Checking Out: Adrian Wilson

The British-born photographer and designer opened a free store in New York, The Inutilious Retailer, and he’ll tell us all about it at IRDC
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Posted September 4, 2018

“Inutilious” actually means “useless.” Is that what you were after?
I suppose I was being ironic. Since the store doesn’t sell anything, it’s technically a useless store – counter to the usual purpose of retail, which is to try to force a specific action.

Such as?
Retail design has always been about creating subliminal messages that lead you to change your mind. My art is not about making you change your mind, it’s about making you think. So the more you see, the more it rewards you.

Initially, you talk to them through a mirror in the wall. Why?
I give them the ground rules, which are, ‘Congratulations, you’ve just won a garment. But the condition is, to claim it you have to come into the secret back part of the store and make something to replace it.’

And this “secret back part”?
It’s the workshop, the heart of the store. There are 20 garments to choose from, and 500 printing blocks from Victorian England that textile merchants used for making their new designs.

What was the inspiration for that?
I guess it’s a little bit ‘Wizard of Oz’ – the man behind the curtain. And a little bit ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – nothing makes sense. And a bit ‘Willy Wonka’ – a factory of imagination. It’s an amazing artistic haven for people to work in. It makes them think. It makes them inspired. It’s an experience.

Are you saying then, that it’s “experiential”?
No! That’s an absolutely terrible phrase. It’s not experiential, it’s just life. Customers became part of the store, not just customers anymore.

How long were you open?
Ten months. Then the landlord sold the building.

You must have lost a bit of money.
It cost me $42,000 in 10 months. I’d be made CEO of Macy’s if I lost just $42,000 in 10 months.

Still, how could you afford it?
I was asked that all the time. My answer was always, ‘Remember when you were cold and your grandmother knitted you a hat? You didn’t ask her how she could afford the wool.’

You did get a lot of buzz.
Despite everyone coming to the store, from the head of LVMH USA to editors from the Wall Street Journal, I rejected any publicity photos. It was important that people walked in with serendipity and were surprised. But after it won the Store of the Year award, I allowed The Guardian an exclusive. 

Why the Lower East Side?
It’s the last area in the city with mom-and-pop stores, stores with that old New York character.

Did patrons like that?
A young girl told me, ‘I love this place, it’s so old.’ I asked her, ‘What kind of iPhone have you got?’ She said, ‘iPhone 5.’ I said, ‘If you like old, why not use an iPhone 1?’ She said, ‘No, I don’t want that kind of old!’

Don't miss Adrian Wilson's session at VMSD's International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), Oct. 2-4 in Seattle. His closing keynote presentation will examine "The Inutilious Retailer," a free store that truly supported the notion of experience. For more information about his session and others, visit irdconline.com.