Alain Gilles reimagines retail for Oxfam

BRUSSELS – While many of us see the charity or thrift shop as a good place to pick up a fashion bargain, no-one visits such outlets for their retail-design credentials. ‘Charity shops are just not the ideal shopping environment,’ says designer Alain Gilles, who aimed at a paradigm shift with his pop-up store for Oxfam Belgium. ‘Typically, they’re completely overcrowded with stuff. I wanted to give the experience some space.’

Open for one month last autumn on Brussels’ upscale Rue Antoine Dansaert, his store featured the sparsely hung, carefully curated selection of merchandise more familiar to neighbouring designer stores, which were in fact persuaded to donate their unsold items to the project. ‘The concept was “the empty shop”,’ says Gilles. ‘The idea was to offer new donations every day, ideally selling everything by closing time. Remaining stock was then removed and a fresh selection displayed the following day.’

Occupying the location of a former Marc Jacobs shop, the store had a low budget, which meant that Gilles had to live with elements of the existing interior, including a blue floor and rather uninteresting shelving. He focused on the centre of the space, where a spectacular installation formed a golden showcase for the goods on offer. ‘The installation was based on a huge funnel, or a mill – gathering in the donations and then presenting them as collectable items,’ says Gilles. ‘I felt it was essential to use gold. It’s so unexpected in a charity shop.’ Plants, meanwhile, represented the sustainability of recycled clothes.



To emphasize the luxury feel, he designed a Vuitton-like Oxfam logo and pattern, which appeared on custom stickers, wall coverings and attention-grabbing windows. ‘I loved watching people’s reactions,’ says Gilles. He recalls passers-by noticing ‘this fancy shop with the Oxfam logo and rushing in’. Oxfam sold a lot during the month the ‘empty shop’ was open for business. The charitable organization is considering a repeat of the format elsewhere. ‘Of course, it’s not just about selling,’ says Gilles. ‘It’s also about PR. It’s a different, value-adding way of framing what Oxfam does.’

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