. The aim, he explains, was ‘to create a space where our products would be the centre of attention and as little as possible should distract. It might have been a little in the style of Loos, for whom reduction of that which distracts was essential.’
The result is the perfect interaction between product and space, one where the designs of Ann Demeulemeester, Bernhard Willhelm, Haider Ackermann and Petar Petrov jostle side by side. An archive of rare pieces comprises labels such as Sophia Kokosalaki, Veronique Branquinho and Hussein Chalayan. The archive casts a light on the development of the designers, while making them accessible to a wider audience due to lower price points.
Park’s customers adopt a refreshingly democratic approach to fashion, says Ruthner. ‘Even faithful clients of Ann Demeulemeester or Maison Martin Margiela often purchase younger labels like Anntian or Gon. We are happy about it because it is where our name comes from: a park is a place where ages, diverse cultures and philosophies meet and connect.’
When it comes to fashion clairvoyance, Karin Neuhold has a knack for knowing what the women of Vienna want to wear. In 2004, says Neuhold, she had grown tired of travelling to the fashion capitals to find high fashion. ‘I wanted to change this.’ The result is her store Sterngasse4, with its chic mix of contemporary labels such as Marc Jacobs and Givenchy, Isabel Marant and Phillip Lim, housed in an understated warehouse-style space.
Neuhold is acutely aware of the change that has taken place in Vienna and believes both new media and world-famous concept stores such as Colette in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Milan have played a part. Ruthner cites the city’s growing multiculturalism as a factor; the ‘increased languages’ and ‘diverse faces’.
Whatever the reasons for the new additions, don’t be fooled into thinking Vienna’s path to modernity is a one-way street. Rather, the beauty of the city today is the way it embraces change while managing to remain rooted in the past. This combination of old-style luxury and distinctly 21st-century boutiques is, says Ruthner, ‘an inspiring mixture.'