As brands expand their retail store networks beyond China’s top-tier metropolises into the traditionally less fashionable but fast-growing provincial cities, making a splash in these new markets is a top priority. E-commerce is just as popular in the second- and third-tier cities as in Beijing and Shanghai, and consumers won’t leave home based on a brand’s reputation or name-recognition alone.
Brands need to create compelling experiences to entice consumers to visit their stores, and that’s why we’re seeing some of China’s most impressive retail interiors today are in cities like Chongqing, Suzhou, and Zhengzhou.
Online architecture, design, and interiors magazine Dezeen placed a boutique in China and several other outstanding luxury interiors on the longlist for the “retail interior” category in its 2019 design awards this summer. Although none of the Chinese contenders made the shortlist, announced at the beginning of September, the longlist shout-outs were an acknowledgment of the innovation and creativity involved in the conception and execution of retail spaces in China right now.
Chongqing’s SND boutique isn’t just the standout Chinese representative from Dezeen’s retail longlist—it’s arguably one of the most stunning retails space in China right now. Designed by Shenzhen architects Various Associates, the Shin Kong Place boutique is SND’s most ambitious to date.
Various Associates said the store, completed in March this year, is intended to be “a medium where customers can explore the relation between body and space.” Framed around two distinct spaces, it’s certainly a mesmerizing experience for the consumer. When customers enter, their eyes are drawn first to a space showcasing brands such as Victoria Beckham, Chiara Ferragni, and Opening Ceremony, which are hung with the reverence of a gallery exhibit. The main attraction, however, is a room-within-a-room named the “milestone.” The design plays with customers’ curiosity, offering little at hint what lies inside. The interior is a “ceremonial” space bringing together natural materials, symmetrical elements and clever use of light and reflection as the backdrop for more displays of luxury jewelry and more garments.
As one of the world’s fastest growing cities, it’s fitting that Chongqing is enjoying the attentions of a variety of interior designers and architects who are scaling up to meet shoppers’ raised expectations. Chinese designer Annakiki’s first store in Chongqing, “Bizarre Girls’ Closet,” is named in honor of the free-spirited, rebellious young women who the brand takes as its natural consumer. The signature feature created by architects from Joy Season Studio is a wall made up of spools of bright red thread, but the overall feel is a balance of classical motifs and futuristic-looking materials.
These aren’t the only stores centering an elevated customer experience around materials that evoke the external world. In Zhengzhou, Henan province, menswear store JWH’s interior is dominated by the cool grey tones of concrete, steel, and Shanghai plaster, in a callback to that city’s pre-WWII golden age. In addition to touches that echo urban Chinese landscapes, designer Atelier & Co. invites consumers to walk across a transparent floor on the store’s upper floor. Also notable is the fact that JWH is located in a middle-of-the-road Zhengzhou mall. Retailers in provincial cities may be forced to rent space in uninspired commercial property developments, but Atelier & Co. turned this to JWH’s advantage. Rather than aim low and just “fit in,” ambitious designers can seize the opportunity to wow shoppers by creating something special.
Neri & Hu also remodeled a cookie-cutter mall unit for Italian brand Valextra’s flagship store in Chengdu, Sichuan province. The design firm rebuilt the store facade as a smooth, solid wall of concrete, at once distinguishing Valextra from its neighbors and setting the tone for the elegant interior. The store itself is divided into a “library” and “reading room.” Each incorporates reclaimed wood and typically Chinese grey brick, with rounded shelves and delicate spotlighting creating a sense of curation, inviting hushed appreciation for Valextra’s colorful accessories.
Of course, retail design innovation hasn’t deserted Beijing and Shanghai, but it’s worth noting that smaller cities can give retail architects and designers a platform to explore new territory and test ideas. For example, Various Associates was only founded in Shenzhen in 2017, and its work for SND in Chongqing was one of the firm’s first major projects outside of Beijing, Shanghai and its home city. Likewise, Atelier & Co.’s design for the JWH store in Zhengzhou was its first significant project outside Shanghai.