On Bond Street in London, a whirring sound is rattling through the lofty chambers and staircases of the Louis Vuitton Maison; the term ‘store’ is déclassé in the upper echelons of French fashion, apparently. A colossal machine created from recycled objects by artist Michael Landy is drawing one-off works of art using a constantly rotating pen and shoppers are walking away with a piece of contemporary art when all they came in for was a browse around the handbags. In Paris, shoe-maker Berluti is carving a mould of a man’s shoe to fit the exact measurements to the tiniest detail, couriering the finished prototype to his office for convenience to see if it fits. At Browns, back in Britain, the grand doyenne of retail Joan Burstein (affectionately named Mrs B) is dashing around the store in a Lanvin dress picking clothes for a customer astonished at being dressed by one of the front row’s most prominent figures.
Welcome to the way we shop in the 21st century. No longer does the image of the haughty shop attendant in the intimidating style emporium ring true. Post-recession, high-street and luxury stores are raising the retail game. Parting with hard-earned cash seems less seductive a prospect when faced with the standard shopping slog. The online retail world is rocketing; Net-a-Porter, which sold this year for £350m, reports that 3m women browse the site every month. These challenges mean stores are adapting and shifting their priorities, providing a richer, more textured and more custom-made shopping experience for each customer.
‘I think the Vuitton venture has really set a new benchmark,’ says Clare Coulson, fashion features director of Harper's Bazaar. The London store heralded a new era of luxury shopping when it opened in May 2010, with a Paris counterpart set to become the biggest yet when it launches in spring 2011. Complete with a ‘bag bar’, bespoke art by Gilbert & George, a lower-ground men’s club area lined with bookshelves groaning with limited-edition tomes along with a bookshop selling bespoke books by artists, the effect is like falling down the rabbit hole. ‘You could just spend hours in there in this sort of playground for adults, without an impetus on actually buying anything,’ says writer Yasmin Mills, who attended the celebrated launch party.
Adding a cerebral element to a store by way of art or music has been a savvy move made by retailers to bring depth and broadcast the message loud and clear that it isn’t merely about the profits; Colette in Paris, for example, regularly releases CDs in collaboration with designers, Karl Lagerfeld being one. In winter, Nicole Farhi launched a Christmas installation in conjunction with artist Su Blackwell, with a charming Christmas fairytale slipped into the shopping bag for a dash of seasonal magic.
The almost antique ideal of servicing the customer’s wants has been, in recent years, pushed to the extreme. Styling suites, in-house stylists, alterations on demand, champagne on ice: all are standard in today’s shopping landscape, but a few designer brands aren’t content with just that. ‘I love that the people at Alexander McQueen who know my style will personally edit new stock when it arrives and send it to me,’ says photographer Amanda Eliasch. The store offers a service whereby new pieces are couriered to a client for their convenience and brought back without any additional cost. Technology, too, is a tool in the new retail terrain, with Matches set to launch an iPad application which stores details about a customer’s personal style and sends them new delivery options to match, along with advice.
Retailers are also employing designers to sign up to one-off capsule collection projects, which means that the divine Roland Mouret popsicle-bright shift is available at one store, and one store only. This was the case in 2010 with Net-a-Porter, which launched a capsule Rainbow collection with the designer, with whispers of one upcoming with Burberry. ‘It’s about feeling part of a community,’ says Coulson. ‘If your chosen store is willing to go that extra bit further – work with designers on one-off things, make their shopping experience more sensory and stimulating – it will keep you returning because it’s like a secret club.’