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Ann Demeulemeester

Game Changers is Highsnobiety’s retrospective series highlighting the moments that changed fashion forever. From era-defining store interiors to Nike sneaker boxes to runway looks by Helmut Lang, Game Changers celebrates the things that we still reference to this day.

What makes a store interior worthy of being called a Game Changer?

It’s not necessarily a design that is the prettiest or the most eye-catching or the most popular or, in 2021, the most Instagrammed. Instead, the most iconic shops stand the test of time, define an era, and keep on being referenced by others, time after time. They push the envelope in how fashion is displayed, change the very nature of how we look at garments, and how we shop for fashion. Most of all, they change the nature of retail itself by offering a unique proposition.

Of course, every list reflects the bias of its curator, which I’m fully cognizant of. But it’s high time that the myth of the unbiased critic went out the window. Everyone is biased; it’s the knowledge that informs the bias that is important. Keeping this in mind, I’ve stuck to the stores that I have visited personally over the decades of my intense interest in fashion, because I firmly believe that experiencing fashion through pictures never tells the full story. Therefore, I’ve probably left off some undoubtedly amazing shops in say Hong Kong or Melbourne, simply because I haven’t been to those places.

In editing down my selection — and editing down is the most excruciating task for any editor — I’ve left off some brilliant candidates, such as the late Yohji Yamamoto boutique in SoHo, the original Dior Homme stores under Hedi Slimane, Rem Koolhaas’ Broadway outpost for Prada, and the work the London firm Casper Mueller Kneer did for Phoebe Philo’s Céline. Nevertheless, I believe this list of trailblazers is justified in weaving the thread of how retail design has changed in the past forty years or so.

The 13 Store Interiors That Changed Fashion

Comme des Garçons — SoHo / Chelsea New York

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, fashion used to be intimidating. It operated on the modernist principle of elevation of taste, welcoming people to follow them, but without dumbing itself down to accommodate them. Your reward was commensurate with your effort. The first Comme des Garçons boutique in SoHo, opened in 1985, embodied that idea. The store consisted of basically two cement boxes on the ground and basement floors, with a sparse selection of clothes. It was as uninviting as a store could be. It dared you to enter. I stumbled upon it while walking around SoHo one day in 1998 and I was positively terrified to walk in. But I did, and I bought the cheapest thing they sold — a black t-shirt from the SHIRT line.

I felt lucky to have been able to visit the shop, because a year later, as SoHo was quickly being turned into an outdoor mall, the CdG shop decamped to Chelsea because Rei Kawakubo wanted it to be amongst the art galleries. The unassuming brick facade, as well as the original sign of the former auto body shop it still occupies, hid a gleaming white interior behind the epic arch-like glass door that resembled the spaceship of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey. Designed by Future Systems, it was fully made in the UK and transported to New York. In 2016, Kawakubo made the entire thing gold, proving once again that she is one of the very few designers who can turn kitsch into art.

Helmut Lang — SoHo, New York

The entire history of contemporary retail interior can be roughly divided into BJ (Before the Japanese) and AJ (After the Japanese). When in the early ‘80s Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto caused the collective brain explode amongst the Western fashion cognoscenti, they didn’t just take the stuffing out of the stuffy Parisian guard dogs, but also out of the garment business mindset of fashion retail interior design. They not only revolutionized ideas of what luxury fashion was, but how it should be displayed. Not like schmatas stacked on top of each other on shelves or stuffed into racks with no breathing room, but like artwork, hung four inches apart.

Yamamoto’s store in Paris on rue Cambon looked like an art gallery, its location a sly middle finger to Lagerfeld’s bourgie Chanel fortress up the street. Ditto Yamamoto’s SoHo boutique — the original contestant here that still gets an honorable mention. But, ultimately, the Helmut Lang store on Greene Street edged it out. With its soaring ceilings, the original mock-Corinthian columns and the Jenny Holzer LED artwork, it was the epitome of a shop as an art gallery in the glory days of SoHo.

