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A stylish showroom redesign can boost a brand — and maybe even the bottom line.
This story first appeared in the October 2, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Each morning, when Gregg Pellegrini arrives at his eponymous showroom in the CaliforniaMart, he is greeted by a gilt-framed painting of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on one side, a multihued drawing of deities Krishna and Radha on another and the pleasant trickle of a small fountain. Then, he and his staff spend 15 minutes ensuring that everything is as it should be: Color-coordinated fashion offerings by Anne Klein, Lapis, Mario Balthazar and Anopia hang from simple racks. Raffia-covered chairs are lined up against dark wood tables. Bowls made from Chinese porcelain are filled with M&M’s.
Until three months ago, Pellegrini’s eponymous showroom was little more than a storeroom. He had another showroom a few floors down. But with the move to CalMart’s slick and spacious “contemporary and young designers” floor, where neighbors include Poleci and Bella Dahl, Pellegrini wanted to create a space that was in keeping with the style of the new venue.
So in came feng shui master Angi Ma Wong and architect Phil Mesana, who helped Pellegrini create a working environment that is about more than just selling clothes. It is also, he said, about being warm, inviting and comfortable.
Those are hardly the adjectives that spring to mind when it comes to showrooms. But in recent seasons, showrooms across the country — those that carry a multitude of labels as well as single-brand ones — are beginning to rethink how they want to present themselves to buyers — which is very good news to those who specialize in showroom design and who have long been calling for such a shift in thinking.
“The challenge is to create an identity that is at once unique within a building that has certain characteristics and also to have something that is authentic to the brand and product that is on display,” said Ron Pompei, co-founder of New York-based Pompei AD, whose résumé includes stores and a showroom for Urban Outfitters.
Pompei believes that a well-appointed showroom shouldn’t merely exist to impress a buyer; the ultimate audience is the consumer. Both the buyer and the showroom, he said, have to be in sync “with what the buyer wants the customer’s experience to be.”
In the process, brands and designer showrooms are coming up with increasingly imaginative ways to distinguish themselves.
Blu Willi’s, a Danish brand that makes a special patented knit denim, has registered the positive effect a top-notch showroom can have on sales. Its 1,200-square-foot space in the International Apparel Mart in Dallas was recently revamped and now serves as the prototype for the company’s other showrooms throughout the U.S.
Danish architect Bennie Thompsen created the all-modular space, featuring primarily steel, stone and wood. So authentic to the brand is the design concept that even the lighting was flown in from Denmark.
Details run to the all-white mannequins, specially designed in Europe, and simple Danish wood hangers. There is no clutter, allowing the focus to be entirely on the product, which is primarily in shades of indigo, ice blue and ecru, adding to the overall cohesiveness of the look.
As a result, said John Allen, who, along with wife Susie, is the Southwestern corporate rep for Blue Willi’s, buyers now feel like they are walking into a retail store.
“They essentially know what the brand is, and if it’s right for them,” he explained.
In the last 12 months — virtually since the revamp was completed — Blue Willi’s sales for that sector have jumped up 30 percent.
“When you can focus all your energy on your product and give it all its selling tools, you can’t help but be more profitable,” said Allen. She declined disclosing the cost of the renovation, although she admitted “it was a commitment.” The environment has established such an identity for the brand that it has been applied to the modular displays at Blu Willi boutiques within department stores.
For its showroom in the International Apparel Mart, better brand Rayure took a more minimalistic approach, using a small battalion of 45 artfully placed mannequins to display its white but graphically patterned blouses. It might look simple, but the strategy paid off.
“We opened this showroom in March, and it wasn’t cheap to install this merchandising concept,” said Greg Mider, a multiline rep who shows Rayure at the Apparel Mart. “But the response has been so overwhelmingly positive that the room paid for itself within three markets. We spent a lot, but it was worth it.”
On the CaliforniaMart’s fifth floor, brands and showrooms seem to be intent on distinguishing themselves from their surroundings.
The BCBG showroom’s redo features dark woods, a bright red wall at the entrance and matching red carpet squares a far cry from the blond woods and standard fixtures it had previously. A tall glass vase of lilies, replenished weekly, adds a homey feel, while 10-foot wood-backed mirrors and freestanding fixtures are more theatrical touches.
