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Design in the Heart of Texas

Authenticity, brand generosity and omnichannel retail were the talk of the conference, while a standing ovation – an IRDC first – wrapped up the 15th annual event in grand style




Despite 100-plus degree temperatures and a few brewing thundershowers, more than 400 designers, visual merchandisers and other creative types moseyed on down to the happily weird, locally minded Austin, Texas, for the 15th annual International Retail Design Conference, held Sept. 9-11. The educational event corrals some of the best minds in the industry presenting on retail-related topics that ignite attendee inspiration. A few of this year’s prime discussions included opening keynoter co-founder Soraya Darabi’s “How Brand Authenticity is Driving the Future of Retail,” and closing keynote speaker Christian Davies’ “Generous Brands 2.0: Retail’s Ongoing Journey Toward the Greater Good,” which bookended the 37 educational sessions on various retail topics.

Countless breakout sessions, the first live announcement of VMSD’s Retailer of the Year, roundtable discussions, case study breakfasts, a guided tour of Austin-based Whole Foods Market’s flagship and the ever-popular Iron Merchant challenge (this time with a “Zenspiration” twist!) filled out the three-day IRDC schedule.

Below, you’ll find some of the event’s most memorable moments, along with several of the concepts and trends that popped up more than once throughout the conference. Did we finally stop talking about millennials? Not quite. But a new generation is coming around the bend.

For more conference chatter and photos, search the hashtag #IRDC2015 on social media, or visit

Day one began on an exciting note as opening keynoter Soraya Darabi, co-founder of online apparel and accessories retailer, addressed retail-centric issues in her presentation, including transparency, developing an omnichannel presence, and how millennials and the up-and-coming Generation Z expect a dynamic, mobile-focused shopping experience. Zady, founded in 2012, eschews the cheap, fast-fashion ethos that’s currently prevalent in retail and empowers customers to take a deeper look into how and where their apparel is made. “Customers are willing to pay to experience deeper authenticity,” Darabi said. “We’re building a longer lasting relationship by showing that [product] story.”

She emphasized that Zady – dubbed the “Whole Foods of fashion” by The Wall Street Journal – was not just “an e-commerce company,” but one that focused on all facets of marketing, including social media.


“With digital, you’re able to expand your footprint beyond imagination,” Darabi said. “Social media is a democracy that’s open to all and we’re naturally creating that two-way dialogue.”

Despite its online roots, Darabi and her team brought Zady into the physical retail sphere with several successful pop-up shops at airports in New York. “There’s nothing like having that face-to-face connection and learning about the brand through these interactions,” she said.

This idea of social-impact retail was further explored in the closing keynote presentation from Christian Davies, the executive creative director, Americas, at Columbus, Ohio-based Fitch.

“Why should retail care? Because today’s shopper – Gens X, Y and Z – cares, and they’re voting with their money and loyalty,” Davies explained. But being a benevolent brand is about more than “just giving,” and brands need to stop “trying to end world [insert impossible goal here], and instead focus on what is meaningful to their shoppers.

“Customers see businesses as a far more effective vehicle for change [than governments], and they expect them to step up,” Davies said. “But the challenge is how to be generous and still make money.”  To wit, he cited Woonsocket, R.I.-based pharmacy and drugstore company CVS’ risky decision to end cigarette and tobacco sales at its more than 7600 stores nationwide. Yet, according to Davies, “despite $2.4 [million] going up in smoke, CVS entered the Fortune 500 top 10 for the first time this year and it released record earnings for the second quarter, thanks in part to a five-point plan specifically designed to offset the losses from tobacco revenues.” 

Several other brands, including Luxottica, Panera, Volvo and Unilever, made Davies’ “benevolent list.” And with the support of a few tear-inducing videos, the crowd responded to his inspiring discussion with a well-deserved standing ovation. (You can view Davies’ 2015 IRDC presentation at


Similarly, Eric Feigenbaum, VMSD’s New York editor and chair of visual merchandising at LIM College (New York), and Harry Cunningham, head of store development for Vera Bradley (New York), presented on “Retail’s New Paradigm: Connecting with the Community.” Their discussion centered on retailers considering the social well-being of their communities and incorporating relatable elements into their environments.

“Today, caring about your customer has to be part of the retail equation,” said Feigenbaum. “Stores must add the human touch; these are the stores that will succeed.”

Emily Watkins, senior vp of real estate and construction for specialty apparel retailer Charlotte Russe (San Diego), and her fellow panelists – Christen Soares, principal, Field Paoli Architects (San Francisco), and Kristen Strickler, social media and PR manager, Charlotte Russe – spotlighted Lemon Pop, a new Charlotte Russe brand created specifically for the “underserved” millennial mom demographic. “Millennials tend to view brands as extensions of themselves,” said Watkins. The team connected and engaged with its customers on social media (specifically, Facebook and Instagram), its website and in store. “Our customers use the website for inspiration and assistance,” Watkins said. “Three-fourths of them browse online and 80 percent of those customers buy in store.”

