I'll take the recycled, light-green one please
Author: Martyn Hook & Fleur Watson
Date published: 6 December, 2007
This special by Fleur Watson and Martyn Hook explores global retail trends for artists and designers.
Retailers have had a hard time of late. The continuing and seemingly unavoidable shift into offshore production into India and China juxtaposed with an increasingly global environmental consciousness has created the demand for a massive rethink of how everyone does business. The primary focus on maximizing bottom-line principles that began the shift to more economical manufacturing processes out of Asia has been tainted with questions over the ethical and environmental agendas of off-shore production processes. To be succinct: are those making the Western designed, Asian manufactured garments or objects working within safe work practices and getting paid properly and what exactly are the environmental credentials of the manufacturing process? Within the domestic context the same questions are being asked of the local market. Intriguingly, the response of many consumers to an inexpensive and well-designed product is suspicion: How can it be cheap and ethical?
Domestically there is a nostalgic return to a ‘Good Life’ proposition of self sustainability as perpetuated in celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s new book and various other ‘how-to-be-green-organic-yet-still stylish’ lifestyle publications – the newspaper insert magazines being the quickest to mass market this one. Locally, the emergence of this new sensibility may be driven by the fact that Generation X, encouraged to reproduce in order to address our aging population is now feeling the guilt to leave a better lot for their offspring facing looming environmental disaster. There is a desire to transcend the self-centered Baby Boomer mentality and move forward to a reality where playgrounds, accessible childcare, farmers markets, organic shops and shared community produce gardens become viable and accessible consumer choices. This emerging community ethos has sprung an increasing understanding of the concept of ‘localization’ and of the mainstream acceptance that we have to take responsibility for our immediate community and ourselves.
Driven by this developing community spirit the retail market for Australian design is becoming more fluid and flexible. The notion of the traditional retail outlet (formally known as a ‘shop’) is unacceptable in this new environment, allowing the emergence of other forms of selling. The phenomenally successful Melbourne Design Festival’s market held bi-annually within the Federation Square’s undercroft car park is a design version of the farmers market with producers selling direct to the community. Bespoke or ‘limited edition’ items are manufactured locally for instant consumption with pieces often produced specifically for the event ensuring the level of originality and exclusivity is paramount. This is a retail environment where experimentation thrives due to the minimal cost outlay upfront in setting up a ‘stall’ and in turns frees the artist or designer to invest in their product rather than the shop.
Of course many consumers still feel more comfortable with the idea of buying things within a shop structure but are demanding a different and more creative retail experience. So what should the new experience of shopping be? London-based creative consultant Giovanna Lisignoli believes the emergence of ‘pop-up stores’ provide a key opportunity for designers and artists, explaining, “temporary stores seem to provide a new experiential platform to promote goods.”
Lisignoli expands: “They cater for a need for self-representation that rejects the power and authority expressed by brands through iconic buildings and lavish retail spaces. Numerous retailers have been exploiting this new approach by collaborating with artists and designers to create inspiring environments. Visitors and consumers are thereby asked to make the association with a gallery space and explore rather than [simply] shop.”
Lisignoli cites the powerful example of Rei Kawakubo’s ‘guerrilla shop’ concept, which links exclusive designs to a wider cultural and urban context. The value of the guerrilla shop concept is supplied by the programmatic and temporal limitation of the ‘occupied’ spaces, often situated off the beaten track. In the stores Kawakubo assembles her own designs alongside eclectic works of other designers and artists, especially local ones. Managed and run by local creative people, the spaces become temporary venues to promote and
experience art, design and fashion.
The role of retail as the ‘middle-man’ between consumer and producer is certainly shifting if not disappearing. The manner established by iconic stores such as Colette in Paris in the early 90’s of collecting and facilitating design consumption appears to be fading with the expensive Euro-brand based content being regarded by the community as elitist, passé and a little kitsch. Discovery and immediacy are the demands of the market and a smart retailer will provide a network of opportunities to expose the consumer into a much more local version of the ‘collected works’ environment. Traditional shops are being replaced by retail collectives formed by groups of young designers who realise the need for a retail outlet but are sick of dealing with the whims of ‘patrons’ or thrashing out a deal with department store buyers. Collectives such as Alice Euphemia, The Sygnet Bureau and contemporary jewellery retailer eg.etal in Melbourne and Orson + Blake basement in Sydney merge the boundaries between shop and gallery. The inexpensive yet experimental fitouts are usually developed by the designers themselves or young architects and the accompanying branding also follows the emerging designer track imbuing the experience with a collaborative and inspiring energy.
Lisignoli suggests that beyond the designers themselves, creative agencies are also challenging the status of the retailer as the middleman, explaining that: “Advertising agencies are trying to establish a new, more culturally relevant offer for their clients and invest in departments that provide ‘cultural research’. Emerging designers and artists are thereby seen as the driving force for cultural change. London’s Saatchi & Saatchi’s ‘Cultgeist’ division claims to have built up a global network of 3000 designers, artists and creatives and promotes its offer in ‘cultural insights’.”
However, is the need for a physical shop completely over? Certainly the rise of Web 2.0 has created its own level of DIY design content; web-based retailers offering high quality t-shirts with a design of your making or books of your own photographs with linen covers and excellent production quality, all marketed in the community within accessible web-based environments such as Facebook et al. Lisignoli expands on this theme explaining that: “On-line trends seem to be driven by, arguably, fully democratized digital technology.” She suggests that: “On-line retail strategies seem to play a prominent role in engaging a wider audience in an open, and two-way communication process. The popularity of blogs compliments this retail framework with social networking opportunities.” It seems that, thankfully, we are well beyond the boredom of eBay as a retail centre – a virtual shopping environment that looks surprisingly like a bad outer-suburban mall from the nineties. The advent of cheap secure online payment methods and friendly effective distribution networks have made it possible to create excellent online boutiques with a clean, utilitarian nature with just the right dash and sparkle of a genuinely great idea that is inspirational, innovative and actually works.
Perhaps it is the much-lauded international design trend forecasters, the Future Laboratory, who sum up succinctly, explaining that whilst the future is not entirely web-based, the real challenge to retailers is their relationship with the web. They state: “To compete offline, retailers will have to forsake the square-metre return principle for experience-driven shopping. They will have to cope with increasingly fragmenting consumer groups and they will have to embed technology into their bricks and mortar to allow a crossover between real and virtual channels. The evolved consumer is constantly live and sees no distinction between online and offline worlds. Retailers who don’t keep up with this seamless lifestyle will simply lose out on business.”
- Craft Victoria http://www.craftvic.asn.au/default.htm
- Object Gallery http://www.object.com.au
- Etsy: Your place to buy & sell all things handmade http://www.etsy.com/
Fleur Watson is a designer, writer and curator and former Editor of MONUMENT magazine (2001-2007). She has just returned from London where she completed an MA in Curating Contemporary Design at the Design Museum and Kingston University and recently established somethingtogether, a multi-disciplinary studio that is focused on collaborative design partnerships and communication.
Martyn Hook is Course Leader of the Architecture Program at RMIT and Director of iredale pedersen hook architects. He was former Associate Editor of MONUMENT magazine and has written and lectured widely about Australian architecture and design for 10 years.