PRADA’S FUTURISTIC FORMATS

Byline: Miles Socha / Samantha Conti

MILAN — Prada gave a glimpse of its future in retailing Thursday, unveiling details of stores being developed by celebrated architects Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron.
The first of the stores, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo, are not scheduled to open until next year, but it’s already clear they will be light years away from the mint green paint and ice-color carpets seen in existing stores. They’ll be dramatically rigged with porous walls made of rubber and concrete foam, fixtures that glow with fiber optic technology and dressing rooms that resemble a Damien Hirst sculpture, but appointed with the cutting-edge video technology.
Just a few hours after its runway show, Prada threw open the doors to an exhibit featuring architectural models, material samples, life-size fixtures and even a chunk of wall from one of the future stores.
“This is an exceptional project,” Miuccia Prada told WWD. “We believe that many brands now have stores that look alike — and that’s just boring. We wanted to develop an experimental store. We wanted to ask, ‘What does shopping mean?’ We understand that customers today enjoy shopping, that it’s become a way to socialize and communicate.”
Koolhaas, who is designing the three U.S. stores, said he wanted to turn the concept of retail branding on its head.
“This is an exercise in branding European style,” he said. “In the U.S., the brand, and therefore the store, is reduced to its essence. We want to use these stores as devices for experimentation so that the brand has an ever-changing identity.”
Koolhaas added that form followed function and that the consumer’s experience was paramount. Most of the stores have large, open spaces with ample room for customers to sit down and relax, on wooden cubes cushioned with thick pads of translucent gel.
Challenging traditional notions of maximizing square footage, some floors of the San Francisco store boast more porous walls and open space than displays of cashmere sweaters and studded handbags. Fixtures often resemble Modern Art sculptures: simple plywood boxes lit with fluorescent tubes or large, multitiered mesh structures suspended from the ceiling.
But practicality rules: Clothing racks can be moved at will with the crank of a wheel.
The dressing room aims to solve every conceivable annoyance and shortcoming. “We addressed all the problems: no size, you can’t see your back, you have no information about the clothes you’re buying,” Koolhaas said.
Equipped with computers, the rooms will enable shoppers to check what sizes and colors are available and in stock, for any garment, and to find matching accessories. And forget about a plain old mirror and garish lighting. The cubicles are equipped with hidden cameras and high-resolution television screens that show an outfit from all conceivable angles. And of course, the glass walls magically go opaque when the sliding door shuts.
Koolhaas, who was recruited by Prada in October 1999, is currently at work on three projects: a 22,680-square-foot store in the former Guggenheim SoHo space in New York; the 20,520-square-foot Los Angeles store, and the 43,200-square-foot San Francisco unit.
The other architects, Herzog & de Meuron, who gained fame for the Tate Modern project in London, are tackling the Tokyo store, as well as Prada’s New York offices and the Tuscan factory headquarters.
The exhibition outlines the evolution of the 30,240-square-foot Tokyo store, a new six-story building with an iceberg-like shape and see-through exterior walls. It’s not slated to open until 2004.
Prada’s production center, in Terranuova near Prada’s Italian headquarters not far from Arezzo, is due to open before 2002. That sprawling structure also will feature walls dominated by bubble-like windows, similar to the Tokyo store. The 114,480-square-foot New York headquarters, housed in a former piano factory, is in a similar architectural vein, striving for a seamless divide between what is inside and what is outside.
Jacques Herzog said: “Prada represents for us a new type of client who is interested in a new type of architecture, one that involves a change of experience, that participates in a cultural debate. This is not the classic client-architect relationship,” he said, adding, “it goes beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture and fashion.”
Although Prada called on both architectural firms separately, the two are working jointly on another project: the latest Ian Schrager hotel in New York on Astor Place.
Koolhaas is also advising Prada on other aspects of its brand, including advertising concepts. Flipping through the exhibition catalog, he showed one example of a possible future Prada ad campaign. The ad features a snapshot of a street vendor selling fake Prada bags on the sidewalk. He said he likes the idea of exploiting every aspect of Prada’s famous brand, including knockoffs and the trading and selling of past collections on eBay.com.
Koolhaas also said he’s working on Prada’s Web site, slated to launch in 2002.