Small, personal touches for comfortable girls’ club retail

Financial Times
August 26/27

Fiona Harkin goes shopping in Brazil, where the new trend – perhaps coming to a shop near you soon – is to make the customer feel at home.

Carina Duek, São Paulo

“It’s a small, cosy house, with a little backyard where I can hang out my clothes. There are leather couches and big glass windows overlooking the yard – and a wall full of lamps from my collection.” Brazilian designer Isabela Capeto isn’t wistfully describing her ideal home, but her new store located in a former private home in the upmarket Jardins district of São Paulo.

And though the city – a heaving, metropolitan jungle of skyscrapers – is not the first place that springs to mind when it comes to inspirational store design, if contemporary store design is all about experience and capturing the evermore jaded consumer with authenticity and uniqueness, a certain crop of local retailers may be about to take the “home” shopping experience to a whole new level.

These days private houses are the de rigueur retail option in São Paulo, and there’s a crop of stores adding an intimate, ‘girls’ club’ dimension to this trend. Though there’s nothing new about the home-from-home boutique layout, typically decked out according to the owner’s/designer’s personal lifestyle vision (indeed São Paulo’s famous country mansion-sized luxury store, Daslu, was once housed in a series of 23 interconnecting homes). With Capeto and co, we’re talking kitchens, bathrooms and even beds all thrown in to the finely detailed merchandising mix.

In her store, Capeto has conjured up a nostalgic scenario; “I wanted to create the same atmosphere as a home – I want it to be like going to a friend’s house and trying on their clothes,” she explains. To this end, she enlisted a firm of architects to revamp the house, creating a dynamic glass cube to encase the backyard and use it as an interior store window by displaying clothes on a washing line attached to a tree. The result is a neo-naïve mix of Brazilian homestead tradition and Paulistano modernity.

Around the corner from Capeto’s store and nestled in a private courtyard is another new boutique-atelier, belonging to young designer Carina Duek, who has brought back from her New York fashion schooling an East Village eclecticism mixed with a dose of Marc Jacobs’ nonchalant cool. A whitewashed space daubed with melancholy graffiti by Duek’s graphic artist boyfriend, the house is styled like an urban girl’s crashpad with displays of books, furniture and even a crochet-covered bed.

There’s a small courtyard with a hatch opening to the kitchen, where the in-house maid serves up bittersweet coffee in mis-matched china, while upstairs a studio-showroom leads onto a cosy terrace. All around are objects gathered on Duek’s travels, from eerie, doe-eyed Blythe dolls to trashy Japanese robotic toys.

“I wanted to create my little world – my childhood nostalgia, my romantic mood, my feelings, my dreams, all the things that I like, and everything that inspired me,” says Duek. “I think that it’s easier to understand my design when you are inside this little house.”

The result is unashamedly girly, not only capturing a Teen Vogue generation but, more importantly, those ladies who yearn for the sleepovers of their youth and just don’t want to grow up.

Likewise, “I know some of my clients come back every six months at least to see the new decoration – and some even bring friends, husband and kids,” says Duek’s neighbour, Adriana Barra, who opened her cosy space – complete with a sofa bed, refrigerator and tiny courtyard pond – over two years ago.

Redecorated every season, the array of kitsch Japanese souvenirs that Barra has collected on her travels, from green tea bottles, red paper lanterns and tubs of Family Mart candy, all illustrate the autumn/winter theme of her covetous collection of digitally printed kimono tops and signature floor-length dresses that are ideal for both beach and bar.

Then, not too far away, in a gated residential street over in the Vila Olimpia neighbourhood is the Hi&Lo boutique-residence where sisters Eleonora, Camila and Carolina Botelho hold court, selling their easy-going chic collection of sportswear crossed with versatile day and eveningwear. With a bar area at the back of the house and a decked courtyard, the store has became a place to stop by for after-work drinks and a gossip – rather like a stylish social gathering.

Barra believes that this type of clube das meninas (girls’ club) retailing provides a favourable atmosphere for sales and that her customers thrive on the newness and intimacy of her store. “I’ve noticed that every season, my customers are always expecting something new besides the collection itself and the decoration is also a way to make them feel special.”

Oskar Metsavaht, the creative director of expanding Brazilian lifestyle label, Osklen, who has just opened stores in Milan and Geneva and has New York in his sights for 2007, agrees that these stores create a great, personable atmosphere that can send the cash till ringing, “but only for small shops that are like a designer’s atelier.”

Metsavaht’s own surfboards are displayed alongside books from his private collection, as well as Buddha heads, leather tribal pouches and musical instruments, not to mention furniture he has designed himself. It’s such small touches that require effort and thought, and that legitimise the lifestyle image these designers are translating – one that their customers seem ever happier to buy.

© Fiona Harkin

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