Let me entertain you

Written by | Articoli, Fashion, Lista 1

New York Prada Epicenter designed by OMA, now featuring backlit film stills as wallpaper called Dialogic

After gobbling up the record industry, television, print publishing, travel, transport and hotels, the “digital Gargantua” is devouring the chains of shops and department stores that are the major players in terms of turnover in clothing retail. It’s war.

As has happened in other business sectors, also here there is a constant increase in online sales. It corresponds to the inexorable decrease of brickand-  mortar retail. This phenomenon is particularly strong in the US, where department stores, although they originated in Paris and London, have been developed and diffused the most. In recent months, hundreds of big-chain clothing stores have closed or are on the verge of doing so. The numbers read like a war bulletin. Since January 2017, the following stores have shut down:  250 Limited shops; 171 Wet Seal; 120 BCBG; 170 Bebe; 60 Guess (in addition to 62 others closed in the past two years); 60 Abercrombie & Fitch; and 110 American Apparel. Above all, the crisis has struck venerable department stores. Macy’s, for example, until now the largest clothing retailer in the US (founded in New York in 1858) has closed 68 stores (15 per cent of the total) and laid off almost 4,000 employees since the beginning of the year. After rumours citing the founder and chief of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, as a possible buyer, in all probability Macy’s will go to the Canadian group Hudson Bay. Also in dire straits are Sears (founded in Chicago in 1886) and J.C. Penney (founded in Wyoming in 1902). Since 2011, Sears has closed 60 per cent of its operations, going from 3,550 to 1,500 stores. J.C. Penney closed 138 stores in March 2017, 14 per cent of the total. According to analysts, if the clothing retail sector wants to return to the sales percentage per square metre that it had in 2006, it would have to get rid of half of its stores. A hecatomb, in other words.


Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton for the 1851 Great Exposition in Hyde Park, London

Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton for the 1851 Great Exposition in Hyde Park, London, © Photo Josse/Scala, Firenze, 2017


A rapid analysis of this data could lead us to think that it is a necessary phase, seeing that Amazon and Alibaba are expanded department stores in a digital form, on a global scale. Harrods, one of the most famous department store of the world, has a motto that seems perfectly suited to the aspirations of the major e-commerce businesses: “from a safety pin to an elephant”. After 150 years and in the wake of the major changes provoked by the digital revolution, it was only logical that Harrods move from the street to the Web. Harrods opened after the Great Exposition held at Crystal Palace in 1851, that has been visited by over 6 million people, equal to one third of the British population, who came to admire thousands of products and objects from all corners of the British Empire. Now, rather than deal with anonymous dressing rooms covered with lint, long queues at the cash registers, overheated departments, underheated departments, loud music and the eternal search for a sales assistant, people prefer to stay at home and peruse a virtually infinite number of catalogues, with a drink and a cigarette (objects of desire that are strictly prohibited inside the dressing rooms). Or they might flick through said catalogues on the subway, train, plane or in bed under the counterpane.

The cast of the British TV series Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016)

The cast of the British TV series Mr. Selfridge (2013-2016). Courtesy of © ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

But it might still be early for a requiem to the brick-and-mortar store. For some time now, there has been increasing talk about a phenomenon that is described and analysed like a new trend, even if its origins lie in the early 20th century, the golden age of the ascent of department stores in London, Paris and New York. The phenomenon is known as “retail theatre” or “retailtainment”. Two recent British television series in costume, The Paradise (2012–2013) and Mr. Selfridge (2013–2016), are both set in large department stores at the beginning of the last century. The former, based on a novel by Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames, takes place in an imaginary shop where the scenography and costumes are inspired by the French painter James Tissot. For example, the uniforms of the shop assistants are based on his painting The Shop Girl (1883–1885). In addition to the costumes and objects, which are true co-protagonists in these series, what makes them particularly interesting to watch is the representation of the commercial strategies that still today constitute the guidelines of retail. The disposition of merchandise inside the store – and here we mention the brilliant intuition by Harry Gordon Selfridge to place the perfumes at the entrance, so that customers coming in from the malodorous street (at the time, Oxford Street was covered with dirt and travelled by horse-drawn carriages) would be welcomed by a divine-smelling embrace as soon as they crossed the store’s threshold –; the advertising gimmicks; the tastes and morals of the times expressed in the way the windows were dressed; and finally, the retailtainment solutions for  attracting new customers. In the second episode of The Paradise, a few months after the store’s inauguration in 1909, Selfridge convinces Louis Blériot, the first French aviator to cross the English Channel, to make a public appearance with his airplane inside the store. The event was enormously successful and made the news all over England.


American Waves Machine, Quartier DIX30 Mall, Montreal, Canada

American Waves Machine, Quartier DIX30 Mall, Montreal, Canada


Looking at more recent years, several large shopping malls around the world have commenced hosting parks with different types of rides, and sports attractions: ski slopes (Mall of the Emirates, Dubai), swimming pools with artificial waves (Quartier DIX30, Montreal) and climbing walls (pretty much everywhere). It was thought that these types of activity would increase the time spent inside the centres, and by consequence the number of sales transactions. A few years before this, Miuccia Prada, assisted by the architect Rem Koolhaas, upped the ante of complexity that is inherent in the marriage between fashion, retail and entertainment by creating the Prada Epicenter in New York, a boutique that is also an art gallery, a performance space and a laboratory. A recent interesting example of retailtainment is the new concept store Samsung 837 that opened in 2016 in the meat-packing district of New York. It features a virtual reality tunnel; a 16-metre-wide screen; a gallery for temporary immersive installations; a radio studio with disk jockey, live recordings and interviews; and a playroom for children and families.


NBA Star Lebron, Flaghsip Samsung 837. Courtesy of Samsung

NBA Star Lebron, Flaghsip Samsung 837. Courtesy of Samsung


Another instance is found in Seoul at The Quantum Project, the flagship store of the Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster. Every 25 days, the second floor is entirely redesigned and turned into a new art installation in collaboration with creative personalities or other brands. In general, it doesn’t matter where you are or in what ambit, the public seems to cultivate an increasing appetite for new experiences, types of expression and participation when buying a garment or visiting an art exhibition. As we have seen, for at least 150 years now, people have been looking for good reasons to leave their duvet behind and get out of the house!


Alessandra Galasso

È curatrice di arte e moda, critica e redattrice. Ha lavorato come Exhibition Curator al P.S.1 Museum (oggi MoMA/PS1) di New York, Senior Curator al Magasin, Centre National d’Art Contemporain di Grenoble (Francia) e Curatore Associato presso il Museo del Novecento di Milano. Insegna Antropologia culturale (triennio di Fashion Design) e Storia delle Arti applicate (biennio specialistico di Fashion & Textile Design) alla NABA, Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti di Milano.

Last modified: 12 June 2017