It’s a shoe in
Designers are capitalising on our growing appetite for shoes with limited edition and handmade luxury footwear while department stores are investing in hugely expanded shoe salons, often architect-designed to resemble art galleries
It’s no secret that the luxury end of the fashion business is based on a model of aspiration. That is, the clothes, runway shows and campaigns create the impression of a desirable world, one accessible with the purchase of an entry-level item. It stands to reason, then, that big luxury brands make much more money from the bags, shoes and lipsticks than they do the ready-to-wear apparel with which they’re designed to be worn. Indeed, in some cases many of the pieces shown on a runway aren’t even put into production, merely because their cost — or sometimes their theatricality — excludes many.
“Accessories have always been a higher margin business [than clothing] and the primary source of revenue for luxury brands is shoes and handbags,” explains luxury consultant Edward Bertouch, a senior associate at Robert Burke Associates in New York. But, he adds, the recession has triggered a “showrooming effect” — where a customer walks into a store such as electronics retailer Best Buy or mid-market department store Macy’s, tries something on, and then dials up on their mobile phone and orders it for less online — and it “has become a serious issue, at least in the United States”.
As Terry Betts, buying manager at leading luxury e-tail site MrPorter notes, accessories— and, in particular, shoes — continue to experience sales growth in the online department store’s category makeup. “Shoe sales continue to grow every season,” he explains, “and this season we have really focused on the expansion of our shoe business, in particular with sneakers, and are already seeing strong traction globally.” Mr Porter, like its earlier-established female counterpart Net-a-Porter, finds itself well poised to absorb a serious portion of sales that have long been important to bricks-and-mortar department stores as a result of the site’s functionality and offering: in a culture where online retail has become commonplace, shoes and accessories are far simpler an investment for customers, given the ease of sizing — and the site’s simple return process — and expansive offering that rivals even the largest physical spaces.
But the popularity of shoes in retail stems beyond simplicity. “It’s unquestionably the most exciting and developing category in menswear at the moment,” says Betts, noting that men consider shoes — whether a neat dress shoe or fashion sneaker — as punctuation to an outfit. Designers, too, have been quick to capitalise. Gucci recently released a 60th-anniversary edition of its classic horsebit loafer, supported by global merchandising and in-store activity.
The “store wars” in Australia may currently be about the competition between Myer and David Jones’s portfolio of brands, but in New York — where, it can be said, things move a little faster in retail — stores are raising the stakes with shoe departments and floors that, in the case of Saks Fifth Avenue at 790sqm, warrants its own zip code, 10022SHOE. “The shoe department wars have been happening for a while, but when Saks claimed a zip code it took things to an entirely different level,” says Bertouch.
Indeed, in August, Macy’s, which comprises brands with a collectively lower price point, upped the ante by expanding its shoe department to 3623sqm, and added additional services in a bid to combat online sales. Completing the $US400 million development are 430 shoe-specific staff and the recent addition of a Champagne bar. “Since then it’s been a huge area of expansion for the department stores. The shoe department has become the first, and the most important, to invest in.”
The 2043sqm revamped shoe floor that opened at Barneys New York’s Madison Avenue flagship last July houses both its women’s and men’s portfolio of brands, including some exclusive to the store, such as Narciso Rodriguez, and was designed by interior design firm Yabu Pushelberg in collaboration with the retailer’s creative director Dennis Freedman to resemble a fine art gallery, consistent with its womenswear floor that opened shortly after. As such, the designer maximised natural light to echo the finishes throughout: Italian marble walls, floating translucent glass divisions to create partial environments, stainless finishes and limestone flooring, as well as iPad stations throughout with access to Barneys.com.
Department stores such as Barneys aren’t the first area of retail to employ the architectural methodology of a museum or art gallery in a bid to heighten the customer
experience. The fashion industry, unlike many others, has the financial resources to employ the same high-profile architects who design landmark art museums: in New York City, for example, Rem Koolhaas, who was responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Las Vegas, also designed Prada’s SoHo Epicenter on the site of the now-defunct downtown New York Guggenheim Museum, and Frank Gehry, architect for the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi site, designed Issey Miyake’s Tribeca store. And yet unlike the formula for designing museums, many fashion houses forgo tradition in pursuit of an architectural statement that simultaneously serves as a tourist attraction, a temple to good design, and gives the fashion offerings a perceived value akin to fine art.
As advertising critic and cultural historian James B. Twitchell wrote in his book Branded Nation, “The modern department store and the art museum are now joined at the hip … They are all about vaunting things, branding things … We gaze at the framed object and floodlit objets d’art behind glass. Wegawk at the decorated and elegant mannequin in the store window. We peer at the label beneath the painting just as we inspect the label on the object. We need to know provenance, the brand, s’il vous plait, before we can consume.”
Across the pond, department store Selfridges London last November unveiled what is now the largest men’s footwear space in the world at 930sqm. Comprising more than 250 brands, with 80 of them new to the store at the time of opening, it boasts ready-to-wear pieces by Kenzo,
“The modern department store and the art museum are ... all about vaunting things, branding things”
McQ, Oliver Spencer and Burberry alongside a made-toorder shoe salon and space for pop-up shops, exclusive collaborations, customisation services and trunk shows, building a stronger relationship with its customers.
According to TheGuardian newspaper, an impressive 72,000 pairs of shoes were brought in for the department’s relaunch. In contrast to Barneys’ unisex shoe floor, Selfridges’ men’s-specific department, designed by Belgian architect Vincent van Duysen, is intrinsically more masculine in a traditional sense: floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, oak wood panelling and an extensive use of leather, including sofas and flooring, evoke an air of classicism. Leather specialist Bill Amberg, who was responsible for the leather, explained “the idea focuses on the idea of leather on leather — the floor being made of the same materials as the soles of a gentleman’s shoes. A separate “salon” is dedicated entirely to driving shoes, the interior of which is inspired by the bodywork of vintage Ferraris.
The New York flagship of upmarket department store Bergdorf Goodman adopted a similar approach when it unveiled its renovation last October. Stemming from practical purposes — previously various types of shoes, such as casual and dress, were split up by floors, and there was an obvious need to consolidate all footwear in one location — the space has adopted the aesthetic of a classic library. The feeling of a gentleman’s club, replete with bookshelves, dark timber flooring and panelling, leather couches and marble benchtops, mirrors the slow cycle of men’s trends. “Styling doesn’t change as quickly in men’s as it does in women’s,” says Mimi Fukuyoshi, the store’s
The revamped shoe floor at Barney’s Madison Avenue, top left and below; Bergdorf Goodman evokes an air of classicism, above; Double Monk, left