As value fashion retailers take visual cues from their upmarket rivals to entice customers in, the luxury players themselves are harking back to a boutique style that speaks of bespoke service.
Many designers claim there is a huge opportunity for retailers to raise their game by creating stores that offer richer experiences and a sense of drama. Designers might well say this, of course, as it is the conjuring of such delights from the drawing board that pays their bills. But there is no denying that competing on the mercilessly cutthroat high street, as well as against burgeoning online retailers, demands an especially enticing offer. Responding to these challenges, the fashion sector in particular is abuzz with new formats, refreshed branding and store roll-out programmes.
'Retailers are finally starting to do something after four or five years of stagnation with the white-box concept,' says Lewis Allen, director of retail at Portland Design Associates. 'The Spanish invasion of brands such as Zara and Mango has really shaken things up and, to some extent, shown everyone else the way. They have brought theatre and experience to stores with products that are more seasonal.
'There is now greater investment, better ideas and stronger visual merchandising propositions,' he adds. 'Look at Marks & Spencer: it assessed styling, products and packaging, with a much stronger focus on the consumer.'
These changes are not simply the work of retail design agencies alone, but rather a collaboration between visual merchandising specialists, architects, store development directors and marketing chiefs. The result is a constant upward drive toward the luxury, the 'chichi' and the indulgent. As ever, brands need as distinct an image as possible, but to combat the internet in particular, fashion chains are being forced to improve their level of service and create add-on offers for customers.
'There are many products that are best bought online, such as books and CDs, but fashion retail is different; people are different sizes, they need advice and extra service. This means fashion retailers have to retain their high-street presence, which is very expensive and competitive,' says Jonathan Clarke, director at Universal Design Studio, which is working on the interior of the forthcoming Reiss building on London's Barrett Street. He points out that added services are increasingly being used at the luxury end of fashion, reviving the relationship customers once had with dedicated tailors.
One way of achieving this type of intimacy through store design is to introduce boutique elements into what are essentially high-street chains. Last autumn, women's fashion retailer Phase Eight launched a Caulder Moore-designed format, which was described by the company's then-chief executive, Joy Walters, as 'chic and glamorous'. She said it helped elevate the brand with a more personalised, bespoke offering.
Universal's concept for Reiss's 10,000ft2 store will also represent a shift toward aspirational luxury when it opens in October. 'It is a much purer look, a much cleaner space and a totally new approach,' says founder David Reiss. 'We're trying to bring some key elements and special features to the graphics, walls and space,' he adds. The store will be housed in a bespoke redevelopment, designed by architects Squire and Partners, of the five-storey building formerly home to the London College of Fashion. 'It is effectively a branded building, which is a giant leap for the brand and something that I don't think anyone else has done in the UK,' says Clarke. 'David wanted to move the brand forward, but the existing stores (designed by D-Raw Associates) are already good and it's hard to make changes to a good offer. However, some of the stores had started to become reminiscent of the collections themselves, so the clothes were getting a bit lost in the same palette.'