Russell & George’s futuristic vision for a Melbourne urban luggage store brings back the theatre of retail with its alternate landscape of silver and neon.
Russell & George has a special relationship with Crumpler, manufacturers of the popular, functional bags. The brand’s new store, on a prominent corner in Prahran in inner Melbourne, is the result of that relationship, and provides evidence of collaboration, collusion, scheming and plotting between architect, client and indeed the property itself.
Formerly a pet store, the shopfront needed a comprehensive upgrade to make it suitable for its new use. In fact, when the old illuminated window signage came down, it became apparent that the entire shopfront glazing skin and framing would need to be replaced. What you see now is a pristine new face for a prominent retail corner.
From a visual merchandising standpoint, the entire shop is, effectively, a full-depth window display. Or to look at it another way, there is no “window display” at all – the full depth of the shop is what defines this urban corner, and it invites the viewer in to mingle with the product.
Russell & George has achieved this “drawing in” effect by framing the interior in a grid of neon tubes and narrow-gauge black square steel sections, which form a glowing white “cage” that encompasses the entire spatial volume of the store, from the shop window back. The effect of this, particularly at night, is to create a cubic volume that turns the corner, framing the product within. Unusually for retail product display, there is absolutely no spotlighting in the store – all of the product illumination comes from the glowing neon frame.
Behind and beneath the glowing grid is a backdrop of flat, depthless grey – a bold design decision on the part of the architect. Walls, floor and ceiling – and a wall of full-height curtains – are all the same colour (or non-colour, depending on your point of view). The grey curtains that form the backdrop to the shop are made from Crumpler luggage fabric, and are fabricated in the company’s workshops. The client steam-ironed and prepared them prior to hanging.
The edges of the floor are also finished in the uniform grey, and are filled with a large-sized gravel or rock ballast, which encapsulates the client’s sense of the “toughness” of the product, and brings a little of the outside world to the shop floor.
Against this monochrome backdrop, the Crumpler collection of bags suitcases, totes, satchels, backpacks and accessories introduce the colour. Their lush materiality is a sharp contrast to the matt-grey setting, and bags are positioned on black steel stands and platforms that can be moved at will. The bases of the steel stands are covered by the grey ballast, so they look just right no matter where they are positioned.
In another part of the store is the “grandstand,” a three-tiered platform that is typically used to display product, but which can also be used as seating for the viewing of movies. There are three projectors built into the fitout, which cycle through a series of movies specially filmed for the store. This element of the interior comes into its own at night, animating the space. In the spirit of collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas, Crumpler also has an arrangement with a nearby university to host student film screenings.
At a number of levels the Crumpler store in Prahran is an experiment, and one in which the client willingly participated. It is different from all of the brand’s other stores, with Russell & George being highly responsive to the specific conditions and opportunities presented by the setting and the challenges of displaying this particular product. In fact, the strategies for visual merchandising and display of product have been determined largely by the specifics of the location, the potential for visual drama offered by the prominence of the urban corner, and the visual impact of a colourful product displayed against a monochrome backdrop.
From Crumpler’s point of view, this makes it a highly dynamic retail environment, and one that complements rather than seeks to repeat or compete with the online experience. As the client said in our discussion, the Crumpler product is highly technical and personal, and it stands to reason that people want to see and touch the product prior to purchase. That purchase may be made in the store, or it may be made online - what the store presents is effectively a “showroom” more than a “salesroom.” The role staff play in this modified relationship with the customer is crucial; the client is thrilled with the way the store operates, due in no small part to the staff being “on board” with the concepts being explored. In short, they “get it.”
Based on the evidence presented to me by the client when we met on site, Russell & George “get it” too – the business, the brand and the opportunities both afford.