Wednesday, December 30, 2009

ABC Carpet's new Conran Shop in Shop

New York, NEW YORK

My recent post about Milan’s la Rinascente department store including a Conran Shop may now read as a precursor to the latest news out from the British restaurateur, designer, author, and specialty retailer Terrence Conran.

The New York Times reports that after 10 years of operating on the far east side Manhattan the Conran Shop will close its doors and open a shop-in-shop at ABC Carpet in Union Square. The 8,500 square foot shop will open in April 2010.

Operating at about 50% of its original size the shop will focus on what the company is calling its more “masculine” categories of merchandise including furniture, lighting, kitchen, and under-glass products. The most noticeable categories that will be eliminated are textiles, bath, children's, stationery, and travel items.

For those who cannot do without a specific Conran item ‘til April they do deliver from the UK with complete instructions on the company website- In the most polite British manner would-be shoppers are instructed to call for details regarding freight, import duties, and taxes that may be incurred from packages headed for America.

The London and Paris Conran Shops were and still are very important travel designations for merchants seeking trends and sources while attending the winter and fall trade shows. I consistently found at least one key item in the gardening or kitchen departments. So, when Sir Terrance opened this business in New York I must admit I was a bit disappointed. This was another sign of globalization that affected me personally. As a California based merchant the unique treasures discovered here would now be much more accessible to other buyers who never even visited Europe.

I expect this may become the busiest area inside ABC Carpet and come this spring the downtown crowd will not have to trek all the way up to barren neighborhood of the Queensborough bridge to shop the latest Conran collection.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sign of the times- Department stores entering the discount outlet business.

At the close of each month we all see the comparable store sales numbers. Looking back at the last year it’s clearly the off-price business that consistently outshines any of the regular priced retailers. I suspect December will be no exception. Both The TJX Co.s and Ross Stores are bucking the trend, reporting positive numbers and sometimes reaching double digit increases over last year.

Competition is now surfacing for that value driven customer in the near future from a very unlikely source. WWD reports that Lord & Taylor, the oldest upscale department store in the United States is entering the outlet business. The first will be a 15,000 ft. sq location in Elizabeth, N.J. It may come as no surprise after the retailer has struggled with a series of ownership shuffles, store closures, and it's new identity. This is the same Lord & Taylor that for decades advertised through fashion illustrations when everyone else was using modern photography. At one time couture fashion designers such as Balenciaga, Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy were on display in the Lord & Taylor 5th Avenue flagship. Now just a few of these names remain in the Bridal assortment and the dress department is made up of very modestly priced ready-to-wear pieces from American names like Calvin Klein and Ellen Tracy. As for those new price points ads targeting a younger shopper- seems like they took their cues from Old Navy.

This news comes as Macy’s acknowledged that they are also looking into the possibility of opening outlet locations but have yet to announce any specific sites.

In an interesting move Simon Property Group announced in a December 8th press release that it would buy out 22 new mall locations from Prime Outlets for a price of $2.3 billion. This acquisition will result in a total of 63 off price centers for Simon comprising approximately 25 million square feet.

Burt Tansky, the Chairman & CEO of Neiman Marcus recently acknowledges that the “Last Call” outlet stores were out performing the regular price locations. He said the number of outlets would be expanding beyond the current portfolio of 28 and they are working on finding "more central locations" as well.

Some free advice for these retailers entering into this new territory; Do not open more locations that you can adequately stock and do not supplement the merchandise assortments with lower quality goods that would never be sold in the full prices stores. I was a bit shocked to see this trickery from one luxury outlet when it was quite clear that this retailer would have never sold a rough poly-blend dress shirt but yet here it was piled high posing as an over-stock with a very inflated comp. price. This could really turn off the more affluent educated shoppers who will not return unless the bargains are real and honest.

Much of this shift is really about the consumer re-evaluating what prices should be. With so many prestige brands being offered up at mass retailers it leads us all to question the rational of why name brands are at such inflated prices. Many retailers have been hitting the discount panic button so quickly. First through a sale of 20-40 off, then 50% and higher discounts sometimes just weeks after arriving in shops.

I foresee that all of these changes could result in better shopping experiences in off price location and outlet malls. They may start resembling some of the better shopping mall formats. They could be built in more convenient areas where people actually live and work. They will include welcoming landscaping & convenient parking facilities (valet maybe?). The architecture will be more appealing and might incorporate children’s recreation spots and spacious seating areas, and maybe nice, healthy restaurant choices. If all of that happens, the whole business model and price structure of retail could change dramatically.

As we go into this new decade change is in the wind and it’s certainly not going to be business as usual anymore.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A New Year's Resolution for the Design Community

I met with an investor from one of the so-called “eco- friendly” retailers who was considering hiring me as a consultant. In the meeting he asked me to basically look at Pottery Barn's catalog covers for the past five years and copy the styles with a spin toward his new brand. I ended up offering some friendly advice and did not take on the project, suggesting instead that the company could do much better with original ideas and products.

Now as economic woes continue the collateral damaged may include such sameness that seems to pervade the home industry. So, as we approach a new decade what will home furnishings look like in 2010 as both consumer and corporate budgets get slashed?

