It's not often that a branch of a retail fashion chain earns kudos for its store design.
The general rule seems to be that once it's large enough to be called a "chain," a fashion business loses its edge, becoming a somewhat bland version of its former self.
That's not the case with River Island, arguably the most successful retailer of young fashion in the U.K. at the moment.
River Island has just opened a refurbished store at the Bluewater shopping mall in Kent, in the extreme southeast of the country, and reaffirmed its high-profile position as a purveyor of mid-market fashion.
The store interior is the work of London design consultancy Dalziel & Pow, which has teamed with the retailer for nearly two decades. Long-standing relationships of this nature tend to go one of two ways: They either become stale or so finely tuned that there is an almost genetic, unspoken understanding between the two parties.
The Bluewater store represents "finely tuned." This is a 15,000-square-foot shop with a large mall entrance affording shoppers views deep into the interior as well as a vista of the 7000-square-foot mezzanine level. Entering the store, the shopper is also confronted by an uncluttered atrium that soars up to the mezzanine gallery and beyond.
The mezzanine is the menswear level. Everyone knows that men need all sorts of unsubtle directions to find their way to the merchandise, and this store spares no tools. Black male mannequins are positioned at intervals along the length of the balustrade that fronts the mezzanine, announcing that this level is menswear. Also calling attention to the mezzanine is a lighting feature positioned high up in the atrium. Composed of an irregular cluster of orange cubes, it is a modern take on the chandelier, calculated to ensure that the menswear department is not overlooked.
Ingress to the mezzanine is via a glass, stainless steel and gray stone staircase. While it looks slick and expensive, it is an element of this retailer's store design that has proved sufficiently cost-effective to be rolled out to other stores in the River Island chain.
Signage has been kept to a minimum, simply consisting of a green neon sign in the stairwell with the engaging message: "Men's clothing, footwear and everything else..." The interior has been designed with clear vistas and well-marked merchandise departments that help cut down on the need for much more signage.
On the mezzanine, a mix of low tables and gondolas in the center of the space has been designed to allow the shopper unblocked sightlines. The layout, a fairly regular grid, is the result of a requirement "not to make things too complicated," according to River Island managing director Richard Bradbury. Male shoppers, he says, need physical guidance if they are to find an environment appealing.
Around the perimeter, considerable use is made of a primary color palette, coupled with large no-nonsense graphics.
Downstairs, everything changes. It's the women's department, and everyone knows women don't need obvious cues or uncomplicated layouts. The women's floor is deep, and shoppers are pulled through the space by a number of eye-catching features.
"The space is designed with certain quality elements," Bradbury says, "that allow the store to be changed out virtually overnight."
One of the quality elements is apparent directly underneath the mezzanine. A mosaic wall comprised of mirrored disks adds a feeling of retro-glamor (in keeping with mass-market fashion's current tendency to rob the 1960s and 70s for inspiration). In front of this stand a pair of black female mannequins sporting 70s-style blaxploitation Afro hair. You just can't ignore them.
A number of the columns supporting the mezzanine have been festooned with lights. And the mannequins are ubiquitous.
The store designers have saved the best for last, however. At the back of the ground floor, the raciness of the interior is writ large through a bank of fitting rooms that run along a raised gallery along the rear wall. In most shops, the process of trying on a garment is kept hidden from public view. Not here. The fitting rooms have brightly colored doors, some orange and others pink, designed to draw the attention of even the most reserved shoppers.
In front of the fitting rooms is the shoe department. The seating has been constructed from yellow and brown leather cubes pushed together to form a checkerboard pattern. The shoes themselves are displayed in backlit open-fronted wardrobes.
If you turn your back on the fitting rooms and look up, a black mural with a city skyline picked out in white with neon stars creates a truly metropolitan effect. The words "River Island," also in neon, seal the deal. You know where you are, in one of the best-looking fashion stores around. And in a mall, no less.
Shoppers walking out of the store have the same sensation of quality and excitement that they might feel in a well-thought-through branch of Escada or Versace. But the prices are more Target than Ralph Lauren.
It's yet more proof, if proof were needed, that quality and good design are not always the preserve of high price.
Client: River Island, London
Richard Bradbury, Managing Director
David Porter, Brand Image Controller
Design: Dalziel & Pow Design Consultants, London
David Dalziel, Creative Director
Marcus King, Senior Interior Designer
Karen Dalziel, Associate Director, Graphics
General Contractor: Goodman Hichens, Rickmansworth, U.K.
Fixtures and Furniture: M2K, Hoby, U.K.
Lighting: Prolight, Devizes, U.K.
Mannequins: Shopfittings Direct, Watford, U.K.
Photography: Peter Cook, London