Say "Las Vegas," and the American mind spins with associations, many of them wildly contradictory.
Think Elvis wannabes and the very best lounge singers and Broadway shows. Think 24-hour buffets and four-star dining. Think tacky souvenir shops and elegant luxury shopping. In its latest act, Vegas has also become a ritzy shopping mecca.
At the epicenter of all this decadence is the Forum Shops at Caesars, where Express has opened a 17,000-square-foot concept store. This new look will be incorporated into its dual-gender Express stores that it will build in 2006.
"Aside from some fixture changes, we hadn't had a new store design in more than four years," says Polly Sinesi, Express' director of prototype design. "And we don't even see this as a revolution - more of an evolution. But to compete in Vegas, you have to provide a 'wow!' "
The store's 47-foot façade has been left completely open, inviting the shopper directly inside from the Forum colonnade. "Outside our door, we have flame-throwing Greek gods!" says Sinesi. (The gods are a reference to the animatronics shows in the mall fountain, where statues turn on the melodrama.) "In fact, many of Express's previous fixtures - slick, modernist, minimalist in appearance and mood - are here in disguise, either painted over with blackboard paint, floral or pin-stripe designs or with staple-gunned industrial felt and other embellishments."
This store was chosen to premiere Express's denim collection "because jeans are all that people wear in Vegas, night or day, just with different tops," says Jon Johnson, vp of visual merchandising. During the store opening, all displays were themed around jeans. What is a more natural setting for cutting-edge denim than mannequins perched like voguing rockstars all over rough-textured plywood platforms, with graffiti-like writing splashed around and an indigo downpour of pantlegs from above?
In the foreground, forms representing skateboard ramps display stacks of pants, which hang from their belt-loops off antique door hooks. In step with the relaxed industrial and urban theme, steel, neon and worn oak flooring are contrasted with slick white terrazzo and crisp graphics. Beckoning shoppers to The Denim Lab area are waist-high stacks of forklift pallets, displaying a bar of jean finishes, fabrics and cuts, lined up like so many exotic cocktails. In the women's area, garment racks are constructed from plumbing pipe.
In an unusual choice for a chain store, Express brought in a team of professional tattoo artists from its headquarters city, Columbus, Ohio, - Sinesi calls them "our two-week SWAT team" - to doodle as they pleased. Using markers and paint, the tattoo artists worked with the store's visual staff to cover the interior, floors, dress forms and shelf backing with thorny florals and graphics resembling body art. They also tea-stained the forms and stippled their creations with nail-head accents. Every detail worked to achieve what Johnson calls a "hand-feel" to the aesthetic.
"The best part about executing on site with so many creative people," he says, "is that the whole process was organic - some of our best ideas were conceived on the spot."
Since this store is so big, Express could afford to cede some square footage to non-earning lounge space, where tired boyfriends and the shopped-out could plunk themselves down into what Johnson calls a decompression zone. The team went to local thrift shops and flea markets and bought used furniture to fill out the lounges. In one seating cluster, they reupholstered French-style arm-chairs in painted T-shirt fabric. An over-tufted couch also got a painted makeover - and a cowhide rug.
In the men's area, half-head Goldsmith mannequins are leaning on a dining room suite dipped in blackboard paint, the table piled high with a full menu of trendy garments.
The knockout display is in the women's tops area, lighted by open Edison lamp fixtures with bare, hand-blown bulbs. The 100 lamps adorn the area on the top and sides, in a grid, typical of old-fashioned dressing room mirrors. Covered with thick plexiglas, the mannequin resting on it appears to hover above.
Flying overhead, like a flock of seagulls, are dry-cleaner wire hangers papered over with sassy T-shirt sayings like "This is your brain on fashion" and "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"
For various seasons, Johnson will dangle different things overhead to make good use of the 30-foot ceiling, like festive disco balls of differing sizes for the holidays.
The Vegas Express shows that expressing itself in unpredictable ways can still yield great work for an enormous corporate entity willing to improvise. Artistic SWAT teams mimicking tattoo artists - what a perfect detail for Sin City. The next question is what interesting approaches this division of Limited Brands will take to loosen up the predictability of its other 884 locations.
In the popular "Editor's Pant" area, clean, modern graphics paper over shelving for a dramatic wall effect, but can be easily removed to give more fixture space when needed.
Client: Limited Brands Inc., Columbus, Ohio
Design: Shirley Schmitter, vp, design and construction
Bob Bolduc, director, design
Scott Buzinski, director, construction
Michael Lee, designer
Bruce Larsen, project manager
Michelle January, purchasing brand manager
Ella Stover, senior purchasing agent
Sherri Schwieterman, purchasing manager, visual merchandising
Christian Tobar, purchasing agent
Jon Johnson, vp, visual merchandising
Anthony Battaglia, project director, visual merchandising
Polly Sinesi, director, prototype design
Kevin Houlihan, art director
Roger Sherwood, art director
James Jones, visual project manager
Traci Bentine, visual merchandising manager
Scott Thompson, visual graphic designer
Adam Spagnolo, consultant
Architect: MBH Architects, Alameda, Calif.
General Contractor: Shrader-Martinez Construction Inc., Sedona, Ariz.
Audio/Visual: DMX Inc., Seattle
Fixtures and Metalwork: LT Custom Finishings, Vaughan, Ont.
Pinehurst Store Fixtures Inc., Mississauga, Ont.
Flooring: Innovative Marble & Tile Inc. New York
Great Lakes Flooring, Baraboo, Wis.
Furniture: Martin Albert Interiors, New York
Lighting: Capitol Light, Hartford, Conn.
Mannequins/Forms: Goldsmith, Chicago
Props and Decoratives: Gotham Scenic, New York
Stingray Studios, Columbus, Ohio
Signage/Graphics: Signtech. San Diego
Stingray Studios, Columbus, Ohio
Color Edge, New York
Wallcoverings and Materials: Stingray Studios, Columbus, Ohio
Midwest Fixtures, Columbus, Ohio
Photography: Adrian Wilson, Interior Photography Inc., New York