To answer this question I have two approaches.

Let’s start with Dieter Rams the industrial engineer most closely associated with Braun. Many of his designs have a home in the permanent collections of museums around the world. Thankfully Rams offers us his ten principles of good design.

Note to designers;
Please print this list and post this where you can read it every day.

• Good design is innovative
• Good design makes a product useful
• Good design is aesthetic
• Good design helps us to understand a product
• Good design is unobtrusive
• Good design is honest
• Good design is long-lasting
• Good design is consequent to the last detail
• Good design is concerned with the environment
• Good design is as little design as possible

What really makes Braun and other Rams designs stand out for me the most is number 7; the long-lasting qualities. I have a number of Braun products that are twenty years old that work and still look great.

The second place we go for inspiration is Japan- by way of the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.

The Japan External Trade Organization or JETRO set up a section of the ICFF trade show in New York this year. The International Contemporary Furniture Fair features furniture and accessories and also displays a number of student design projects that have not yet made it to production. JETRO curated an exciting and innovative presentation of items and offered a catalog that explained how they were chosen.

According to the literature all these items on display had high Kansei value, or emotional and physical appeal to the user.

Kansei is manifested in three ways:
1. Hyōjō - The expression of an object or its appearance. This includes material, color, texture; all the qualities visible to the eye.
2. Dōsa- The creator’s gesture or intent or how the body physical response to the object; for example how it feels to the touch.
3. Kokoro- The emotion an object evokes. This psychological dimension is the most abstract but most prized by Japanese designers.

All photographs copyright Vitsœ.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Rebirth of the Department Store- Italian Style


A visit to Milan is certain to include a walk around the Piazza del Duomo. One of the key anchors in this enormous walking and shopping area is La Rinascente, the upscale department store founded in 1865. (This is the place where Giorgio Armani got his start- dressing the windows- but that’s another story.)

Shopping there in the past was similar to visiting a Macy’s suburban C-store – the absence of better name brands and lacking the luster or modernity of say what you find at Harvey Nichols or Neiman Marcus. I even recall the lighting and visuals used to be quite compromised and outdated.

This past July La Rinacente unveiled what is being called a "design supermarket”. I visited in September, walked the lower level shops and saw an exciting combination of home and design objects that rivaled The Conran Shop. A modern bustling café circles the escalator's open architecture; a wall ‘sculpture’ in itself. Many of the goods are featured in a modern art museum-shop fashion. These include sophisticated dustpans and vases as well as notebooks and mugs by fashion designer Paul Smith. There is even a Conran shop-in-shop down there as well, the first I have seen. It makes sense since Sir Terrance does not have any of his own retail shops in Italy. Kartell and Wallpaper* magazine also set up shop there which definitely adds to the cool factor.

There was no sign of a recession here on a busy Saturday afternoon. The store was full of people and gave off a party atmosphere- interesting music that changed in each area. Large scale theatrics in cosmetics; it was teeming with dozens of fragrance models and cosmetic artists in action. Many of the major international designer and top luxury brand names were visible right from the sight-lines of the up escalator.

In 2005 the company recruited the CEO who was credited with turning the ailing Selfridges department store around. Vittorio Radice who was also the Managing Director for Habitat UK is responsible for this resurrection. When I worked with Vittorio on furniture product development at Conran’s Habitat he was constantly pushing the merchandisers to go after a similar visual approach- a ‘fresh from the market’ look in the shops. He wanted to see towering stacks of new dinnerware filling large baskets that may have just been cracked open from a crate, as well as goods on dining tables that looked like they were just stocked up.

How appropriate that La Rinascente is derived from rinascita - means "rebirth" in Italian. Perhaps this is the inspiration the management team used to make such a bold new business introduction and major remodel in such a troubled economy.

We will have to watch the sales and earnings of La Rinascente in the future but the launch of such fresh and new idea seems to have paid off from the glimpse I saw in the high foot traffic and number of shopping bags heading out the door.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The most beautiful garden book

- New York, NY

A quick call out today for Dominique Browning's list of the top ten new garden books of the year for the New York Times - Book Review (12/06/09).

In praise of Anna Pavord's book, BULB, Browning said, "This is the most beautiful garden book of the season", offering us as readers happiness and hope. She also notes a warning, "...[it] is enough to induce lust in the most abstracted Zen gardener."

In her other picks it is worth noting that she mentions but does not recommend any of the how-to titles which will no doubt be piled up on a feature table in your local book seller. Four of Browning's books fall under the category of Japanese Gardening suggesting that we should probably make our vacation plans now.

Full link to the section of the NY TIMES below as well as my earlier post about BULB from November 2, 2009.

GARDEN- Bulb Season

With all the buzz about growing your own rooftop produce there are still more flower gardeners out there for one simple reason; sunlight. Even those with out an outdoor space can turn a small windowsill into a miniature flower garden, but most vegetables do require about six hours of sun or more.

BULB, a new book written by Anna Pavord has just been released from Octopus Publishing Group. It's been ten years since she wrote her related title, The Tulip- a history and illustrated archive of the flower from its botanical origins to Tulipmania, and to the big business it has now become.

