ADVENTURES IN DESIGN: PRADA’S VISION OF TECHNO CHIC COMES TO SOHO

Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Miuccia Prada is no shrinking violet.
Bleak market for luxury goods? No problem. Billion-dollar debt load? Float a bond. Big designer stores looking a tad tired? SoHo seem played out? Bonuses down 30 percent on Wall Street?
You’re asking the wrong girl.
Italy’s scionesse of sleek gave a very loud response to Prada naysayers on Friday with the opening of a long-awaited, 30,000-square-foot “epicenter” at Broadway and Prince Street that defies the conventional laws of designer retailing, let alone those of gravity. With plasma-screen monitors, glass dressing-room doors that frost over at the touch of a button, America’s first round glass elevator and a price tag estimated to top $30 million, it’s supposed to be as much of an architectural marvel as designer flagship.
It is.
It’s so much more than a store, filled with high tech wizardry, a high-minded cultural and performance center and even higher-falutin metaphors, that, given the timing, it begs the question of whether it’s just too over the top. A couple of years ago, when the “Prada: Coming Soon” signs first went up in the windows at 575 Broadway, New York was rolling in it. Sept. 11 and the onset of a national recession changed all that, and even the designer acknowledged such a display of retail bravura is a big risk. But she also maintains that the store provides a perfect showcase for the kind of working experiment she wants her brand to become.
“Everybody tells us we’re crazy,” Prada said Friday morning, at the start of a 15-hour Prada marathon for the fashion set, celebrating the opening with demonstrations and walk-throughs, then a caste-system of parties, hors d’oeuvres and dinners.
“It happened that this is the best time to do this,” she said. “We wanted to change into something different because we were bored with the usual way of shopping. We also always wanted to open before Christmas to give an important and encouraging message to SoHo and the city.”
“This was done basically without specifically being about business to send a new message,” Patrizio Bertelli, chief executive of Prada Group, added. “The public wants to find something new, something driven by human feelings. People are smart enough to understand this was done to create a new situation. They will be the ones to make it about the business. They will come and they will buy.”
The space is Prada’s gift to the city, a sign of restoration for the beleaguered downtown retail scene as well as a response to the flight of the art galleries from SoHo, that element of the once quirky neighborhood now usurped by designer stores. The till from its first day of sales was earmarked for downtown charities. But the company’s motivations are hardly altruistic, as the space is also consciously designed to bolster Prada’s image as a designer and retailer ahead of her peers. That includes thinly veiled religious references, such as a triptych of video displays that resemble confessionals, demanding that customers worship at the altar of Prada.
For every intended metaphor imbedded into architect Rem Koolhaas’s blueprint for the building, designed with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, there is also likely to be found one that is Freudian. That was evident from the moment Prada opened the store Friday morning to reporters and photographers, each of whom was issued a Prada name badge printed in black on a white background. Prada staff, meanwhile, wore black tags with white print and looked much more chic.
If that was a subtle reminder of one’s place within the hierarchy, less so was the company’s invitation to cover the main event. With a guest list that was 3,000 strong, Prada was still mysteriously exclusive, first banning photographers, then welcoming them, until that night, that is, when most were turned away without explanation. A handful were escorted through a sea of people, including virtually every fashion publicist in town, only to achieve a shot of the designer, then shooed out the door. And as remarkable as the store is, the party was not. “Everybody” was coming, was all that a spokeswoman would say, but by 9 p.m., only Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Adrien Brody had made it into the store, followed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and entourage, who walked in the Broadway entrance, expressed his thanks to the designer and then worked his way to the back door. Despite the overt lack of crowd control, fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen seemed strangely non-plussed.
Outside, the circus continued for hours with a block party encompassing the Mercer Hotel and Canteen, where some guests, including late arrival Meg Ryan, could breeze between locations. Others could not. When Breckin Meyer, a young actor, couldn’t get into the store or past one velvet rope at the Mercer, where Shalom Harlow and Carolyn Murphy held court, he and a date stormed off. “But I still love Prada,” he said. In fact, it wasn’t only invited guests who had to deal with such fashionable inconvenience. Even straphangers were forced to make accommodations, as police closed off the northern exit of a neighboring subway station, causing logjams on the one remaining stairwell for hours.
On Saturday the store opened for business, drawing a steady stream of customers into the epicenter experience, many of whom seemed more curious about Koolhaas’s work than Prada’s collection. The Rotterdam-based architect said his main focus in developing the location was to avoid “the flagship syndrome,” in which designer templates for stores become so predictable that they are a bore.
