London- and Beijing-based design and architecture practice Sybarite knows a thing or two about working in fashion: the retail-focused firm has created eye-catching stores for some of the biggest brands in the business, including more than 250 shops for Marni, as well as countless outposts for the likes of Alberta Ferretti, Joseph, and Stefanel.
From brand identity and visual merchandising to interiors and bespoke furniture, Sybarite operates as a one-stop shop for brands seeking a fresh new look. Just this month, it will debut Joseph’s biggest store to date in Miami, and the firm’s first London restaurant—Yen, a luxe Japanese joint whose Parisian sister restaurant has been a mainstay of the Left Bank’s gourmet circuit for over a decade—will open its doors this week on the Strand. In hopes of learning a bit more about their practice and the state of shop design in today’s ever-changing retail climate, AD spoke to Sybarite cofounder Simon Mitchell—here are some excerpts from the conversation.
AD: What’s Sybarite’s origin story?
Simon Mitchell: I cofounded Sybarite with Torquil McIntosh in London in 2002. We have since delivered all the global stores for Marni and Joseph, and the practice has just completed the largest luxury department store in China by size and turnover: SKP Beijing. I’ve worked in retail design for more than 25 years now, including my time at Future Systems, where I worked on projects including Lord’s Media Centre, Selfridges Birmingham, and the iconic Comme des Garçons stores in Tokyo and New York.
AD: Did you set out from the get-go to service the retail industry or was that just how the practice evolved?
SM: We always wanted to set up a studio that provided a full one-stop-shop design service for retailers worldwide, incorporating architecture, interior design, branding, and retail strategy. We focus on providing a tailored service for our clients, and for some that means providing a turnkey solution; for others, it’s just providing the initial design concept. With SKP in Beijing, for example, we were given a brief to transform an existing mid-market shopping mall into an iconic, luxury department store with international reach. Rather than simply presenting back an architectural solution, we deliberately carried out market research to understand how the brand is perceived and talked about. Our pitch back to the client started with changing the name from Shin Kong Place to SKP as well as exploring what that meant graphically and in terms of color—department stores should ideally own a color, like Harrods owns green, and Selfridges has its yellow. The next steps were to redesign all aspects of the 140,000-square-meter store including iconography, wayfinding, and logo, creating a new corporate identity known as the SKP curve to provide a holistic language and house style to realign the store into one form that enhances the customer experience, without overpowering the brands sold.
AD: How did you land on the name Sybarite? Is your office full of hedonists and lovers of the finer things in life?
SM: During a dinner, Torquil and I were mocked by our friends for our pursuit of great food and wine—they called us “a bunch of sybarites.” This actually resonated with us both, as our approach to retail and leisure design focuses on creating sensory experiences for customers. We didn’t call ourselves McIntosh and Mitchell, because we wanted a firm where “ego death” was a thing. It sounds really corny, but I had a vision of the practice being like a gospel choir: Together we have perfect harmony, we can reach transcendence. The best idea wins; it doesn’t matter who comes up with it—it could be the cleaner who comes in after hours.
AD: If you had to describe Sybarite’s aesthetic approach in five words, what would they be?
SM: How about 11 words: sensory, spirited, timeless design that reflects the client’s brand, not ours!
AD: How do you create a balanced interior that both captures the client’s aesthetic sensibility, and remains true to you as a practice?
SM: We focus our efforts early on, in trying to immerse ourselves in our customer’s brand, working closely with the retailer so that we can come up with a design that reflects them rather than an enforced aesthetic style. I think diversity is a key to our practice. I didn’t want a signature style, but to create work that reflected each and every client’s needs in a unique way. We aim to be a truly collaborative firm, rather than a top-down practice that enforces a singular aesthetic across the board.
AD: For a longstanding client like Marni, how do you avoid becoming repetitive from one store to the next?
SM: We made sure each store was designed specifically for its city location with cultural references throughout. In London, for example, we used red and white as background colors in reference to St George’s flag [the flag that represents the entirety of the United Kingdom], the red buses, the red telephone booths… we used these colors as a kind of subliminal coding. And we do that in every store, pull elements from the surrounding cultural context.
AD: What do you think is the key for a retail design to have longevity?
SM: Our design for Marni on Sloane Street lasted 14 years before it, unfortunately, closed earlier this year, which is a very long time in the retail world. I think a design has to be bold with beautiful grand gestures, balanced by a monochromatic palette and simple lighting that creates a great backdrop for a collection to be showcased.
AD: With e-commerce playing a bigger and bigger role in retail, how has this had an effect on your design approach to brick-and-mortar?
SM: I wholeheartedly believe the role of brick-and-mortar is as important as ever. Architecture can create a level of theater and excitement that simply can’t be created online. Retail design must continue to respond to the growth of e-commerce by providing an immersive experience and an exceptional, full-service environment—give the customer a reason to visit.
AD: Does the advent of social media and our visually driven “sharing culture” make you think differently about retail design?
SM: Yes, Sybarite creates spaces and environments where the retailer’s customer can take beautifully curated photos to share online—we have to think about backdrops, lighting, to avoid issues with flash et cetera. I think this is so important not just for the retailer but to empower the customer. The fitting rooms are often where these moments take place, so spend a lot of time designing these—they should never be overlooked! You have to actively create shareable moments in a space. Retail outposts have to become destinations in their own right, not just points of sale.
SM: With restaurant design, I believe it’s about marrying the food and the physical, transporting people to a taste and place. Yen was a particularly exciting challenge as it was an opportunity to deliver a design that respects and celebrates traditional Japanese craftsmanship whilst creating a contemporary and timeless backdrop to host London’s next restaurant destination.
AD: What’s on the cards for Sybarite in 2018?
SM: SKP Xi’an, a 250,000-square-meter luxury department store; an SKP boutique store for a younger audience in Beijing; and an exciting menswear brand that will be launching new flagship store concepts in London and New York.
For More Information About This Blog, Click Here!