Dwell's senior editor Kelsey Keith moderated the panel, which featured Dror Benshetrit, the founder of Dror Design; Dominic Leong, one of the partners at Leong Leong Architecture; and Mark Kroeckel, a founder of design studio Openshop. Collectively, the panelists have created spaces for some of the biggest names in fashion: Alexander Wang, Steven Alan, and Phillip Lim. The discussion began with a slideshow presentation from each panelist on their professional history in retail design.
Leong started off with images of the Phillip Lim stores the firm designed. Leong and his brother Christopher, who both have architecture backgrounds, launched their firm three years ago. Leong spoke on the challenges of incorporating a retail brand into architecture, especially with the Phillip Lim in Los Angeles. "We could invent the brand identity through the retail space," he says. They designed a thick curving wall that snakes throughout the building and is lined with varying textures. The wall creates smaller nooks within the 5,000-square-foot building. "We're putting products in a atypical environment," says Leong. He discussed an even more unconventional retail space the firm designed: a pop up store for the BOFFO Building Fashion Series, an event in which architects and fashion designers collaborate. They built a modest plywood structure and covered it with a layer of expanding foam. The clothing, from designer Siki Im, was only displayed on the lower floor of the structure. "In that case," Leong explains, "We were trying to reverse the actual retail experience, and use the interior as a landscape."
Mark Kroeckel from Openshop explained that his design firm approaches every project very strategically. "We want to know how retail space actually works. Who's the demographic? How does the spirit of the company translate into a retail experience?" he says. The firm designed for Steven Alan eight years ago, before the fashion brand had established a strong retail identity. Openshop looked for the crucial brand elements before deciding what features they could add to every store to make them distinct. When designing for eyewear brand Artsee, Kroeckel says the firm broke down the company to understand its business goals, how they sell products, and how they interact with clients. The firm designed a New York City store that encourages clients to stay stationary while employees move to find products for them. "The question is," he says, "How can we get involved with a company, embrace it in many ways, and then give it more life and relevance to those who interact with it?"
Benshetrit, who has a background in product design, says the firm does not intend to be specialized. Rather, it works in product design, interiors, and architecture. "I'm interested in human emotion and how it relates to design through a space or a product," he says. "We never repeat what we're doing." He said the product always effects the retail space—designing for Tumi required a pragmatic and strategic approach, while designing for a clothing store demands a much more emotional approach. "In a clothing store, you're picking the right dress for that important event. It's an emotional space," he explains. "For Tumi, we were trying to make it easy for people to pick the right product for themselves."
Shifting into the question and answer portion of the evening, Keith asked the panelists if they preferred working with an existing brand or building one from the ground up. "An existing brand can be interesting," says Kroeckel, "Because you're dealing with history. Sometimes when you work to build a new brand from scratch, you have a conversation that happens in a vacuum." Dror Studio does a lot of international work, and Benshetrit explained what it was like to translate an international brand to the American market. "My European clients think that in the American market, everything needs to be literal. I have to convince people they do not have to make their logo bigger for a store in Chicago." Inversely, Leong Leong made significant design changes when they brought a Phillip Lim store to Seoul. "We looked at how shopping is different in each city—in L.A., it's very experience based. But in Seoul, it's product based," he says. Kroeckel chimed in on how important cultural distinctions are to retail design, leaving the question: "How do we embrace those distinction?"
For Keith's last question, she asked the designers to talk about mind-blowing retail spaces. "The Prada space comes to mind," says Leong, "Because it's retail space as public space. It's not just about introducing a product, it's introducing an experience." Benshetrit said he likes the logic and system of Uniqlo stores, and then slammed American Apparel. "It's trying to be effortless, but not in an effortless way." he says. "It's deliberate. And this matters, even when you're just trying to sell a $20 t-shirt."
Emily Nonko is a writer living in Brooklyn. She specializes in real estate and architecture coverage at Brownstoner.com. You can also find her on Twitter @EmilyNonko.