One of the most versatile creatives in the music and fashion industries, Canadian multimedia designer Willo Perron has art directed numerous memorable live events, from Lady Gaga’s “Monster Ball” concert tour and Rosalía’s psychedelic floral MTV VMAs debut to Yeezy, Alexander Wang and Fenty runway shows.
COVID-19 put a hold on all that, but the Los Angeles transplant has managed to stay busy, designing Rihanna’s recent Savage x Fenty production that streamed on Amazon Prime, but mostly by focusing on interiors, including revamping several Stüssy stores and now collaborating with Aritzia.
Perron was tasked with celebrating the Canadian brand’s Super Puff jacket with two pop-ups, one open now at the original Dean & Deluca space at 560 Broadway in New York and the other opening in December at the original Fred Segal on Melrose in L.A. The stores feature serpentine inflatables on the ceiling, minimalist modular furniture and 4G video walls in keeping with the designer’s theory that retail should be entertaining.
During the pandemic, Perron’s firm W P & Associates has also been working on more package design, and readying a line of furniture to roll out under his name, inspired by work he’s done for clients, including West (he designed the Yeezy headquarters in Calabasas).
WWD caught up with the creative director, who got his start designing concert flyers in Montreal, to talk about his career path, process and the future of retail.
WWD: How did you came to L.A.?
Willo Perron: I originally moved to L.A. in 1998 and really didn’t like it. I couldn’t quite understand the distance between things and was always really frustrated. I left and moved back to the East Coast, and in my mind, I said I will never move back there. Then about 15 years ago, I came to visit a friend who was living in this really nice mid-century ranch house in Griffith Park. I had just finished doing the whole retail rollout for American Apparel and was really worn out. I thought L.A. was a nice place to chill out for a while and never left.
WWD: I moved out in the late Nineties, and everything felt more small town. That was pre-Uber, too.
W.P.: Just having a smartphone changes the dynamics of L.A. so much. All the things that were so complicated, you can just pull out a phone and know where you are or order a car. The city has changed a lot and it’s also changed a lot because of technology, which has made it a lot more livable and less a suburban sprawl.
WWD: Although now people like the suburbs. You have had such an interesting career and have gotten to have your hands in so many things, how did it start?
W.P.: The advantage of having no formal education is I have always reacted to things I’m passionate about. If I was into anything, I would just start to research it and make things. In the Eighties, I would go to nightclubs and at the time, people would be dressed as characters.…Alexander McQueen was doing costumes for people. That and the record store were my culture. I came to adolescence in an interesting moment when electronic music and hip-hop started to have legs, and hardcore punk was this thing that was starting to be commercial, too. They were all bubbling up and I was interested in all of them. I started doing club nights and clothes and putting out records and making things, all in Montreal.
WWD: Who was the first big name you worked with?
W.P.: The first big, big show I did was “Glow in the Dark” for Kanye, which is funny that my first show was something that epic. The second show I did was Gaga’s “Monster Ball.” I’d met Kanye and we started talking. I had just finished a bunch of retail things and he really wanted to do stores. He has a great eye and instinct for things he likes. I’d just present him some options that were more interesting, or source material for things he was into. And we started working on everything together. The term creative director didn’t really exist at that point…that just happened naturally, and we worked on everything from styling his shows to any kind of collaboration he was doing. We spitballed and mood boarded. I’m a bit older than he is and had experience as a formal designer, doing graphic stuff for skate, snowboard and street companies. Then it turned into shows, which were a culmination of my life — doing interior space, understanding how to do 3-D space and, at one point, owning a record label.
WWD: To segue to your retail projects, and specifically to this latest one with Aritzia, do you think there has to be an event aspect to retail?
W.P.: More now because people just shop online. I think conventional retail and entertainment are going to hybrid soon, especially for these bigger brands. They will have to be more of a showcase than actually turning over retail numbers, a lot of which will shift to online. You need a reason to get off your couch.
WWD: On that point, I’ve always been fascinated by The Grove being next to CBS Studios. Over the years, the shopping center has hosted the celebrity news show “Extra!” and then you have lines and lines of people on the street waiting to get into “Dancing With the Stars.” I’ve always thought if they could move together just a little more, retail and entertainment, it would be so cool.