Maxfield — West Hollywood, Los Angeles

Maxfield is one of the few relevant multi-brand boutiques that are still left standing tall. A true pioneer, it has been in business since 1969, being one of the first shops to take risks on fashion’s avant-garde. In 1991 Maxfield unveiled its new building, a brutalist concrete structure that hid its entrance in a courtyard. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was inspired by the Comme des Garçons SoHo store aesthetic — the back part of the shop was dedicated solely to CdG and Yohji Yamamoto — but that’s just a guess. While its exterior has proved timeless, its interior aged pretty quickly and was spruced up several years ago.

Chrome Hearts — West Hollywood, Los Angeles

Love it or hate it, the artisanal ethos and the uniquely American success story of Chrome Hearts cannot be denied. Its no-holds-barred philosophy is best embodied in its West Hollywood store that sits across the street from Maxfield. The shop — designed by the label’s founder Richard Stark and opened in 2000 — resembles a sanctuary, from its ivy-strewn courtyard to its churchlike interior. In the build-not-buy tradition of Chrome Hearts, its entire interior was constructed in its sprawling Los Angeles workshop, from the African walnut display cases, to the silver locks in them. A true fit of artisanship in our plastic world. Chrome Hearts subsequently exported this aesthetic to all of its stores, but the original remains an absolute winner.

Ann Demeulemeester — Zuid, Antwerp

When the Antwerp Six rose to international fame, they were expected to decamp to one of fashion’s capitals. With the exception of Dirk Bikkimbergs, however, they stubbornly stuck to the small Belgian city that launched their careers. If you ever visit Antwerp you will understand why. It’s utterly charming, culturally punches way above its weight, and the real estate is cheap. All of this allowed Ann Demeulemeester to create one of the most beautiful stores in the world, housed in an 1880s Beaux Art building that was built as a school for seamen.

The airy and inviting shop, spread over two floors, opened in 1999. Walls wrapped in painter’s canvas, a small garden in the back, and oversized fitting rooms complemented the expansive beauty of its main interior. Demeulemeester and her husband Patrick Robyn designed the entire store themselves. Recently the brand has been relaunched under the new ownership of Claudio Antonioli, which includes the reopening of the shop that Robyn is painstakingly redesigning right now.

L’Eclaireur — rue Herold, Paris

File this one under giving credit where it’s due. L’Eclaireur was a true pioneer when it came to launching the careers of the holy trinity of artisanal fashion — Carpe Diem, Carol Christian Poell, and Paul Harnden — and everyone who followed them. It dedicated an entire branch to highlighting this type of you-need-to-know-about-it-to-know-about-it work when it opened its rue Herold branch (according to Armand Hadida, the store’s owner, he introduced Karl Lagerfeld to Poell’s work, with the former promptly buying up everything in his size). And that ethos extends to the store itself, which is hidden away on a side street, marked only by a mailbox sign above a bell you have to ring to enter the cabinet-of-curiosities-interior. Though by now such a concept may feel dated, back in the early aughts it fit the artisanal ethos perfectly well and has spawned many copycats all over the world since. And in the world in which fashion has become too readily available, it may feel fresh again sooner than you think.

Atelier — SoHo, New York

Atelier was another store that launched a thousand imitators. Its combination of goth and glam menswear was utterly modern, offering an army of creative professionals and fashion diehards an infinitely elegant version of what they wore as outsiders in high school from the likes of Boris Bidjan Saberi, Julius, and Undercover.

There’s a certain little corner of the fashion world in which the debate still rages on about whether Atelier’s original location on Crosby Street or its subsequent show-of-power one on Hudson Street was better. I prefer the latter, and not only because it allowed the clothes more breathing room. The shop was designed by MR Architecture, the firm behind Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme boutique on 57th Street, and Constantin von Haeften, Atelier’s co-founder. Polished concrete floors, Richard Serra and Joseph Beuys art behind the cash wrap, and fitting rooms lined in fur? Yes, please.

Lift Etage — Daikanyama, Tokyo

If you know the name Lift Etage, you have truly reached the pinnacle (or the final circle of hell, depending on which way you choose to look at it) of fashion retail. Hidden in the back of a nondescript apartment complex in the casually posh Daikanyama district of Tokyo, the shop’s interior is a masterful exercise in muted elegance. The hushed atmosphere is transportive, and you can see the care that went into the store that sells a carefully selected lineup of mostly hard-to-find European designers in every last detail.

