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The Death of Cool: How Concept Stores Lost Their Edge

Senior Strategist, Andrew Bellofatto, shares his point of view on how the Concept Store has changed from a cultural focal point to a mainstay of the modern retail landscape.
29 August, 2023
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The concept store, once a disruptive force in retail, has undergone a significant transformation, adapting to the changing demands of the consumer landscape. Emerging in the latter part of the 20th century, it attracted forward-thinkers seeking immersive experiences that seamlessly integrated art, fashion, and culture. As globalization spread, the concept store's rebellious allure waned, and it transitioned from a cutting-edge movement to a mainstream fixture.

Once upon a time, these concept stores served as cultural sanctuaries, forging connections with local communities and subcultures. They offered an alternative to conventional stuffy luxury boutiques and mainstream fashion editorials, appealing to "bohemians" and "artists," who eagerly embraced this unique approach to consumption.

The concept store's influence extended beyond traditional retail, reshaping not only shopping but also product design itself. The fusion of art and commerce gave rise to exclusive collaborations, altering consumer preferences to favor distinct, location-specific items positioned as art within physical retail spaces. This departure from conventional merchandising norms emphasized an attitude and curatorial lifestyle rather than mere transactions.

Take, for instance,  Bazaar London of the 1950s, which is known to be one of the first examples of the democratisation of high fashion. Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene's ingenious blend of high fashion with an informal, bohemian atmosphere marked the beginnings of a new era in fashion commerce. This boutique planted the seeds for a forthcoming era marked by the deconstruction of traditional fashion commerce, all the while championing the notion that fashion’s allure extended beyond the confines of the ‘elite’.

In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood's Kings Road store became a haven for emerging artists and punk musicians, catalyzing a powerful relationship between fashion and youth culture. Westwood's provocative fusion of a sex-shop ambiance with radical punk designs provided a canvas for creative expression that transcended commerce. This intersection between high fashion and culture gave birth to new styles and attitudes that reverberated far beyond the store's walls.

The modern concept store owes much to Milan's 10 Corso Como, once a garage, evolved into a hub for fashion, design, and hospitality, magnetizing artists and trendsetters alike. Its iconic curation and innovative spaces transformed it into a cultural destination, laying the foundation for a new hospitality meets gallery retail format.

However, what was once distinct about concept stores has now been embraced by both high street and luxury brands, marking a significant shift. Signature elements like personalization and exclusive collaborations have become commonplace. Look at Colette in Paris for example, this iconic Parisian retail destination, known for its ever-evolving experiences that seamlessly melded pop culture with luxury, has been reborn as a Saint Laurent 'concept' flagship, exemplifying this transition from independent to established.

Yet, amidst this evolution, Dover Street Market might stand as an exception—a chaotic haven fostering creativity, preserving its allure while adapting to the times. Rei Kawakubo's vision for the space as a platform for diverse creators endures, drawing various luxury markets, from Gen-Zers to fashion collectors. Despite expansion, it retains the independent Comme des Garçons spirit by empowering local staff to cultivate authentic, local experiences.

The digital era has catalyzed the decline of concept stores. It's not solely about the ease of offering a broader online product range, but rather the erosion of novelty through sensory overload and pre-exposure through social media.

Today and for the future, the shopper journey will still begin on digital channels, translating digital engagement into vibrant real-world experiences. Balancing mystique with online promotion presents a puzzle. In a crowded retail landscape, the boldest move is returning to pre-concept store philosophies—embracing exclusivity and opulence. Balenciaga's invitation-only couture boutique and Jacquemus' exclusive resort boutiques exemplify this renewed focus on rarity, celebrating indulgence and being harder to access. High-touch interactions, personalized service, and hands-on discovery now hold value in the retail climate.

The concept store's decline isn't the final curtain; it's a launchpad for something new—a shift toward a more sophisticated form of luxury, one that thrives on exclusivity and distinction. As retail keeps evolving, the concept store's heritage beckons us to return to a more personal touch. It's not just about going to these curated, artsy spaces; it's about the privilege of being there, experiencing high-touch service and discovering treasures that can't be found online. The codes are becoming more traditional again, and the true distinction lies in the exclusivity of access, creating an alluring, select club of shoppers who savor retail in an entirely exceptional way.

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