“When the whole of a company is reduced to an essence, thezn it becomes a prison,” Koolhaas said. “The key word is changeability. What we also tried to do is to look at the persistently irritating aspects of shopping, to not only make an architectural statement, but also to reinvent technologies. What we wanted to do was create a humane coexistence between space and technology in a way that is engaging, but not aggressive or intimidating.”
For the past few years, Prada’s retail look has been defined by its lime green lighting and fixtures, heavy pile carpeting and sleekly arranged bag, belt and shoe displays. Koolhaas’s design is vastly different in shape and scale, although it includes references to the past, as well as the future. The idea is to represent Prada as an experimental organization, rather than one with a fixed identity.
At the heart of Koolhaas’s design is a “wave” that runs the length of the store in pale, inlaid zebra wood, descending from the Broadway entrance down to the basement and rising back to street level toward Mercer Street. It has dual functions — the side that descends in steps can be a really big shoe display, or converted into an amphitheater with seating for hundreds to view a stage that mechanically unfolds from the smooth, ascending side.
Pretty much everything in the store is changeable. There is a “hanging city” that traverses the 180-foot long plastic ceiling, where tracks that are normally used for car production display merchandise suspended in mesh cages. They can move back and forth across the store, as Koolhaas tried to explain for a moment, until he realized how loud they were.
“Can somebody stop this, because you can’t hear anything?” he yelled. Glitches aside, from the main entrance on Broadway, visitors are intended to be drawn visually down the steps and into the neighboring catacombs that house the actual Prada store. There’s also the option of a 12-foot-diameter cylindrical glass elevator — with built-in shelving for accessories display — that descends to a basement-level lounge, or a narrow bridge along the north wall that connects to the Mercer Street side.
“We started with a simple architectural problem that we had to solve,” said Ole Scheeren, one of Koolhaas’s partners in OMA. “In retail, there is a problem that the ground floor often sells better than any other level, so we had to get people off of the street level to the much larger basement. When you enter the store, the first thing you would do is naturally move down.”
Maybe after gawking at the architecture. The original exposed brick of the building’s entire south wall is covered with translucent polycarbonate and a dazzling neon light display, while the north wall is covered with wallpaper that can be replaced every six-to-eight months to reflect Prada’s collections.
Among the store’s technological marvels, customers flocked to the much-hyped changing rooms. Some have more features than others, like clear glass doors that slide shut when a customer steps on a black mushroom-shaped petal, then instantly become frosted by stepping on a gray mushroom. Imbedded in the floor-length mirrors inside are monitors that play images of the customer as they try on an outfit, taped from behind and at different speeds to give a better sense of how a garment looks. While Prada claims the cameras are closed-circuit, Winona Ryder may be well advised to shop elsewhere.
Built-in closets within the dressing rooms also disguise antennas that pick up an “RFID” tag — that’s a Radio Frequency Identification — on each piece of merchandise, automatically displaying the item’s silhouette on a touch-screen monitor that also tells what other sizes and colors might be available. Coming soon, Prada staffers will also have Staff Device Interaction machines that offer a lot of the same details, but look like an Ibook mated with an Eveready flashlight. Basically, it scans data from merchandise and allows a sales associate to show related runway footage or product information on any of the store’s plasma screens. But wait, there’s more. The device also has a light on its tip that will help Prada staffers assist slower-witted customers by pointing to things.
It should be pointed out that not all of these are necessarily original ideas. Diane Von Furstenberg opened a store with a convertible performance space in February, and Bar 89, around the corner from Prada, has had the same flash-frosting doors on its bathroom stalls for years.
“There’s only so much new you can introduce to reinvent a brand,” Scheeren said helpfully at this point. “There also needs to be a sense of continuity.”
That’s where Prada is striking out into new ground in SoHo. There are architectural symbols of the blend from past to future in elements such as the black-and-white marble floor in its lounge that references the original Prada store in the Milan Galleria and the same green walls in the “store” part of the store, where the ceiling is also made of zebra wood to reflect Koolhaas’s new touch.
Prada is also making an unusual merchandising statement by bringing what she calls vintage — reproductions of select designs from her past collections — from mirror-chip jackets to go-go print coats. It’s a bold move in tough times, especially since many items are recent, and could give the fashion customer an excuse to go shopping in her own closet first. But Prada is unfazed. “We wanted to do different, new things,” Prada said. “In selecting the pieces, we obviously chose what makes sense with the fashion now. What I realized when mixing the vintage in is that it was like doing another collection.”
Not surprisingly, that collection — and 575 Broadway as a whole — will be subject to the ultimate review of the consumer. Experiments sometimes fail, Prada knows, but a success with this store could harken a new era in big designer retailing, rather than the end of it. “Our best strength is going on, experimenting and going forward,” Prada said. “Who knows? I think it will be great.”

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