Fifth Avenue Flaships

Can a revived Fifth Avenue symbolize retail’s road to recovery?
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Posted November 7, 2011
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There’s still only one Fifth Avenue. Fashions change and economies rise and fall, but Manhattan’s retail thoroughfare remains the home of great old stores, including Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s one of the grandest retail districts in the world.

And today, there’s a buzz of excitement on the avenue. “You see signs of street theater coming back,” says Tom Beebe, vp of creative services for HMX Group.

The avenue that was once bound by Bonwit Teller on the north and B. Altman on the south now boasts the eclectic sensibilities of Urban Outfitters, the simulated oceanfront façade of Hollister, the clean white exterior of Guess, and the trendy allure of Uniqlo, with Zara and Joe Fresh on the way. “Fifth Avenue is undergoing a transformation,” says Linda Lombardi, vp of global store design and visual merchandising for Godiva Chocolatier. “It’s becoming more accessible to a broader market.”

Because any store on Fifth Avenue is a beacon of its brand, a retailer here must do more than sell; it must connect with the community. In today’s economy, that means offering inspiration, newness and strong brand identity. “We want our space to be a venue to connect to the world,” says Harry Cunningham, senior vp, visual merchandising and store planning, for Saks Fifth Avenue. “We want to speak about fashion, current events and history.”

Saks’ September windows accomplished this. Although it was Fashion Week, the retailer removed all fashion from the windows and simply listed the names of those lost on September 11, 2001, and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

“We’re part of New York and we thought it was the right thing to do. During the late-night installations, people came by taking pictures and looking for names,” says Cunningham. “The response was overwhelming.”

Lacoste, two blocks south of Saks, is an international brand with a strong need to make a local connection. So the apparel retailer found a home for its flagship in the 80-year-old Goelet Building on 48th Street, which, like neighboring Rockefeller Center, is an embodiment of the city’s art deco period.

Lacoste’s designers looked for ways to play off the brand’s famous crocodile logo. “The croc is in the DNA of the company,” says Vincent Iacobellis, principal, Design Republic Partners (Brooklyn, N.Y.). “So we looked for whimsical ways to integrate it into the environment. Faux crocodile skin was used on perimeter walls as a subtle reminder of the brand.”

The transparent façade opens the store interior to the street. The advanced principles of the original architect Victor Hafner were maintained with a suspended second floor and a dynamic floating staircase. A stainless-steel spine pierces the staircase treads. Cantilevered, poured-concrete steps double as multi-level surfaces for merchandise presentation. In keeping with the philosophy of transparency and open vistas, screen mesh room dividers are used as an interpretation of the tactile quality of the Lacoste shirt weave.

Another new Fifth Avenue tenant is Godiva, whose flagship on 52nd Street is the company’s first presence since 1972. And they’ve returned with a splash. The store offers a luxurious environment without being intimidating. Customers are drawn in by “theater in the window.” Whereas once Fifth Avenue windows were the aspirational confections of Gene Moore at Tiffany and Raymond Mastrobuoni at Cartier, Godiva offers real confection: a chef dipping strawberries into a vat of melty chocolate. A front and forward seasonal wall welcomes customers transitioning from the street. They find what Lombardi calls “the chocolate library,” a dramatic focal point featuring a wall of chocolate indulgence, including a wide assortment of bars to pick up and eat on the go.

The materials palette takes its lead from Godiva’s proprietary gold packaging. Gold surface materials serve as highlights throughout the environment. Lighting is the icing on the cake or, in this case, on the truffle. Evenly focused LED lighting makes merchandise look like jewels. A central focal point features chocolate-brown glazed tiles and an oversized Lady Godiva logo, halo lit and mounted on what appears to be a wall of edible bricks.

While it’s true we remain in uncharted economic waters, the road to recovery will be paved by retailers who inspire consumers with newness and strong brand identity. And perhaps that road can start on Fifth Avenue.

For more on the Fifth Avenue scene, join VMSD on Thursday, December 8, at the Retail Design Collective, when we discuss what it takes to open in this retail epicenter. Our discussion will include insight from leading designers and retailers, including: Ron Pompei of Pompei A.D.; Harry Cunningham at Saks Fifth Avenue; Les Hiscoe, Shawmut Design and Construction; and Eric Feigenbaum, LIM College. For more information, visit www.retaildesigncollective.com.