W.P.: Our background in doing live events and retail will eventually come closer. This Aritzia project has an entertainment and whimsy element, and there are a lot of things to discover in store.
WWD: What was your first retail interior project?
W.P.: I used to own retail stores with the Vice guys in Montreal, and then I did some for other people and went into doing American Apparel in the early 2000s, then my first Stüssy one in 2008.
WWD: What worked about the American Apparel stores?
W.P.: They were all made with things that were readily available, things from retail fixture places we’d just powder coat and color, and it did nod to Eighties Italian high tech. That’s Montreal, too, because Montreal had an affluent moment in the late Seventies when there was a World Expo and an Olympics and it was going from being a town to a city with a lot of design influx. Then the city dropped off, but my generation lived in the remnants of that heyday and are really familiar with it. So those stores were cheap and cheerful and kinda candy.
WWD: What about Stüssy?
W.P.: We probably do about five of them a year. They have had retail stores, but we’ve been slowly redoing them and giving them a connected voice. Hong Kong opened recently and Shanghai is opening early December.
WWD: What did you change?
W.P.: We started developing this language, I kept saying what if all the materials at the hardware stores were nice? And what if a two-by-four was square? It’s good-looking building materials with a lot of it exposed, sort of like early Frank Gehry houses. And if you look at the layout, there are big elemental forms like an arc or a square, and we added some nice finishings, like marble.
WWD: What’s the concept for the Super Puff stores?
W.P.: There are these big inflatables, which is a nod to puffy jackets, and it’s all fished through this grid system so it feels more dainty, like artist Sol LeWitt’s work. So those two things that fight each other and play with each other, this repeat grid that seems to be something that shows up in a lot of my projects, and the whimsy of this big inflatable, which is more like entertainment and fun.
WWD: What else are you working on?
W.P.: The office is split up into three silos, one of which is conventional graphic design, branding and packaging. That’s been super busy. We’re doing a lot of new cosmetic brands and skin care that should come out soon. We also do a lot of books in that section. The other two silos are live music, which has been a bit dormant with the exception of the Savage show we did with Rihanna.
WWD: The midnight garden scene in the Fenty show was my favorite, I wanted to step inside that world.
W.P.: That one and the fabric tunnel were my favorite in the execution. We shot it at the L.A. Convention Center. There was a lot of testing, masks and shields and COVID-19 officers. The third silo of my business is interiors and furniture. I’ve been working a lot on developing furniture.
WWD: Under your own name?
W.P.: Yeah, that’s the plan. I’m in the early phases of it. We do a lot of custom pieces when we do interior projects, so we have this bank of things. We will start putting that out first.
WWD: If part of what you do for clients is trying to understand their aesthetic and translate it, how do you define your own?
W.P.: Now you understand my struggle. It’s always been weird to pivot from live to interiors to graphics to video — you just have to recalibrate your brain. When you work for clients and under constraints, it let’s me start with the problem and reverse engineer into it. But when you can make anything you want, you have to meditate on who you are. So that’s been the transition.
WWD: Are you still working with Kanye?
W.P.: No, we’re friends though.
WWD: Did you vote for him?
W.P.: No, I’m apolitical and I’m also Canadian.
WWD: Who do you think is doing retail well now?
W.P.: Mainstream retailers tend to just pack racks, but I think Acne still does really good stores. The Jil Sander store in Paris and there’s also one in Milan that are super simple and nice. But what you are seeing as far as experiences, walking through things, photo booths, is just going to start happening more. Look at Gentle Monster, you need very little retail space for sunglasses but they are doing these really exuberant things. You can get really playful, even with a candle or scent company – there’s a way to make that world even more entertaining and tactile.
WWD: I think it will be interesting to see how gamification comes to play more in retail, too. I feel like e-sports brands could do cool things.
W.P.: Everyone is freaking out about retail but look at manufacturing in North America…New York used to be a manufacturing hub, and then those factories became coveted loft space. Retail is going through this ugly adolescence and everyone is trying to figure out what to do with it. But once we turn a corner, there will be something super interesting that comes out.