PRADA REVIEWS ARE IN: STORE DESIGN IS TOPS, YET DEEMED EXCESSIVE

Byline: Eric Wilson / With contributions from David Moin / Anamaria Wilson

NEW YORK — So now that the Prada temple has opened, what is the reaction? Brilliant, but pretentious.
The verdict from a broad range of fashion executives on Prada’s long-awaited store concept was a resounding thumbs-up for its space-age design, but a mixed-bag on the merchandise.
From the moment it opened to the public at 575 Broadway in New York’s SoHo district on Saturday, the store has been mobbed by curious tourists, architecture buffs, designers, Prada devotees and even the occasional shopper checking out Rem Koolhaas’s ultraslick design. Not surprisingly, the crowds have been drawn to the store’s technical marvels, like the dressing room video cameras and touch-screen monitors, as well as the giant “wave” floor that dominates the 180-foot length of the store (which even drew the eye of a skateboard-carrying teenager in the store on Saturday. No, he didn’t do it.)
Most reaction to the store has been nothing less than stunned amazement at the feat of engineering Prada has displayed, but there are a few complaints. It’s incredibly spacious, but some areas feel claustrophobic. The technology is mind-blowing, but some of it doesn’t work. The clothes are great, but they’re being treated terribly.
“It’s either so incredibly brilliant or so incredibly pretentious,” said Trey Laird, executive vice president of imaging and creative services at Donna Karan International. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
There’s a lot of head-scratching going on in the industry thanks to Prada’s new $30 million-plus showplace. Unlike the lime-green retail template that Prada has been rolling out for years, the SoHo store is designed as an antidote to retail monotony with a performance space, the look of a museum and changeable features designed to give the brand an experimental air. But its timing and extravagance have resulted in a lot of criticism for the company. After all, Prada is dealing with a heavy debt load, selling off subsidiaries and floating a bond. Critics say opening such a palace is insensitive to Prada’s financial condition and to the more conservative mood of the times.
As Jeff Mahshie, designer of Chaiken and a frequent Prada customer, said: “It’s so decadent you almost don’t want people to see you go in there — it’s like a porno store.”
Still, Prada’s strategies in retail and design have been widely copied by other fashion houses for years, and some executives are already looking at which elements of the store might catch on. Many of them doubted the scale of the 30,000-square-foot store will be replicated, but as commonplace as the incorporation of artwork or exhibits into the retail world already is, Prada’s store has set a new benchmark for design that others will likely try to one up.
“I think it was conceptually brilliant,” Laird said. “People are looking for inspiration and newness right now, and that’s a real leadership position they have taken. I really respect that the store is an idea, a concept place that makes you think. That definitely has an affect on the way you think of a brand and in that way, it is a success.”
On the other hand, as a customer who bought a parka in the store this weekend, “I found it very difficult,” Laird said.
“The product was brilliant, but the way it was presented was really surprising to me,” he said. “I felt like they put the clothes over to the side.”
Adam Lippes, creative director of Oscar de la Renta, also gave Prada’s designs high marks, citing the curved zebra wood wave that resembles a skate ramp in the center of the store. “It’s a showplace,” he said. “But I am a person who really shops for clothes, and I would not say, ‘Let’s go to the really cool Prada store over the other ones.’ I thought the old concepts were really cool. What impressed me more than anything was the scope of work that went into this store.”
Several fashion executives also pointed to the significance of Prada’s opening in SoHo as an important step for the recovery of downtown Manhattan, since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 decimated retail business there.
James Gager, senior vice president and creative director of MAC Cosmetics, which has had a store in SoHo since 1995, said the store’s environment alone will draw more people to the neighborhood.
“I think it’s an amazing environment,” he said. “It’s great for SoHo, especially at this time, and it brings back some of what the neighborhood is known for.”
That may help to draw more Prada loyalists to the SoHo location, but some questioned whether its novelty will ultimately chip away at designer sales in department stores. Other retailers praised the location for its new approach and argued that it will help to heighten awareness of the Prada brand and thereby benefit their sales as well.
Gail Pisano, Saks Fifth Avenue’s executive vice president of merchandising, who attended Friday’s party for the store opening, said she was almost startled when she walked into the environment, surprised by the open space.
“It will be a great gathering place,” Pisano said. “Leave it to Prada to raise the bar on new and inventive ways to showcase product. When you think about merging the worlds of fashion and art, it seems rather appropriate in SoHo. I have been to many designer store openings that are lovely and wonderful and rather predictable. This was a unique experience.”
Saks Fifth Avenue carries Prada shoes at its flagship and handbags, shoes and ready-to-wear in about 30 other Saks locations. The Prada in SoHo, Pisano believes, won’t impact Saks’s business much. “If anything, consumer awareness is heightened,” she said. “If anything, it will be positive.”
Stefani Greenfield, co-owner of Scoop boutiques, which has a location nearby on Broadway, expects the store to draw more customers to the neighborhood. She noted the stadium-like seating of Prada’s shoe display as particularly inventive because it takes a more casual approach to dealing with an expensive product. Her only concern was customer service. “In the other Prada stores, you really get one-on-one attention,” she said. “I hope that they’ll be able to service that need there because it’s so massive.” Quite a few New York designers have also already checked out the store. Marc Bouwer called it a “high-tech odyssey between art and fashion, a religious ode to its brand, a breathtaking and claustrophobic haven — in other words, everything I’d ever want for myself, if I ever opened a store.” Mahshie said he had vertigo when he walked in the store, but he was impressed, particularly with a beauty display of Prada’s white-boxed product that resembles a brick wall. And Robert Danes said he thought the store was beautiful, but he didn’t see anyone shopping.
“I liked the technology, but it seemed to be not all functioning when we were in the changing rooms,” Danes said.
Retail consultants and brokers were also notably impressed with the store. Joel Isaacs, president of Isaacs & Co., the commercial real-estate company specializing in fashion that got Prada its SoHo space, among others, noted that one key indicator of the success of the design is its ability to move customers downstairs, which is traditionally not an easy task for retailers.
“Historically, so many fashion and fashion-related companies have followed Prada,” Isaacs said. “Prada made a shoe a certain way and other designers followed suit. Certainly, it’s a costly venture to do something this dramatic. People might try to push the envelope a little more now that Prada has. Prada has always pushed the envelope.”
Joe Lupo, a principal in Visual Therapy, a luxury retail consultant that handles visual merchandising for several New York stores, praised the store for its absence of minimalism. “I love that everything is moveable. That is part of the way that stores will be going in the future. The only thing I think that is difficult is shopping downstairs — it’s a little claustrophobic down there after being in all that open space.”
One big success for the store is that its concept certainly has people talking about Prada’s ingenuity at a difficult time for retail and after some considered the bloom to be off the rose in terms of the designer’s creativity. For some, the store alone was enough evidence that the brand still has juice. For others, it may be a case of too much, too late.
Sam Shahid, owner of Shahid & Co., went on Saturday to see the space and was certainly impressed, but he didn’t buy anything. “I went for the space, not the clothes,” Shahid said. “I’m sort of over Prada.”

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