The North Face named itself after the side of the mountain that's coldest, iciest and most formidable to climb. It was eager to identify its brand with outdoor apparel, gear, adventure and exploration.
Beverly Hills, Calif., is neither cold nor icy (though some find it a formidable place to climb). But because the San Leandro, Calif.-based retailer is anxious to build stand-alone, high-profile stores in unique settings, it set up shop just one block from Rodeo Drive.
One of only eight locations around the U.S., the latest venture was designed to embody The North Face brand and experience, in addition to celebrating its heritage of outdoor exploration. JGA Inc. (Southfield, Mich.) was chosen to create this new design standard, featuring innovative fixturing and an architectural environment that integrates a sense of culture, destination and journey.
According to Sandy Wait, vp of retail at The North Face, the company promotes exploration. "On our staff, we have a team of extreme athletes who climb, ski and snowboard, and who go on many expeditions sponsored by The North Face in various countries around the world," she says. "They come back and talk about the cultures, countryside and people, and we incorporate this cultural aspect into the store design environment."
Because Beverly Hills has a very restrictive set of external design regulations, JGA designers had to rely on The North Face's distinctive logo to draw customers into the 7500-square-foot store. At the entrance, a 200-year-old Indonesian antique door exemplifies the variety of cultures within. The area is also embellished with stone planters, an antique bench and a pristine waterfall element made of hand-cast glass.
The store tried to represent both the "hard" and "soft" image of the company's position in the marketplace. The hard side is the quality and technical innovation of the gear itself. The soft side reflects the passion its customers have for the outdoor experience.
"Because its products are so well-regarded, The North Face dominates the outdoor-gear and adventure-wear segment," Ken Nisch, JGA chairman, explains. "What we felt was needed in the mix was consumer-sensitivity to the emotional side of the experience, which connects the products to the places where they are used - the hard and the soft."
"Many other outdoor stores use babbling brooks and little bridges to imitate nature," explains Wait. But The North Face interprets nature through the use of traditional fixtures intertwined with antique design objects from around the world. "People who travel bring back memories from places they go," says Nisch. "These are inspired elements to integrate back into the store."
Such authentic pieces include Thai Spirit Houses and classic Chinese doors from a noble residence that were converted into tables. An antique wedding chest from India functions as a sunglass display. Rustic trunks and cupboards are topped with contemporary glass for use as display fixtures. A "hero wall" within the shoe area, inspired by a Japanese bell wall, becomes a photo gallery of various athletes and the trips they've taken, and also displays small artifacts and climbing equipment. Wait suggests the footwear display tower and rotating story about the athletes'travels help inspire consumers to get out and explore. This cultural element contrasts with the more high-tech stainless-steel tension and floating glass shelves by B&N Industries (San Carlos, Calif.), and with a large stone-like sculptural arch that spans the width of the store.
Adjacent to the shoe area, a ramp finished in a series of natural stones allows customers to test the grip and fit of footwear before purchasing. "How else do you show this shoe to people without an area like this to demonstrate?" asks Nisch. "Obviously, Beverly Hills is far away from a glacier. This demo ramp provided an area to take the product and try it out. "
The fixtures themselves were intended to tell a story about The North Face product and its uses. "The idea was that when someone's in our performance apparel area, they're not just looking at soft goods," says Wait. "We merchandise clothing along with some of our equipment and packs, which encourages customers to seek out that portion of the store."
A particularly troublesome area to tackle was displaying tents and sleeping products. The fixtures needed to communicate all the points of technical information to satisfy the needs of the customer, and also allow for easy stock accessibility. The sleeping bag wall features a large graphic element superimposed over the storage cabinet doors, and product specification cards describing each of the featured sleeping bags. Nisch characterizes this wall and the hierarchy of sampling, product information and stock as an effective selling triangle.