“It’s especially humbling to be in this crowd and receive this honor,” said Sarah Apgar, director of new stores for New York-based eyewear retailer Warby Parker, which received this year’s VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year award. Based on the results from a three-round voting session by VMSD’s editorial advisory board, the brand was chosen mainly for its innovation and willingness to experiment as a newcomer to bricks-and-mortar retail. During the VMSD Awards Luncheon, Apgar cited numerous ways the predominately e-commerce retailer has done just that, including its traveling yellow school bus pop-up shop. The eyewear brand now operates 13 physical store locations around the country, with eye-popping success (including reported sales of more than $3000 per square foot).

Checkland Kindleysides (Leicester, U.K.), represented by Katie Baron, head of retail,, secured the coveted “Best in Show” honor for VMSD’s 21st annual International Visual Competition for its immersive Hunter flagship store in London. Daniel Botner, representing Botner-Pecina Arquitectos (Buenos Aires, Argentina) accepted the 2015 Retail Renovation of the Year award for his firm’s timeless reinvention of Cuesta Blanca’s Buenos Aires flagship – previously a famed department store – which included significantly reducing and modifying its sizable floorplan.

With a roaring drumroll (aka attendees pounding on tables), ZenGenius Inc. (Columbus, Ohio) co-founder, ceo and creative director Joe Baer prepared to announce which team would be crowned the 2015 Iron Merchant challenge winner. This year’s “Yoga Challenge” called upon six teams of attendees to create a Zen-themed display using woodgrain mannequins rocking tree poses in less than an hour. During the cocktail-driven challenge Sept. 9, colorful strips of flagging tape were unveiled as this year’s secret ingredient, while Columbus, Ohio-based band Fine Animal supplied the tunes and real-life yoga enthusiasts struck poses throughout the displays. The winner? The Red Team, led by VMSD blogger, editorial advisory board member and 2015 IRDC presenter David Kepron of Little (Minneapolis).


In “TargetExpress: A Flexible Format Case Study,” Heather Sexton, Target’s (Minneapolis) lead design project architect, Stephanie Tillmann, Target’s group manager for store planning and design and MBH Architects’ (Alameda, Calif.) studio director John Schmid, discussed the big-box retailer’s small-format strategy for urban environments. Going against a “one-size-fits-all” approach, the team created flexible formats for  various urban locations in Chicago, San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., with localized design elements. “They all have very different design characteristics, but they maintain the Target brand,” Tillmann said.

Localized design was also a central topic in Birds Barbershop (Austin, Texas) co-founder Michael Portman’s presentation “Beyond The Cookie Cutter Approach: Reimagining the Neighborhood Barbershop.” Each of his multiple independent barbershops (for both men and women) has its own distinct look and feel that takes cues from its neighborhood and respects the existing architecture. “We will not erase the past of a building, ever,” Portman said.

Smaller stores were also a theme in VMSD European editor John Ryan’s presentation on international and U.K. retail trends. “Everyone seems to think that bigger is better,” he said. “But it’s less about big and more about making things easier for people.” Ryan also emphasized a growing amount of hyper-specialized, single-category shops abroad – everything from successful tea shops to a bookstore in Tokyo that (oddly enough) sells only one solitary book that the store swaps out every week.

An unusual retail store that sells a single book might illicit a “wow,” but ceo Brian Shafley and creative director Mary Lynn Waite of Chute Gerdeman (Columbus, Ohio) gave an engaging presentation on how all brands can create a “wow experience” for shoppers. 

“Stores matter now more than ever,” Shafley said. “And today’s customers expect a lot more. They have more distractions, shorter attention spans and are seeking more transparency.” To wow customers, Shafley and Waite recommended several steps: understand the individual, embrace their audience, find their edge and destroy – not just break – boundaries. When retailers care about creating such an environment, it evokes loyalty, which results in longer dwell times and repeat visits and purchases, Shafley noted. “The most powerful wows are the ones you didn’t see coming,” he said.

Prepare for even more wows next year, as IRDC heads north to Montréal, Sept. 13-15, 2016. For more information on next year’s IRDC, visit

Thanks again to our 2015 IRDC Sponsors:

Presenting Sponsor

Mondo Mannequins

Diamond Sponsors

Alpolic Materials – Mitsubishi Plastics Composites America


Miller Zell

Reflect Systems


Visual Citi

Emerald Sponsors

Alcoa – Kawneer and Reynobond

Architectural Systems Inc.

Bernstein Display




Grottini Retail Environments

Impact Specialties



Mack Studios

Moss Retail & Environments

Opto International Inc.


Visual Magnetics

Supporting Sponsors

Architectural Graphics Inc. (AGI)

Astek Wallcovering Inc.

CIMA Network Inc.


Inwindow Interactive

Karen Pearse Global Direct


Scent Systems by Yankee Candle


X-Rite Pantone



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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