By  on August 4, 2011

MANILA — When entrepreneur Mark Gonzalez opened the groundbreaking Homme & Femme store 16 years ago in Manila’s upmarket Shangri-La Plaza shopping center, directional designers were considered a risky undertaking for the country’s largely play-it-safe fashion sensibilities. The choices in men’s wear were particularly conservative and predictable: during the week, business suits or the barong, the local formal dress shirt made from pineapple silk; on the weekends, it was the preppy look very much inspired by Polo Ralph Lauren. Thus, the likes of Martin Margiela, Dries van Noten, Y-3 and Comme des Garçons were labels unknown to all but a very select clientele.

Gonzalez persevered with his vision and built up the Homme & Femme brand. “It took a while for us to build our niche, to be understood,” he explained. “Not only to be understood, but to have a recognizable manner of running our retail operations.”

His latest venture, Univers d’Homme & Femme, can perhaps be regarded as a culmination of this vision. A 4,500-square-foot concept store that was four years in the making, Univers is more a lifestyle gallery than fashion boutique. Top Philippine architect Ed Calma was tapped to transform a ground-floor space in the exclusive Rockwell Center development into a modern, free-flowing, light-filled, glass-walled emporium surrounded by a Zen garden.

“It’s Homme & Femme all grown up,” Gonzalez said. “With Univers, we are extending our influence beyond fashion through fragrances, home decor, publications and furniture, strategically repositioning the brand, in step with our creed of having a modern point of view.” He likes to think of the store as offering “classics for our generation.”

Among the modern classics comprising the men’s offer are Jil Sander, Rick Owens, Pierre Hardy, Comme des Garçons Homme, Black and Y-3. Interspersed throughout the store are displays of vintage midcentury modern furniture, some perched on elevated planks, giving customers the feeling of walking into an exhibition. Shoes and fragrances occupy another section, with their own dramatic displays featuring curved white walls and shelves.

The Univers man, according to Gonzalez, is “confident, self-assured and successful, a man who has made it on his own merits. Thus, he is not encumbered by norms that are often present in societies. He dresses to please himself more than others, and is typically a leader in his industry.”

As a key player in the luxury market in the Philippines who has been influential in shaping local appetite for directional fashion, Gonzalez noticed that traditionally, customers used to shop abroad, primarily in nearby Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. “Now they shop locally, mainly because of availability, immediacy and convenience. Luxury here is now more competitive in terms of range and pricing, and attentive to a very loyal clientele.”

Looking at demographics, he added that “our market is mostly in their 30s onwards. Shopping abroad is less of an option for them as they would normally travel overseas with their families.”

Expanding from a purely fashion boutique to a lifestyle concept store was organic as well as practical. Gonzalez cited the worsening traffic situation in metropolitan Manila as a significant factor in establishing the store. But apart from the traffic, he believed that “over the past 16 years we have carved up quite a niche, a niche resulting from a ‘taste’ level. We felt it was the right time to evolve into a lifestyle store. We felt that now we want to be a part of our client’s everyday life — be it the decor that surrounds them, the magazines they read, the art they see or the items they collect, smell and feel.”

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