In front of that area, a mini tent-display fixture allows customers to sample without having to crawl inside. Product specification tags allow shoppers to find out weight, size and other pertinent information. Stock is immediately available beneath the display. "In an area that's typically an eyesore, or just plain chaotic in most outdoor stores, this breakthrough solution provided structure," says Nisch.
Large landscape photographs are blown up to heroic size on the sleeping bag wall to give customers a sense of the grandeur of the scene itself. According to Nisch, The North Face has a library of images collected over the years that were incorporated into the store. Cultural photographs in horizontal format are used primarily above merchandising areas. "The graphics are so color-intensive because of the strong blues of the sky, they pop out on the neutral store palette," says Nisch.
This restrained color scheme of grays, metals, whites and woods was chosen as a backdrop to The North Face outerwear collection, which is a powerful mixture of optic oranges, bright yellows and intense reds. "The store didn't need a lot of inherent color to be exciting - the color is provided by the product," says Nisch. "The underlying palette ends up being fairly muted, but not dull."
At the same time, the store is marked with contrasts. Floor fixtures and service counters feature sandblasted pine, trimmed with stainless steel and hand-polished plaster perimeter merchandising panels. A maple wood curved outer shell surrounds the vertically overscaled fitting rooms that re-create the feeling of interacting with nature. The composite concrete floor with a mottled texture is set within a grid system of dark oak timber strips. Other elements include stainless-steel columns and the icy coolness of the rear-illuminated acrylic panels.
The store is also very textural with its combination of hammered and sandblasted woods, heavily grained materials and highly detailed antique pieces. To enhance the finishes and qualities, and bring out the color of the fixturing, the overall lighting used was very cool. "The lighting was very critical in bringing out the finishes," says Nisch. "Lighting enhances the contrast between the technical fabrics of The North Face product and the textural fixturing it sits on."
Nisch believes this underlying contrast and tension between the technical and cultural elements is what makes the program successful and adds personality to the product itself. "While there will be continuity of brand image from store to store, this location is truly unique and surprising," says Nisch. "The customer tends to be well-traveled, so the opportunity to experience all these elements and know there's a story behind them enhances the overall experience."
Client Team: The North Face Inc. (a subsidiary of VF Corp.), San Leandro, Calif. - Sandy Wait, vp, retail; David Curtis, senior manager, store design and visual merchandising; James Thomsen, director, operations and finance, retail; Rich Martini, director, stores
Design Team: JGA Inc., Southfield, Mich. - Ken Nisch, chairman; Mike Curtis, creative director; Arvin Stephenson, project manager
Project Management: Chestnut Co., San Rafael, Calif. - David Itzla
Outside Consultant: Lighting Management Inc., New City, N.Y. - John Sapanaro, president
Suppliers: Silver Stream, Lakeview Terrace, Calif., The Carlson Co., Madison, Wis., B&N Industries, San Carlos, Calif., Custom Woodcraft Inc., Paso Robles, Calif., Look, New York (fixturing); Gammapar, Forest, Va. (wood floor strips); Custom Concrete Designs, Benicia, Calif. (concrete); American Olean/Virginia Tile, Farmington Hills, Mich. (slate); Benjamin Moore, Montvale, N.J., Zolatone, Los Angeles (paint); Näss Fresco Finishes, Fox River Grove, Ill. (wall finish); Chemetal, E. Hampton, Mass., Corian, Wilmington, Del. (laminates); Bluworld Innovations, Winterpark, Fla. (water feature); Joel Berman: Glass Studios Ltd., Vancouver and Chicago (glass for water feature); Lunaform LLC, W. Sullivan, Maine (exterior planters); Greneker, Los Angeles (faux paint effects and architectural elements); Harmon Signs/Planet Neon, Toledo, Ohio (exterior signage); Great Big Pictures, Madison, Wis. (interior graphics); C.A.I. Designs, Arlington Heights, Ill. (antiques/furniture)
Laszlo Regos Photography, Berkley, Mich.