What’s the most important aspect of luxury retail design today? If you said “mastering techniques to improve in-person experiential settings,” you’d be exactly right. You might also raise the need for better and more innovative formats that improve customer service in the finicky luxe and affordable-luxury segments.
In the first category, experiential retail places big demands on architects and interior designers. Simply serving the traditional store design paradigm is not only insufficient, it might lead down the wrong path entirely. Luxury experiences must be singular, memorable and elevated. In a word, they are unparalleled, meaning that the retail venue may not even appear to be a store at all.
A recent example is Aston Martin’s new experiential concept, Q New York. For lack of a better word, this showroom is nothing like any automobile showroom ever seen — other than the floor models, vehicles arranged as if part of a museum installation. A mix of a lounge, library, gallery and immersive multimedia experience, it is conceived to launch the customers into their own highly personalized journeys of envisioning, configuring and specifying their own Aston Martin vehicles. (Our firm, AZA, supported Aston Martin’s amazing design team to create Q New York, which opened this summer.)
Instead of “telling the brand story,” which is a fixation in much of the retail universe, it pulls the client into an experience where the client becomes the brand, or becomes an actor in the living story of the brand. In this way, the Q New York flagship “builds on Aston Martin’s longstanding commitment to luxury craft and the growing trend of personalization,” as the company says. Show up, and you are literally the lead character in a new movie about crafting a vehicle that no one has ever even owned.
Q New York doesn’t look like a radical experience, though it truly is. Luxury retail experiences sometimes appear to be very subtle. Rest assured, however, that they present a synthesis of highly evolved ideas and sophisticated design discoveries, often brought together over decades of practice, that work actively on the luxury shopper’s psyche.
A system of visual cues, environmental inputs, and — almost always — integrated technologies and displays are interpreted and enabled through pure interior design and architectural solutions. These go beyond signage, audio-visual systems and product presentations. They incorporate physical and sensory techniques, including tactile and olfactory inputs, that reinforce the customer’s belief that she has entered a pure brand realm, a universe crafted entirely by the values of the host luxe maker.
Luxury retail has been called an omnichannel experience, a term I like, that has two seemingly contradictory aims: One, conjuring dreams, and two, focusing buyer commitment. To make this happen, the omnichannel concepts work to divorce the customer from everyday reality so that we can access a higher plane — a better, greater universe where everything seems poised, lustrous, compelling and extraordinary.
Working with the design team at Rag & Bone, for example, has illuminated a powerful example for our architecture firm. The brand’s stores feel “bright and airy but surprisingly intimate,” as one critic wrote — “Like your dream walk-in closet,” she added. Rag & Bone retail settings are marked by meticulous displays and a minimal presentation that invites a clearly paced and delineated kind of browsing. As designers we begin to appreciate the measurements and careful proportions behind the spatial resolution, and as customers we’re attracted to the sparkling yet friendly and familiar embrace of the stores.
The genius in Rag & Bone shows how all the touch points and retail elements work together seamlessly in a focused effort to tell the brand story. Nothing can be tangential — it all communicates the fashion house’s value and promise.
In the luxury and ultra-luxury retail realms, the watchword is fit — how the design team tailors the environment for a purpose-driven, customized happening. Luxe also implies access to environmental and personal sustainability — call it wellness, which includes a future state where the best ideas somehow benefit the whole world.
Along with fit and wellness, ideas such as enlightenment or enrichment are part of the luxury experience: From local suppliers to the most exotic and remote sources, everything is available to the shopper, opening her eyes and mind to the next opportunity, or the next big thing.
As architects and designers, our goal is to express through our experiential designs, to offer opportunities for reflection and discovery. The luxury brand opens a world to the customers, showing them “how to live,” to borrow an idea from Frank Lloyd Wright.
In this way, the elevated and memorable luxury experience is truly an opportunity to design a gateway to another realm. We often use the highest-quality materials, finishes and systems to make it happen, but our hardest work is simply to pull back the curtain and expose the world of genius behind each luxury maker. Working with fashion leaders such as Versace, Theory, Helmut Lang and Jimmy Choo — and Aston Martin — we’ve had the opportunity to not only learn about those lofty realms, but also to see how the brand masters conjure new environments for accessing them.
Founded in 2011, AZA is one of the world’s best-kept secrets — and among the most influential architecture and design consultancies for the luxury retail sector. Taking on “everything luxury branded” in global markets, Founder and Principal Architect Alexander Zilberman, AIA, NCARB, has worked with fashion leaders Theory, Jimmy Choo, and Helmut Lang, and his firm has created a prominent Versace store on Madison Avenue in New York and the first major showroom for Aston Martin in North America, Q New York. Other brands relying on AZA Alex Zilberman AIA include Equinox Gyms and Soho House, as well as a new building now in development near Philadelphia for luxury watchmakers.