Stores that trade on club style

Financial Times
September 18

Fiona Harkin reveals the ways in which global retailers are using a personal touch (lychee martini, madam?) to attract the jet set buyer.

It’s 1am in São Paulo and the barman slides another lychee martini over my way with a wink. All around me in the basement restaurant are Beautiful People, presided over by three-storey-high indoor palm trees planted in a small sandy beach.

Possessing a nonchalant, youthful cool, these Paulistanos don’t carry obvious designer handbags and are free of over-sized labels and the staple cocktail black, opting instead for a decadent myriad of happy half-tones; teal, dusky pink, sienna brown.

The barman floats a purple orchid in my drink and I smile back. I think I’ve just got that Clube Chocolate feeling.

No, I’m not high on a confectionery bar. I’m soaking up the party atmosphere of São Paulo Fashion Week in the buzzing restaurant of a new lifestyle store nestled in between the upmarket designer boutiques on Rua Oscar Freire. The architecturally designed, cube-shaped Clube Chocolate is one of a new type of concept store popping up all over the globe, from New York and Paris to Bangkok and Dubai. Catering to a style-savvy clientele bored with the offerings of the generic luxury shopping street these exclusive, club-like stores mix international high fashion with local design and amalgamate products such as flowers, food, music and art all under one roof.

The result is not so much a micro-department store phenomenon but a new – almost intimate – attitude to luxury shopping, one that serves a demanding customer eager for fresh, unique products on every visit and a diverse shopping experience, all wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing and social environment.

“Clube Chocolate is a mix of contemporary luxury with a touch of Brazilian sensuality,” says JoséXavier, a buyer for the store. “It’s not about label or colour or price, it’s about desire,” he explains, describing how the eclectic array of products, ranging from Valentino shoes and international fashion magazines to Japanese toy collectables and accessories from Rio’s Copacabana Palace hotel, are all grouped into themes such as ‘romantic’, ‘minimalist’ and ‘natural’.

A continent away in fast-developing Dubai, Zayan Ghandour, owner of a lifestyle boutique called S*uce, has a buying motto to ensure a similar eclectic offering for her big-spending, shopping-addicted local and ex-pat customers; “’Mix it, never match it’ – that’s our mantra,” she says adding that, “we follow this rule in the way we buy the collections to the way we merchandise in the store and advise our customers how to wear the clothes.”

The idea behind the name of the shop S*uce was to offer customers “a new taste of things”, having noted that the latest trend among local consumers is the desire for unique and different objects, be they clothes, accessories, homewares, furnishings or perfumes.

Ghandour keeps quantities to a minimum, focusing on lifestyle gadgets and niche fashion brands such as Essa Kaftans, Tata Naka, Vanessa Bruno and See by Chloe, knowing that her customers “no longer seek items that are available for just anyone to buy.”

Also opting for this type of seasonal flux is the Utowa Creative Consulting Company in New York’s Flatiron district, a concept lifestyle store that bills itself as a “retail experience uniting fashion, cosmetics and flowers to create an exhilarating sensory experience.” That roughly translates as a design team taking inspiration from the changing seasons to create a holistic lifestyle store offering flowers, art, food music and own-label clothes – with the emphasis on an aesthetic of beauty and a personal consumer experience.

That ever-important personal touch is in danger of being lost in the monolithic new mega malls that are the future of retail in Bangkok, another fast-developing major city keen to make its name as a top Asian shopping destination. But one retail entrepreneur, Pornsak Rattanamethanon, has created a more intimate retail destination called H1 Project, a venue that mixes relaxing spaces with a variety of restaurants and innovative outlets.

There’s a Capellini Italian furniture store, an ice cream shop, an art and design bookstore and a stationery-cum-photography store. But the Bangkok crowd loves a party and the three restaurants within the project are the main attractions.

Rattanamethanon rails against sanitised air-conditioned shopping. He believes in a back-to-nature philosophy. In practice, that translates into L-shaped retail spaces each with their own outdoor garden. He hopes the venue will avoid the vagaries of the fickle in-crowd. “I want this to be a place where people keep coming back because it has a meaning to them,” he says.

This type of luxe-organic retail – reflexive, localised, diverse – has not passed un-noticed under the noses of the large fashion conglomerates. Giorgio Armani is sticking to a multi-brand retail strategy as his global empire expands, having sought a creative and localised way of building major flagship stores. Three on the Bund, his impressive 1,100sq metre development in Shanghai opened in April this year and combines a Giorgio Armani boutique, an Emporio Armani store and a multi-label shop that stocks a variety of international fashion labels and lifestyle products, together with branded flower and confectionary stores – Armani Fiori and Armani Dolci.

“Shanghai is fast becoming an international city and specialty lifestyle stores usually reflect upon the social movement of a place and its people,” says Jimin Lee, general manager of retail at Three, explaining this high-profile multi-brand concept. “It’s an exciting time to create a new desire for our customers by bringing a new level of shopping experience.”

There’s that word again – ‘experience’. The Japanese arm of Louis Vuitton has also latched onto this notion of the exclusive luxury retail experience and last September opened Celux, a members-only boutique, lounge and salon in Tokyo tucked away in the penthouse floors of its Omotesando building. For a mere entrance fee of ¥210,000 (£1000) and an annual fee of ¥26,250 (£130), this is serious, jet set shopping. What else to expect from a boutique whose name is derived quite simply from the French term “c’est luxe” (it’s luxury)?

“Celux Japan is a small community and we strive to maintain a personal relationship with each member. We want to evoke something new and exciting through our selections of rare designer products, collaborations with young artists and up-to-the-minute fashion trends,” says Chiaki Tanabe, of Celux.

For the ultimate personal luxury shopping experience, Celux also offers its customers a chance to have their say in the design of its exclusive items like watches, bags and – for the latest collaboration – a Louis Vuitton car.

Sipping exquisite cocktails after midnight with the in-crowd at a chic new micro-store is more about shopping as experience; these are not designer lifestyle stores revolving around branded goods, they are all about the modern luxury of a designed life.

© Fiona Harkin

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