Anglo-Dutch footwear brand United Nude has opened a flagship store which mixes dark and light to create a fresh vision of retail design
The notion of a black shop may sound something of a contradiction in terms. The normal modus operandi when creating a store is to take a structure, fit it out and then light it. After all, what would be the point of a store where you can’t see what it looks like? Yet the black shop phrase is one used by Dutch architect Rem D Koolhaas to describe a store that opened at the end of last year in Amsterdam. Koolhaas says that not lighting a space or, more specifically, lighting only selected parts of it, helps to focus attention in the same way that your gaze is directed towards a bright screen in the dark space of a cinema.
The store in question is a flagship for contemporary footwear brand United Nude. The first impression is of darkness, with a brightly back-lit curved wall that follows the perimeter at the rear of the store. In fairness, this is relatively familiar territory. Abercrombie & Fitch and sister fascia Hollister have both operated not quite so dark stores for years, giving the feeling of being in a nightclub.
But the United Nude store takes this aesthetic to a new level, with black being used for all of the fixtures and fittings, in order to emphasise the contrast with the store’s illuminated areas.
This is in fact the first of several flagships for the brand, which has more than 600 stockists across Europe, with a store in Shanghai poised to open at the time of writing and a store in New York’s SoHo planned for March. As there is a showroom above the shop for retailers wishing to carry United Nude stock, the store fulfils the function of display vehicle for prospective trade buyers as well as shoppers. You won’t find its ilk anywhere else at the moment.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Koolhaas is an architect by trade, but in United Nude, which he owns jointly with Galahad Clark, a scion of the Clarks footwear dynasty, his skills as a footwear designer are to the fore. The outcome is a range of brightly coloured footwear where the emphasis is on shoes that are almost mini-sculptures. At the heart of the range is the Möbius, an homage to the loop that has neither an inner or outer surface. And the names say it all. Another range is actually called the Loop, then there’s the Frame and the Stealth (and yes, it is a nod towards the US bomber plane). Prices start at ¤55 (£49) for pumps, with the bulk of the offer between ¤100 (£89) and ¤200 (£178). At the top end, there is a small range of boots at about ¤400 (£355).
It’s also worth noting the Low Res shoe, a kind of court shoe that is a mass of intersecting planes. It is supposed to remind the wearer of the effect you get when a picture on a computer is blown up to the point where it becomes semi-pixelated. Attention should also be paid to the heels of the great bulk of the shoes that are on offer. As the shapes tend to be extreme by conventional standards, these are examples rather more of engineering than old-fashioned shoe-making - all very modern.
Hard to go wrong with the visual merchandising when you start from the position of an interior that has an illuminated back wall on which the colour of the light changes constantly. This gives immediate drama to the stock on display. But there is more to the whole than an all-singing, all-dancing wall of light. At the cash desk, for example, there are disembodied hands clad in what looks like a cross between jewellery and hi-tech armour and set within a glass, internally lit white display case that sings out from the surrounding darkness. Similarly, the area at the front left-hand side of the shop, where boots and one style of bag are on offer, is comprised of shelving where light is shed from the shelf above onto the one beneath it. The effect is slick and does what this shop does throughout: highlights the product.
According to United Nude sales director Andrew Kiernan, when Rem D Koolhaas dreamt up the blueprint for this shop, he did so on the hoof, sketching the stairs that lead up to the main floor from street level on a Post-It note and then going from there. Once the design was complete, the build took just six weeks, including what were fairly substantial internal structural alterations. And there is no other way to cut it, the star of this show is the back wall.
The wall of light is divided by hundreds of shoe-sized boxes, home to the stock. The footwear designs are dramatic enough, but it’s the programmable illumination that lends the store a vivacity that can’t be found in rival footwear shops. Whether it’s 1970s disco-style pulsing multicoloured lights or single colours across the whole wall, this really is an example of that most 1990s of commercial jargon - retail theatre.
Consideration should also be given to the black fixtures and fittings. Kiernan says the process of finding the right tone of black for the floors and cash desk, as well as the dark brown stained wood steps that lead up to the wall of light, was a matter of painstaking selection. What has been created is a footwear store interior that actually makes you want to hang around and see what happens next, even if hyper-modern footwear really isn’t your thing.
On the day of visiting, it was good to see the two members of staff engaged in selling. Allowing for the better-end nature of the prices in this shop, self-selection will play a part, but so will good service and being made to feel part of the action. Both of these elements were being dealt out in ample measure and the two early morning customers who entered the store exited with a purchase. Unobtrusive, efficient and helpful would be a summary of the way that dealing with shoppers was handled in the United Nude flagship.
Would I buy?
On the basis of the two customers who came into the shop, the answer would have to be yes. This is the sort of shop that will probably not be frequented every day, but is likely to prove a destination for those looking to treat themselves or others. Both stock and store are impressive and not overpriced when the nature of the environment is taken into consideration.
A footwear store like no other. The United Nude flagship persuades on the basis of a highly contemporary storefit and footwear that will make the wearer feel as if she is part of fashion’s vanguard.
Address 125 Spuistraat, Amsterdam
Store designer Rem D Koolhaas
Store size 1,830 sq ft
Major design feature A changing wall of light
Underlying design concept A black shop where selected areas of stock are lit to create drama
Further branches in Vienna and Shanghai, and New York City in March