By Robert Such. Published in The Independent on Sunday.
Paris is many things: chic, sophisticated, stylish. But one thing it isn’t is mould-breaking. Modern Parisians are conservative in their tastes, and never more so than when they go clothes-shopping. While the garments themselves may not be that old-fashioned, the stores are another matter. The traditional Paris boutique is a sombre place, with dark granite floors, plain white walls and heavy, dressing-room drapes. Even in 2002, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary would not feel out of place.
At least, it used to be like that. In a spirit of ‘evolve or die’, some enlightened retailers have been challenging the French capital’s fustiness. Two boutiques in particular have caused a stir. One is by the French design duo the Bouroullec brothers; the other by Dutch group Droog Design.
On the stylish rue Saint-Honoré, Droog’s interior for Mandarina Duck is hard to miss. It assaults passing shoppers with floor-to-ceiling windows that give a clear view of the playground inside, full of vibrant colours and intriguing shapes. The Italian leatherwear manufacturer initially approached Droog about revamping its chain of stores in provincial cities, commissioning them to present their ideas for the Bologna branch. Briefed to design “the same but different,” says Renny Ramakers, the Dutch came up with something completely new. “When we tabled our proposals,” Droog’s Renny Ramakers says, “Mandarina Duck ‘upgraded’ us to Paris.”
Visiting the Paris shop is like playing a game of hide-and-seek. A big steel, doughnut-shaped container tempts the shopper to see what lies within. This is the “Inverse Clothes Rack”.
Push an item against The Pinwall standing over by the window and aluminium rods are pushed through to replicate its form on the other side. Elsewhere in the shop, rubber bands in green, red and yellow — like the bungees found on bicycle racks — keep handbags in place on the walls. Nylon jackets are inventively displayed, hung vacuum-packed between sheets of plastic.
Moving around the store is fun. A spiral staircase connects the ground floor to the second. Here, nickel-plated copper pellets make up a wavy curtain, which partitions off the luggage section. Pieter Bannenberg of NL Architects, who worked on the project, explains that this allows “freedom to move in and out. It avoids dead ends. It’s typically Dutch.”
Best of all are the “Grasslands” changing rooms. Based on photographs of crop circles, these two areas are cut off from the rest of the store by 6ft-high fibreglass quills. A giant mirror lets you check out the rather odd rubberised-paper anoraks.
This is the first shop interior for both Droog and NL Architects, which may go some way to explaining their unique approach. Likewise, the Bouroullec brothers were complete newcomers to shop design. In fact, they were so surprised to be asked to do Issey Miyake’s A-POC in the Marais district of Paris that they wondered “if it was not a casting error” says Ronan Bouroullec. Once they’d recovered from the shock, they based their quirky design on “the imagined expansion of a fruit basket”.
A-POC stands for A Piece of Cloth. The “piece of cloth” in question is a nylon, cotton, polyurethane mix fabric, which comes in a tubular roll. “A-POC is less about clothes and more about a technical solution,” Ronan explains. Anything from gloves to skirts can be chopped from the stretchy material to the buyer’s size and taste.
The shop most resembles a workshop-cum-dry-cleaner’s with a series of rails that wrap around the room. The green changing-room curtain is made of foam sandwiched between wool. Painted steel panels support magnets that slip inside the garments and hold them in place. Hangers and work surfaces hook over the narrow bars. Flexibility is the keyword: it’s designed to adapt to the demands of future collections.
Miyake commissioned the boys from Brittany to fit out A-POC on the basis of their drawings alone. The next time they saw him was the day before the opening. Fortunately, he liked what he saw. Miyake’s confidence in the Bouroullecs probably owed a lot to their reputation and string of previous successes. They have already pocketed a number of international awards, and their work has made it into Pompidou Centre’s contemporary design collection.
Despite the work of these young designers, it remains to be seen whether Parisians will be quick to confront their irrational attachment to soporific shop design.