"There are some very different approaches to translating a brand concept into a store. The architecture of the boutique has to express brand values. This is the fascinating part of our work, converting the world of a brand into space and materials."
We are at BBArchitetti in Milan, where Andrea Burgio and Barbara Ballabio are the creative minds behind this studio specializing in Retail & Store Concept for luxury brands including Ermenegildo Zegna, Valentino Fashion Group, Giorgio Armani and Salvatore Ferragamo. (In the photo below, Barbara Ballabio and Andrea Burgio).
"Sometimes," said Barbara Ballabio, "a brand gives us a brief in which they specify a certain period of architecture, such as the early 20th century, or even a specific reference such as Villa Necchi in Milan."
But this is not always the case. "Very often," said Andrea Burgio, "there is no particular input in terms of design, and we are asked to invent an image that expresses the image of the products. This calls for a preliminary analysis of the product and brand, and the identification of brand values."
In many cases, even though a brand may develop a global concept, local factors have to be taken into consideration. "For example," said Barbara Ballabio, "we may receive a request from a Ukrainian client saying, please design us a boutique that feels luxury and European; in this case, we have to be careful, because the European concept of luxury is more minimalist, with matt surfaces and understatement, while in the Ukraine, luxury is synonymous with shine and a lot of high-gloss metal." (In the photo below, Symbol boutique, lounge bar, Ukraine).
Andrea Burgio described an example of how they develop their ideas. "In a design concept for Canali, the elements in the brief were attention to detail, hand-crafting, and Made in Italy. We decided to redevelop stylistic concepts based on work by American architect Rudolph Schindler, and in particular the sculptural, spatial use of timber applied to an orthogonal grid. This also creates a reference to Italian and specifically Milanese architecture of the 1930s and '50s; these motifs enabled us to formulate the lifestyle characteristics inherent in the brand."
Andrea continued, "Of course, we have our own hallmarks as well. We like to take a motif, such as a geometrical shape, and express it in a variety of ways, generating patterns over extensive surface, for example, screen panels made from expanded metal, or interesting textures made by creating new composites such as plate glass with a central core of fabric. This sort of research on materials is a fundamental part of our work." (In the photo below, Symbol women's boutique, Ukraine).
What about colour? Does this also play an important role?
"Of course, but usually, the hues are the natural colours of the materials that we use. Usually in a luxury boutique, colours are neutral, in order to highlight the products."
And what about the role of technology in the boutique of the future?
Andrea Burgio: "Actually, technology is usually limited to development techniques, such as 3-D prototyping. In some cases, we have worked on technology within boutiques, such as a project developed for Ducati with a LED screen wrapped around the entrance that was activated when a customer entered, simulating the effect of a motorbike's digital speedometer. But this was something of an exception."
"That's right," said Barbara Ballabio. "When a brand wants a boutique, they invariably ask us to design something that looks like a lounge in a luxury Italian home!" (In the photo below, Symbol boutique, lounge bar, Ukraine).
Does that mean that there is an identity between luxury and Italian style, at least amongst top brands?
"To a degree," said Andrea, "but it's not a generalized concept. Prada's approach, with its store designs commissioned from Rem Koolhaas, and Herzog and de Meuron, was more about contemporary, one-off designs. Ralph Lauren's boutiques are like stage sets, packed with objects and furniture evoking a reassuringly domestic vision of luxury."
So, rather than technology, contemporary boutique design is more about personal service?
"One of the intrinsic features of luxury is being physically part of a certain environment, having access to the actual products, with people who can provide expert advice, and a whole set of extra services such as made-to-measure. It would be difficult to provide all this with e-commerce-type solutions," said Andrea.
So, just as books and magazines will stay with us alongside digital media, luxury boutiques will remain fundamental in retail, offering their unique combination of brand experience, service and personalization. After all, who can resist a spot of high-street shopping?
In the photo below, women's boutique, Karlovy Vary.
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