NEW YORK — From the ground floor up, department stores can get increasingly monotonous. And, in Japan, some devolve into environments resembling bargain basements.
That’s not the case with the 16-level, 628,000-square-foot Sogo flagship in Osaka. It has the architectural grandeur of the old grand dame downtown department stores — think Marshall Field’s on State Street or the former John Wanamaker in Philadelphia — but re-energizes the selling floor into something compelling.
Those involved in the store project said the intent was to signal a revival of Sogo, which was in bankruptcy from 2000 to 2003, and accomplish what most department stores fail to do — draw customers up to all levels. They also said Millennium Retailing Inc., the holding company that owns Sogo and lifted it from bankruptcy by merging it with Seibu, plans to clone several of the design and merchandising concepts introduced at the Osaka flagship to other locations slated to be renovated.
“In Japan, it’s rare that merchandise classifications are put together in a way that’s understandable to customers,” said Dawn Mello, a consultant on the project and a former Gucci creative director and Bergdorf Goodman president. Very often, you find something very expensive and classical next to something young and trendy. We really brought an American retail sensibility to the table. But the store is full of really interesting ideas. The main floor is triple ceiling height and almost an extension of the outdoors. The lighting is spectacular.”
Most important, “every floor has a point of view, a very specific point of view done with a certain customer in mind,” Mello said.
Callison Architecture Inc., a retail design firm based in Seattle that works with Nordstrom, Nike, Harrods, General Growth Properties and Cole Haan, among other companies, created the Sogo flagship. It was a rare opportunity to redesign a store from the bottom up. The store, built in 1935, was torn down and rebuilt at twice the original height and at a cost of $228 million. It opened in November at 1-8-3, Shinsaibashisuji Chuo-ku, facing the Mido-Suji boulevard of designer shops and clubs.
“We really tried to break each floor down into a [distinct] experiential environment that is perceived on a human scale,” said Dawn Clark, principal of Callison. “An individual person cannot take in 100,000 or even 50,000 square feet. You can orchestrate that visually, but it is still overwhelming. The energy or enthusiasm tends to wane.”
Sogo — the company began as a kimono merchant in 1830 and became a department store in 1877 — transcends the standard floor plan, she noted. Sogo levels, at about 40,000 square feet, are without aisles. When you first enter a floor, you are drawn to the center, and you see surrounding rooms. “It’s not a racetrack,” Clark said. “The navigation is different. The visual cues are different.”
The store is created with a philosophy of “one floor, one world.” Floor three, for example, has a crystalline theme to showcase cosmetics and jewelry, and is decorated with glass beads and Swarovski crystals. Floor five was inspired by an elegant Paris apartment and showcases premium denim and contemporary sportswear with mannequins as flaneurs in jeans sipping champagne and floating dahlias covering plinths.
The fourth floor feels like a garden. It’s filled with sprays, bouquets, garlands and canopies of flowers interspersed with shoes, handbags and leather goods from such brands as Burberry and Coach.
Men’s wear on eight has a clubby feeling, with vintage Louis Vuitton trunks set atop pool tables that function as a display for accessories.
The first level is lined with luxury retail brands such as Gucci, Asprey, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bulgari. There’s also a food market and cafes on the two sublevels, with tall bamboo trees and two-storied rice paper lanterns. There’s 430,550 square feet of retail space.
One unusual feature is the ride up the escalators. The moving stairs pass a series of stacked limestone storefronts or a vertical streetscape, and though you are inside, it feels as if you are outside, window shopping.
Another surprise is the grand arrival on the 10th floor. It’s the base for an open, four-level, mixed-use atrium that serves as a public gathering center. There are restaurants, a performance space with 275 seats, a four-story waterfall, an art gallery and two gardens, one on the rooftop. There is shrine on the roof, along with a statue of Sogo’s founder and an installation of the original Art Deco winged figure from the 1935 store facade.
The new Sogo also has a dramatic facade, created in layers of glass and metal mesh, and backlit to vary the lighting from day into night. The luminous facade has a cherry blossom and ginkgo leaf pattern, keeping to the nature theme, and the same attention to detail that permeates the store. Marble floors are inlaid with laser-cut ginkgo leaves, scattered at store entries and at the central stage, where musical performances and events are held. The elevator lobby is crafted of etched glass, and has a nature-inspired pattern based upon the original inlaid lacquered elevator door.
The flagship is decorated with painted screens and art saved from the original store, integrating traditional Japanese motifs and evoking the Art Nouveau-influenced taisho roman era with 21st-century retail merchandising. Primarily, the store targets Baby Boomer families with its range of luxury, career and casual apparel, as well as children’s wear and home merchandise.
Among the boutiques in the store are Hermès, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels, Ralph Lauren, Issey Miyake, Yves Saint Laurent, Cartier and Chloé. About 60 percent of the store is occupied by branded shops. The the first two floors contain the largest concentration of designer shops; about 40 percent is Sogo branded goods.
“There is warmth to the new store,” Mello said. “The Japanese tend to be very detailed-oriented. They rose to the occasion here. Every detail is considered.”