Why a retailer called on Gentle Monster to design an entire department store
Gentle Monster is an eyewear brand, right? Well, now the Seoul-based company can also add ‘set designers for an entire department store’ to its bag of tricks. In a radical retail move, the in-house design team was called upon to deck out the interiors of SKP-S, the forward-facing offshoot of Beijing’s SKP luxury mall.
They’ve created a buzz in a way that no other brand has done before – a reason for people to get off the couch and visit a sunglasses store. So said Tim Rupp, design director of retail environments for Nike, during last year’s Frame Awards deliberations. The London outpost was up for Single-Brand Store of the Year, an award it eventually took home. Eventually being the operative word, since there was a crumb of criticism prior to the final decision. Namely, that this store wasn’t quite as extreme or immersive as some of its predecessors. Basically, Gentle Monster’s biggest competition was its existing portfolio.
The brand is no longer just one to watch – it’s a force to be reckoned with. Glasses aside, it’s amassed a string of destination stores that inspire desire. While it’s not exactly surprising that someone else wanted a piece of that pie, it is interesting that Gentle Monster was willing to take its house style out of house. The story goes that as a big fan of Gentle Monster’s stores, the CEO of luxury mall SKP in Beijing, Mr Ji, called up the eyewear brand’s founder and chief executive, Hankook Kim. Ji was developing a hip new offshoot of SKP called SKP-S (the ‘S’ stands for south), and wanted to discuss a potential collaboration.
The final result of that discussion was a shared alternative vision for the luxury department store. While the conclusion at which they arrived isn’t radical, the sheer scale and scope of the project are. Entitled Digital-Analog Future, the concept, executed in partnership with London-based architectural practice Sybarite, foresees a world where ‘advances in technology blur the boundary between human and digital realms, enabling new forms of evolution beyond our imagination’. Theming the collaboration as such provided Gentle Monster the opportunity to run wild with its surreal style, realizing everything from a field of grazing robotic sheep to a rundown of Martian history.
It may seem like it’s all just for show – a series of whacky installations to delight the senses and doubtless fill Instagram feeds – but you can actually buy things here. The aforementioned Martian history lesson is part of the second-floor Select Shop, a fashion retail store. Alongside a model of the spacecraft that apparently transported the first settlers to Mars and other mythical memorabilia from the Red Planet, four zones feature apparel and accessories from top brands. There’s also a concept café on the third floor, which serves ‘edible creations inspired by the story of a strange portal connecting Mars and Earth’ – those present for the press preview sampled Gentle Monster-style desserts shaped like an ear and a mushroom.
Naturally, Gentle Monster has its own store in SKP-S. But no, the shop doesn’t include a new department that takes on external clients: Kim has confirmed that he and his team are not looking to branch out into the design of other new retail spaces. But they will be part of SKP-S’s evolution, tracking the customer experience and updating the content in response.
In the age of the experience economy – one of the most overused terms in recent years – retailers are adding layers of richness to their offerings. ‘Attention-grabbing’ is an oft-recurring strategy, which can be achieved through the art of storytelling. Knitting a narrative into a design may encourage visitors to unravel the red thread – potentially spending more time and money in the process – and using one voice to tell the story makes the experience more coherent.
This piece will be featured in Frame 133, our forthcoming March—April 2020 issue.