P.J. Casey, president and chief executive officer of CITE, a brand identity company based in New York, said that a memorable showroom interior would not just convey the soul of a brand, but move buyers to write bigger orders. “Our clients have found that, by having a fabulous showroom presentation, it not only influences customers to buy the entire collection as it is displayed, but it also reinforces the brand identity,” she said.
Casey, whose clients have included Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren, said that clients need not jeopardize their budget in revamping their showroom. Certain elements, she said, might only cost a few hundred dollars, yet could go a long way toward impacting how the buyer sees the brand.
That is especially the case during exhibitions and fashion events, when brands need to make as strong an impression as possible without too much of an investment.
For one client who needed a temporary presentation of a swimwear line, Casey rented empty space in New York and created an appropriately nautical environment using big, old-fashioned lobster traps, chunky rope and sand. The whole thing, not including rent for the space, cost under $400. Yet the show’s sell-through was 76 percent.
At AtlantasMart, Rick and Sarah Miller’s ninth floor showroom, appropriately named “Marrakech Express,” stands out like an oasis in the desert. The recently reorganized and re-designed showroom resembles a Moroccan bazaar.
Large wicker and terra-cotta urns, small glazed elephant sculptures and mahogany masks hidden among numerous potted palms and ferns give the showroom an exotic appearance. Hanging gauze and tulle, animal print drapes and oversized mirrors complement neutral, softly lit walls.
Sarah Miller described the new look as both inviting and amusing, two characteristics that she felt every showroom needed.
“A showroom should make a buyer want to come in, look around at samples and actually have a good time doing it. And it doesn’t hurt to have fun while you’re spending money,” she said.
For the grand reopening of the redesigned showroom in 1999, the Millers threw a party during market with fortune tellers and belly dancers that gave dance lessons to buyers after hours. The Millers also held an elaborate Halloween masquerade last year with buyers and reps from throughout the Mart stopping by in full costume.
Dramatic as the decor is, the atmosphere is far from overbearing. The setting is an appropriate backdrop to 12 better-to-bridge lines. Many feature beading and embellishment that accentuate the ethnic environment, including shawls and scarves by Sterling Styles, beaded pants and blouses by Tadashi and colorful formal gowns by Mike Benet.
The Millers only recently completed the showroom’s final look with the 2001 annexation of a neighboring exhibit space. Miller said the newly finished interior is an entirely different concept from the old showroom, previously decorated with ornate Renaissance-styled hanging tapestries, dark colors and accents.
“We lightened up the paint and put in several softer touches. The fabrics and potted plants give the room a more comfortable and warm look,” she said.
Providing buyers with a relaxing and hospitable environment is also a top priority for the Millers, whose showroom has a full service bar, offering visitors everything from quarter-pound hotdogs and sodas to frozen margaritas during market.
“We’ve always thought of our showroom as an extension of our home,” said Miller. “We want buyers feel relaxed and at ease while they’re here.”
Get Personal: “There could be things that augment the product that the designer finds interesting,” said Ron Pompei of Pompei AD. “Say the designer used a coat as inspiration for the line: Having that in the showroom could be interesting. Otherwise, it could be a particular book, a piece of furniture — even bolts of fabric.”
Rack-It: Display racks are an all-important yet often overlooked aspect of showrooms. “Find a cool rack somewhere, maybe in a flea market,” said Pompei. “They give a sense of the tactile and convey a visceral relationship between the designer and the buyer.”
Surface Matters: New textures can give a room a new feel. Consider even sisal instead of regular paint, or a wall made from used tiles, or upholstery similar to what is in the line.
Turn It On: “Lighting is very important,” said Pompei. “Showroom owners should apply a little creativity, maybe using lamps combined with overhead lighting. Incorporate some shadowing here and there.”Prop It Up: P.J. Casey recommends giving a showroom a new look with rented furniture and props. Her company also specializes in temporary showroom setups.
Throw On A New Coat: Painting a wall or two a bright color makes for an inexpensive yet dramatic effect.
Go Undercover: Removable vinyl wallpapers are another option. Any image can be printed on this temporary wallpaper, which uses the same adhesive as a Post-It note. “You can apply it to a white wall and completely change the environment,” said Casey. The cost: about $500 for a 10-by-10-foot area.