NEW YORK — It’s a flower shop, it’s a store, it’s an art gallery!
Utowa, a new store in Chelsea is all that and more, a confluence of ideas that somehow seems to coalesce in a 4,000-square-foot space on West 18th Street.
With beautiful roses and decorative bouquets filling its windows, the store looks like an upscale flower shop at first glance. But the shop has more than flower arrangements blooming behind its doors. Billed by the owners as a “visual experience,” the retail concept includes fashion, beauty and cutting-edge technology, as well as the flower gallery.
Utowa, which means universal unity in Japanese, is the brainchild of Catsua Watanabe, a designer and creative director who has worked with companies such as Yves Saint Laurent, Shiseido, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.
“We wanted this to be a special place,” said Watanabe earlier this week as the finishing touches were being applied to the store. “Our goal is to combine fashion with art and beauty and we want to nurture new design talent.”
First-year sales of about $2 million are projected for Utowa.
The space, which formerly housed a hardware store, now appears to be covered in powder with its floor, walls, ceiling, furniture, fixtures and columns — adorned with three-dimensional leaf-like decorations — painted white.
Some of the products in the store, such as jewelry from Jude Frances and Asa, are branded, but other items, including the apparel, is sold under the Utowa brand and designed by Watanabe and his team.
The beauty line, called ML, was created in-house and produced in Japan and includes cosmetics, skin care and accessories. The beauty business is being tested in the store, and will likely be sold to wholesale accounts next year.
Some areas of the store are still under construction. There will be a computer lab and media room in the back and a café will open in the coming months.
Watanabe’s business partner in this venture is Hiroshi Uemura, the son of legendary Japanese makeup artist Shu Uemura. A majority stake in the Uemura company was purchased by L’Oréal earlier this year, and Hiroshi Uemura stepped down from his position as president of Shu Uemura Cosmetics in Japan. He now runs Utowa full-time.Watanabe met Uemura when he was doing design consulting work for Shu Uemura two years ago. The two men began talking and found they shared a similar sensibility. It wasn’t long before ideas for the new venture began to percolate.
“This is a way for our family business to branch out,” Uemura said. “We plan to bring the Utowa concept to other locations, including Tokyo and Paris.”
The store is planned to be a showcase for the Utowa Creative Consulting Company, which aims to develop new designers whose work then will be available for sale. The consulting company and corporate offices are located in a 2,000-square-foot office beneath the store. Watanabe and Uemura oversee the consulting firm.
Watanabe said the store is designed to have a fluid feel. All the furniture and fixtures can be moved around and reconfigured. Displays and product offerings will change each season.
Retail prices for the apparel range from about $200 to $400, while beauty offerings range from $12 for a small brush, to $50 for some skin care items. Some of the jewelry offerings, such as Jude Frances’ fine pieces, are priced as high as $2,000. Frances’ designs include 18-karat gold earrings, rings and necklaces in white or yellow gold, some with semiprecious stones.
Artists now featured in Utowa include Russell Young, who does silk-screen mug-shot portraits of iconic figures such as Frank Sinatra and Malcolm X; fashion photographer and party-hopper Sante d’Orazio, and the team of Tobie Giddio and Peter Belsky, who create motion graphic illustrations.
Watanabe said he envisions the space to be used for corporate parties and holiday events, as well as fashion shoots and concerts. The store is decidedly high tech. Through a strategic partnership with Panasonic, Utowa installed a video gallery where video artists can display their work, and a state-of-the-art sound system. On the mezzanine level is a DJ booth, and big video screens are on display throughout the store.
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