Chanel takes radical approach to retail

Chanel show

Chanel show - picture by Vanessa Friedman

At the Chanel show I was sitting next to architect Peter Marino, and after we had admired the all-white aquarium set (pictured left), we got to chatting about his recent renovation of the brand’s London Sloane Street store, to be unveiled this week. It’s not what you would expect.

First, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as one (okay, me) might assume, even though the centrepiece is a graphic black and white work of art by Allan McCollum, the American artist, displayed around the central stairwell and featuring the most popular 1000 women’s names according the US census. Think Maria, Chanel (really) and Shakira and you’ll get the idea.

Mr Marino said he wanted to emphasise the fact that Chanel was the last pure woman’s brand (it doesn’t do men’s wear) and also had the sneaky idea that the piece might keep people in-store longer and even act as a viral bit of marketing, as customers perused the wall to see if their names were on it, and then maybe got their picture taken next to their moniker. This positive apparently outweighed the negative that rival brand Tiffany was also on the wall (it’s a popular name), and hence benefiting from a bit of free marketing.

Anyway, as to the expense, Mr Marino said when it came to store renovation, almost half the budget could be allotted to the façade — or “changing the architecture of the street.” If the outside can’t be touched, and Chanel’s Sloane Street can’t, because it’s a listed building, then: bingo! “You can save millions.”

As to where those millions are going: presumably to the Chanel store in London’s Bond Street, which is about to be closed for a big two-year renovation (hence the importance of Sloane Street). When finished, Chanel Bond Street is expected to rival the Louis Vuitton flagship it faces in size and fabulousness. Indeed, the two stores will create a one-two punch of retail-as-tourist-attraction competition (or retail-as-warring-rhinoceri, depending on your perspective) that Mr Marino, who designed/is designing both stores, finds highly amusing.

One other interesting point about Chanel Sloane Street that may ultimately affect Chanel Bond Street, and in fact, Chanel everywhere: though conventional luxury retail wisdom has always been to open the in-store journey with entry-level products like keychains and wallets so as not to frighten people away with enormous price tags, Mr Marino is inverting the equation. The new store will have the “rare and exceptional” products (i.e. the super-expensive one-offs) at the entrance, and the accessible stuff upstairs.

“I was thinking about what distinguishes a luxury brand from any other,” said Mr Marino. “And honestly, I think the answer is partly price point. Why hide that?”

Told you it was radical.