In BULB, this time Pavord shares 540 of her favorite bulbs with a more practical approach. This alphabetical collection provides photographs, inspiration, and helpful advice.

Another book written ten years ago is still very fresh in its presentation of all forced blooms indoors; Forcing, etc written by Katherine Whiteside for Smith & Hawken. She explored all sorts of cultivated and wild flora that can be transformed with the right conditions; from branches, bulbs, even forcing acorns into tiny bonsai gardens. A Google preview of her book can be viewed at the Workman publishing website.

Paste address into browser:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Coming Up Roses – Clubhouse furniture for KENZO

- Los Angeles & Miami

Kenzo Takada’s fashion career which has spanned thirty years started appropriately in Paris. His first designs were created only from the fabrics he could afford to buy at the flea market. As a result, Kenzo had to mix many bold fabrics together to make one garment. In 1970 he opened up his first shop near the Palais Royale inside Galerie Vivienne.

His ready-to-wear is both practical in function and often outrageous in detail. Formal suit coats with large patch pockets on the back or oversized buttons, for example. Like the other top Japanese designers his clothes are loose and unstructured. However one consistent quality is that the garments are very durable and can last a life time with proper care.

In the mid nineties Kenzo joined the luxury group LVMH which would support a global expansion plan. A few years later he would step down as CEO and pass the work off to his assistants. In 2005 he would return to design "Gokan Kobo" a collection of tableware and home objects; Baccarat made the crystal pieces, Niderwiller and Manufacture Nationale de Sevres manufactured the porcelain table-top.

Now Kenzo has just entered the US market with support of the Italian company Clubhouse who also is behind the FENDI home collection. Together they have produced a wide range of furniture for sale in Miami and Los Angeles. L.A.'s Melrose location opened its doors in October and displays a wide assortment of case goods, dining room furniture, and accessories.

All the pieces are special order. The ‘Grace’ chair featured here starts at about $1,000 with a number of fabric and finish options. Contact information and photos of the FENDI collection at the Clubhouse Italia site below. Kenzo photos coming soon.

Gokan Kobo photo courtesy of AFP © 2005

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Robb Report follows up on Ralph Lauren Vault post

-New York, NY

The Home & Garden Business News post from November 18th announced Ralph Lauren's new venture into one of a kind collectible antiques for sale throuh a new division's website called The Vault.

Today's Robb Report newsletter arrived and was promoting the site just in time for holiday shopping.

Although if the sky's really the limit for that someone special, the new Hermès mega yacht by Wally is tough competition. A floating paradise for €100 million.

When I was in Monaco this summer the yacht show was just getting set up in the port at Monte Carlo but the highly anticipated unveiling had not occurred yet. The link below includes a video clip of the vessel in motion in the 'Making of' section. Daydreaming encouraged.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Update on the White House Christmas Tree

- Washington, DC

To follow up from an earlier post...

Today First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the Blue Room Christmas tree that will be accessible to the public visiting the White House.

The theme of the holiday decorating is "Reflect, Rejoice and Renew".

In an unusual turn they decided to re-use about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations. These were re-designed by about 60 local community groups throughout the country. The groups decorated them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then sent them back for display at the White House.

Bravo to the First Lady for not only recycling but for the community inclusion to the festivities this year.

Check out this year's impressive gingerbread house complete with the organic vegetable garden detail.

Photo credits; SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

GARDEN- California Flower Growers Reach Out to Locavores

-California’s Central Valley

Thanks to writers like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver we are in the middle of a global shift of choosing local produce instead of imported goods or those produced by large factory farms which are trucked across the country.

There is another group of farmers that want to participate in the local movement and protect their part of a shrinking business. It's the 250 cut flower growers in California that employ about 20,000 people. This may be an uphill battle unless the growers can compete with the international marketplace. Twenty years ago California supplied more than 60% of the nation’s cut flowers. Today that amount has been reduced to 25% as commercial airplanes zip back and forth from S. America to huge distribution centers in Miami daily undercutting the domestic growers. On-line shopping has also shifted business away from from the local florist or wire service to the lowest priced pre-packed imports- the ones that often arrive in a cardboard shipping box.

The California Cut Flower Commission is a state government agency created by the legislature to promote California-grown cut flowers and foliages. The commission kicked off a buy-local campaign last month starting in Vons and Safeway stores. The flowers will be displayed with “hint cards” noting various tips like; the Golden state’s flowers are America’s freshest. Whole Foods Markets have been tagging many of their produce and flowers with the locally grown signs as well.

Although I support this initiative and hope for the best, it may not be enough to effect the primary decision making of this impulse buy. First comes the perceived value and retail price so this may be effective as a secondary “feel good” emotion that comes after the purchase. One also imagines the reduced shipping and handling costs will help keep control prices.

Lastly I predict the awareness campaign will be more important for the self-purchase unless the pricing of CA grown flowers is less or equal to that of the imports. As for the flowers I buy for my own home; I want those to last as long as possible and here in Los Angeles they would most likely be those that are locally grown but the value must be there too. However as a gift I might be more frugal so if the less expensive flowers (of what ever origin) did not last as long – I would never really know.