VENICE, Italy — The new DFS T Galleria Fondaco dei Tedeschi store here aims to be as much about an experience as it is about shopping.
The unique location in itself is bound to leave an impression. The entrance of the group’s first unit in Europe is a square courtyard surrounded by four floors of arches. The 13th-century building was conservatively restored by the owner, the Benetton family’s Edizione, with Rem Koolhaas and his architectural studio OMA, while the interiors were designed by Jamie Fobert, celebrating the city’s treasures.
The store will officially open to the public on Saturday. Looking onto the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, the landmark building was originally a trade house for silk and spices between East and West.
With 75,600 square feet of retail space, this is the second-largest building in Venice. Philippe Schaus, DFS Group’s chairman and chief executive officer, was upbeat about the prospects for the store. While bricks-and-mortar retailers are feeling the pinch from online competition, an oversaturated market and a slowdown in tourist flows, Schaus conceded the opening is a “bold move,” but underscored that the new Venice store is “different from department stores because it focuses on travelers, on luxury, high-end gifts. We don’t cover the entire needs of shoppers. We have no linen, no children’s wear, no toys, no tableware, there are many categories we don’t cover. We are more compact than department stores. We fill certain needs and create moments of pleasure.”
While Schaus declined to reveal the level of investment in the store, he said he expected sales of 100 million euros, or $112 million at current exchange, in two to three years.
Schaus also said he hoped that with its selection of products, the store will help raise the retail bar in a city that has seen ebbs and flows in tourism. “We are open to everybody, but the customers we have targeted will recognize the high quality of our selection of products, and we hope we’ll help attract tourists that will stay longer in the city,” said Schaus, sitting in the site’s exclusive lounge.
Schaus said Italy was the group’s first choice to enter Europe, but that, when it was contacted by Edizione to rent out the space, “it was a no-brainer.” DFS, which is majority-owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, worked together with Edizione and with the city of Venice. The location was key in choosing the city.
From its earliest days as a warehouse and marketplace for German merchants through to its time as a customs house under Napoleon and its most recent incarnation as the Venice post office, the building has always been a place where people gather. When a fire destroyed the site in 1505, it was rebuilt in the Palladian style using classical Roman principles of construction.
“We are returning the building to its original purpose of a trading house. It’s where people meet and there is a cultural element,” said Schaus, as the top floor is dedicated to exhibition spaces.
The group hired 500 employees for the site, most just out of school. “We want to bring in our retail culture,” he said. “We are particular, our founders are American and have an excellent retail experience, LVMH is luxury, and we are based in Asia and we bring Asian service.”
Schaus said Italian brands with an international scope make up a third of the brands on offer; international brands such as Burberry and Tag Heuer make up another third, and local artisans, little companies, beauty, food, wine and liquor make up the rest. “We want to be exclusive as much as possible,” the ceo said, pointing to special site-specific Venini products or an Omega Seamaster watch model he was wearing, available only at the store.
“Four-fifths of international shoppers are more likely to look for Italian products in Italy, so we want to be as Italian as possible. We want to give more visibility to Venetian arts and crafts,” he said. Murano glass, Burano lace, Venetian carnival masks and traditional gondolier Furlane slippers are on display.
On choosing Fobert for the interior design task, Schaus said the interior designer “knows the world of department stores and has a sensitivity about Venice.” Fobert created nine different concept stores for the location, which already relies on different architecture, such as frescoes mixed with Thirties elements.
He praised how Fobert created “different environments in the stores, not a uniform atmosphere where when you’ve seen a bit you’ve seen it all. And it has a lived-in atmosphere, not like those design apartments you see in magazines that look like nobody lives there. There are bits and pieces put together.”
Fobert designed carpets, tapestry, displays and fixtures that incorporated elements of Venetian art and architecture in a subtle way. For example, he avoided damask, which would have been “too literal,” he said. Rather he re-elaborated the patterns of Rubelli fabrics for panels on the walls; a yellow, green and pink marble pattern seen at the Santa Maria dei Miracoli church is reproduced in the women’s accessories area, and a typical Venetian series of uneven stones is translated into a golden structure on the displays.
On the ground floor, there are Gucci and Bottega Veneta concept boutiques as well as food, wine and gifts, an elegant Venetian café restaurant developed by Philippe Starck with a menu created by the Alajmo brothers Massimiliano, the youngest chef in the world to have received three Michelin stars, and Raffaele.
The first floor, accessible through a rich red escalator designed by OMA, carries women’s fashion, jewelry and accessories from brands including Bulgari, Damiani, Fendi, Lanvin, Max Mara, Tiffany & Co. and Valentino. The second floor contains Venice’s only multibrand luxury watch area with brands including Cartier, Hublot, Omega and Panerai. There is also a selection of men’s fashion and accessories including Brioni, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, Moncler, Ermenegildo Zegna and more.
On the third floor, an exclusive women’s shoe salon with brands including Aquazzura, René Caovilla, Jimmy Choo and Giuseppe Zanotti, and the city’s largest offering of beauty and fragrance products, displayed among elegant Venini glass walls.
Above the retail space there is an entire floor dedicated to events and exhibitions that will be open to the public with a view over Venice. The first exhibition, a video installation “Underwater,” by Italian multimedia artist Fabrizio Plessi, which will debut on Saturday and run through mid-January. With 60 flat screens placed along the golden brass walls that edge the “Event Pavilion,” the artist shows repeated images of antique mosaic fragments that have been submerged in water.
Established in Hong Kong in 1960, the DFS group carries 700 brands through 420 boutiques on three continents. There are 17 duty-free stores in major airports and 18 downtown T Galleria locations. In the last three to four years, the group has been changing its downtown stores, elevating its T Galleria units product offer, its visual and merchandising and loyalty programs, said Schaus. Earlier this year, the group opened a T Galleria store in Cambodia, in Macau and two wine and spirit stores in Singapore’s Changi airport. Schaus said the group will focus on renovating stores in Sydney, Bali and Auckland in the next two years. The group, which employs 9,000 people, recorded 164 million travelers visiting DFS stores in 2015.