Hermès — Ginza, Tokyo

There is nothing like shopping in Tokyo that makes one understand that most stores in the Western hemisphere are simply inadequate. The Hermès flagship in Ginza is one of those places. The tower wrapped in a glass brick curtain was designed by Renzo Piano and contains a store, an art gallery, and the brand’s Japanese headquarters. It opened in 2001, jump-starting the Tokyo shopping renaissance that dared other brands to compete. And compete they did, from Prada’s 2003 Herzog de Meuron glass masterpiece in Aoyama to the stunning Céline facade designed by Casper Mueller Kneer at the new G6 luxury mall in Ginza that opened only a few years ago.

Rick Owens — LaBrea, Los Angeles

There is no doubt that Rick Owens is one of the most influential designers working today. There is no shortage of designers whose work his aesthetic has influenced. Owens is a universe-builder, and that extends to his stores, out of which the one in LA is the most impressive and probably reflects Owens’s discipline-and-punish aesthetic. This may not be entirely fair to his other shops, since Los Angeles is pretty much the only major city that has plenty of space to offer — and Owens’s work requires space — but Owens took full advantage of it, as did the architect Chris Benfield and Owens's in-house architect Anna Tumaini.

A twenty-three-foot Belgian black marble bench in its brutalist courtyard is impressive enough even before you get into the store itself. Benfield, who is responsible for all American Owens stores except the latest New York branch, also designed the massive doors to the shop, as well as the twenty-eight-foot glass panels that house a fog wall.

LN-CC — Dalston, London

When LN-CC opened in 2010 in East London, it made the entire fashion world sit upright and take notes. The brainchild of John Skelton, who, despite having stepped away from the business years ago, is still revered by the fashion retail experts, and his business partner Dan Mitchell, LN-CC may have been the last great independent concept store in the world. The unassuming entrance to the shop led to a mind-bending interior by the set designer Gary Card, which included a forest-like hallway, an octagonal shoe display tunnel, a plywood-framed bookshop, and a Mezcal-tasting room equipped with a bar and a serious audiophile sound system. Skelton’s vision was for a store that highlighted the cultural connections that every true fashion fan ultimately craves, and it showed in every touch he put on the shop, from its brand lineup to the forward-looking styling on its website, and of course the interior.

Hostem — Shoreditch, London

Clearly, 2010 was a good year for London retail. While LN-CC was making waves, Hostem, a highly curated menswear shop opened quietly on Redchurch St. Quietude was the leitmotif for the shop, from its mix of hard-to-find designers like m.a.+ and Geoffrey B. Small to its hushed interior, designed by the duo JamesPlumb, who also went on to work with Aesop and Hermès. Canvas-lined walls and ceilings mirrored the natural color of the wood floors, as did all the furnishings and fixtures. In 2014 Hostem extended into womenswear, and James Plumb reworked the two additional floors that housed the new offerings, giving it a contrasting but complementing feel.

In 2018, Hostem was rebranded as Blue Mountain School and the space has been completely redesigned. The new interior is spectacular in its own right and certainly would’ve made the cut if this list was longer. But it’s the original Hostem interior that really gave not only the shop but the entire Shoreditch area its own specific feel and set it apart from the many cookie-cutter offerings of fashion retail.

Number (N)ine — TriBeCa, New York

Admit it, you had no idea that the cult Japanese brand Number (N)ine had a boutique in New York. That’s ok, because it was designed to be as hidden away as possible. Located in the upper reaches of TriBeCa that had nothing but warehouses around it at the time, in its we-didn’t-know-we-needed-to-renovate feel the store resembled a punky, bookish hangout. While fashion retail was rapidly getting posher and colder by the day, the Number (N)ine store was as decidedly anti-glamorous and anti-commercial as a store could get.

Out of the way location? Check. Dim lighting that never gave you certainty about how the garment actually looked on you? Check. The staff that couldn’t care less about what you think? Check. A seemingly arbitrary day off on Tuesday? Check. Was it glorious and just as intimidating as the Comme des Garçons store that kicked off this list? You better believe it, and you can see the echoes of the shop’s interior in those of other cult Japanese labels like Neighborhood.

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