Filene's Basement, Tysons Corner, Va.

Filene's Basement wants to turn "bargain alley" into "fashion drive."
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Posted August 14, 2007
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Filene’s practically invented the bargain basement. In 1909, owner William Filene gave the basement of his Boston store to his son, Edward, to run. Edward developed the “automatic markdown system,” periodically changing the price tag on each item as it hit the selling floor. The basement became one of the most-visited attractions in Boston, rivaling Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall and the Cheers bar.

Filene’s Basement survives as a retail name, though it split from parent Filene’s Department Store in 1988. And it’s still associated with deep discounts and madcap giveaways (such as its annual Running of the Brides event).

But owner Retail Ventures Inc. (Columbus, Ohio), which bought Filene’s Basement in 2000, wants to cast its eyes upwards. At its newest store, in Tysons Corner, Va., the primary similarity to the old “bargain alley” is aesthetic. Designers replicated the red brick and subway light fixtures of old Boston to create mood and nostalgia. Otherwise, there’s very little about this two-story, 43,000-square-foot store in a suburban lifestyle center to harken back to the days of pipe racks and dump bins.

“We’ve always carried the highest-end brands,” says Mark Luther, the retailer’s visual merchandising vp, “and now we’re building our stores to showcase them.”

The space, designed by Fitzpatrick International Group (Southampton, N.Y.), is bright, light and open. A former consumer electronics warehouse store, it had no interior walls, high ceilings and a plain-vanilla interior. The most problematic architectural element, however, was a massive central elevator well – 30 feet high, 12 feet wide – that had been used for hauling electronics merchandise between floors. As it did 100 years ago with last year’s unsold fashions, Filene’s Basement turned dross into gold. It turned the escalator well into a large, open central atrium with some fun visual elements – projection screens, photo murals.

“We took a 1910 photograph of a shopper riding a wooden escalator in our original building,” says Luther, “and created a mural for one of the sides of the atrium. Other vintage photos wrap the rest of the well.” One of them is of a Filene’s elevator operator circa 1910 with a little cap on her head. The nudge in the ribs to shoppers is, “this is the way it used to be.”

The materials tell today’s story: rich mahogany with brushed aluminum in the men’s department, light maple with aluminum accents in women’s, the retailer’s signature black, red and white palette accenting the walls and floors, red brick treatments on each of the walls, custom carpeting that complements the brick and some of the other colors on the fixtures and walls. Custom mannequins fill the store. The juniors department has a massive platform suspended from the ceiling, loaded with mannequins. There’s also custom silk fabric used throughout the interior case pads with matching women’s forms in the handbag and jewelry department.

“Apart from design, though, I also wanted to incorporate concepts that would drive sales,” says designer Jay Fitzpatrick, “such as aisle merchandising presentations and item-of-the-week focal points. I call those speedbumps: They cause the shopper to pause.” He also added what he calls an “over-the-top Curvatura wave” above the aisle presentations. “It adds a moderne counterpoint to the heritage elements of the store,” Fitzpatrick says.

Video monitors in some of the common areas – checkout, customer service and fitting rooms – entertain shoppers with fashion footage and promotions on upcoming savings events. Oversized chairs supply resting and waiting opportunities throughout the store.

One of the most eye-catching elements of the store is the billboard-style graphics, another nod to old Boston. (As with the subway light fixtures, the billboards recall that the original basement was connected to the Boston underground transit system.) Each lifestyle image is sepia-toned but with one merchandise color punched up, such as a red handbag in women’s accessories or a blue shirt in men’s.

“We’ve tried to re-create the upscale urban feel of Filene’s original downtown Boston store,” Luther says.

The store is the latest in Filene Basement’s ongoing effort to reposition its brand in high-end market locations. This lifestyle center store, for example, is directly across the street from the Tysons Corner Center (Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s) and aiming for the same upscale shopper. It also opened a new Boston store in the Newbury-Boylston Street corridor, one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and one at New York’s Union Square (complete with doorman). Several more are in the works. There will be more than 40 stores in all by early 2008, as the retailer works its way west. The bulk of its locations is still in the Northeast, but it’s also in Illinois and Ohio, now in Georgia, soon to be in Florida.

“The hunt for bargains is still what drives people into our stores,” says Luther, “but once inside, they’ll find a vastly different hunting ground.”

Client: Filene’s Basement, Burlington, Mass.

Design: Fitzpatrick International Group, Southampton N.Y.

Architect: Herschman Architects Inc., Cleveland

General Contractor: Continental Building Systems, Cleveland

Audio/Visual: Retail Entertainment Design, Bellevue Wash.

Metal Wave Ceiling: Curvatura By USG, Chicago

Fixtures: ALU, New York; Flair Display, Bronx, N.Y.; MG Concepts, Central Islip, N.Y.; Nu-Era Group, The, St. Louis; Vermont Store Fixture Corp., Danby, Vt.; Visual Millwork & Fixtures, Woodside N.Y.

Flooring: Innovative Stone, New York; Innovision Flooring Corp., Kenilworth, N.J.; Lees Carpets, Boston

Furniture: Benchmark Woodworking, Delaware, Ohio

Lighting: Alexandra Lighting, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Juno Lighting Group, Des Plaines, Ill.; Litecontrol, Hanson, Mass.; Store Lighting Systems, Great Neck, N.Y.

Mannequins/Forms: Apogee USA, New York; Bernstein Display, Brooklyn, N.Y.; J.H. Display & Fixture Co., Greenwood, Ind.

Props and decoratives: Cahill Display, Boston

Signage/Graphics: Berman Visuals, Atlanta; I.D. Graphics, Boston; , New York

Wallcoverings and Materials: Pionite Decorative Surfaces, Auburn, Maine; Symmetry Products Group, Lincoln, R.I.

Photography: Whitney Cox, New York