LONDON — A bright blue and red store facade on the way from Selfridges to Marylebone has been turning heads. Over the summer, that facade was bubblegum pink and no doubt it will change again in the spring depending on the mood of its idiosyncratic owner Belma Gaudio, a former financier and expert shopper who has a flair for witty, outside-the-box fashion.
Gaudio opened Koi Bird last summer offering a selection of beachwear, which has since given way to a playful take on alpine dressing, cold-weather essentials and skiwear.
Now everything from the walls to the floor is covered with a purple, red and blue pattern featuring a big, fat letter K, for Koi.
Neon yellow shelves showcase a selection of multicolored aviator sunglasses while chairs come with bright red shearling pillows. Slanted racks — nodding to ski pistes — carry the store’s boot edit, which includes everything from classic Moonboots to Timberlands in an exclusive lilac shade.
Store assistants in salopettes trot up and down the stairs serving hot drinks as customers browse, while Gaudio can often be found posing in a corner, taking pictures for Instagram with designer Natasha Zinko — whose line is carried in the store. The two are wearing matching pink nylon tracksuits by Zinko.
“This is part of the fun: Friends coming in having a great time and being so happy walking out after they’ve found something really interesting,” said Gaudio. “Also, when you don’t have a marketing budget, Instagram is your marketing. It’s really reliant on people loving it, posting it and showing it to their friends. It really is a powerful tool, and it’s about spreading the word, and allowing various groups of women, not just my circle, to find out about us and to come and experience the store.”
For Gaudio, Koi Bird is the answer to what an adventurous, seasoned shopper — like herself — is craving at a time when luxury retail is becoming more and more homogenized.
“I am a big shopper, I travel a lot, I always go to a new place wanting to find that ‘amazing store.’ When you went to Paris, you always went to Colette whether you bought or not. New York used to be like that as well, but as retail has become more homogenized there’s less and less of those experiences — and I felt it,” said Gaudio. “I wanted to bring that feeling of excitement back, of going into a store just to look, just to have that experience of discovering a new brand or a new look. I do think it helps that I am a customer, it’s an important voice to have.”
To start carving her own path, Gaudio is basing the store’s buy on destination shopping: Last summer, Koi Bird went to the beach, now it’s skiing in the Alps and next summer it will be going back to a warm destination, but not necessarily the beach.
“Travel edits are really important because everyone, at least in London, is obsessed with traveling. Resort in particular is doing so well in all aspects of retail. It’s just about people always discussing their next destination and always wanting that something new for their travels. Even if you have a million bikinis, you will buy another one,” she said. “We also live in the world of Instagram, where people always want to be having something new on. I see that clients and friends definitely dress up more when they go on vacation: It’s when they put on their fabulous dress and their big earrings and the same can be said about ski. You’re more flamboyant when you’re there because it’s part of the magic.”
Gaudio added that while remodeling the store based on new vacation destinations might be costly and time-consuming, it piques customers’ curiosity and encourages them to keep coming back. It allows the store to re-create some of the magic of treasure-hunting while on vacation: “I go to these little gems, little beach locations and I am always hoping to come across that amazing find — sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. So I wanted to prepare people before they go. It’s really meant to be around this obsession of traveling, anticipating the discovery and having this excitement pretravel,” she said.
This kind of flexibility allows Koi Bird to collaborate with brands in bigger ways and organize brand takeovers. Last week it invited the Los Angeles-based label Libertine, which Gaudio describes as the “original Gucci” for its flair for excess, to take over the store. After Libertine leaves, the store will revert to its alpine style.
Taking a left-field approach means Gaudio can rip up the retail rule book and avoid some of the pitfalls that traditional department stores have had to face: Koi Bird works with brands across a range of contemporary and higher-end price points, the product is mostly exclusive and doesn’t go on sale.
“We buy because we love the product, as opposed to traditional retail where brands have to work next to each other. We want customers to experience discovering a new designer and having it at somewhat of an affordable price point, although it’s still luxury and we do have a range,” said Gaudio, pointing to patent and colorful shearling coats by Stand, which retail for about 250 pounds; the Chinese brand Anakiki; the Bosnian brand of handmade knitwear Woolly Boolly, and custom sweaters from Lingua Franca with embroideries that read “Beauty and the Piste” or “Shake Your Bits St. Moritz.”
She also worked with Zinko on a range of exclusive tracksuits and with the Istanbul-based handbag label Mehry Mu to create a winter-appropriate version of its classic Faye box bag using colorful shearling and tartan fabrics.
“Brands have been really flexible and encouraging,” said Gaudio, who has worked with everyone from emerging names to technical ski brands such as Fusalp to create custom product or to adjust real fur product with faux or shearling alternatives. “We change every time, we don’t have those ongoing relationships, but they believe that it’s worth it and we will continue with them.”
Koi Bird’s approach highlights that for the fashion customer, luxury today entails exclusivity and a strong design point of view, as much as it does a high price tag — an accessibly priced label seen as an insiders’ secret makes as much of an appealing buy as a piece from a megabrand.
“How I feel people are shopping now is either really high-end designer where you are buying investment pieces, or fun pieces in that middle range,” said Gaudio, adding that by standing behind labels that are less widely distributed it allows the store to avoid discounting. “We don’t discount, that is a part of our strategy right now and we are really going to try and keep that up. That’s also why it’s so important for us not to have brands that other retailers have. We buy small [quantities], it’s all limited and by the end of the season, we generally sell out. It makes the experience feel more unique; you are really discovering a piece and buying that piece because you love it, not just because it’s on sale.”
The company plans to introduce e-commerce, which will stock a permanent selection of resortwear. “E-commerce is year-round and can offer that big point of growth because you can go international with it. When you have a point of difference and an amazing flagship, people still want to come and have the experience. It’s the showcase for online, but ultimately online is the most convenient way to shop. People will shop online more than they come into the store, so we need to offer that and hope that it will really drive sales,” Gaudio said.