Asia retail: Thinking east

John-Michael O’Sullivan reports on a field trip by HMKM staff to witness retail developments in Shanghai and Seoul.


As told to and written by John-Michael O'Sullivan, HMKM Design Team Leader

We first met the guys from Kingsmen, one of Asia's leading retail contractors, at Euroshop in Dusseldorf. That was several years ago - but we've kept in touch ever since, and this spring they invited us to join them on a retail and architecture tour of Shanghai and Seoul. They'd already conducted several of these 'road trips' in Europe in the past decade, including to Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam, but this was their first venture further afield.

As it turned out, we were the only British representatives; of the other 30 or so guests most were either American, Canadian or Asian and background-wise were a broad mix of clients, designers, suppliers, sponsors and retailers. It was an ambitious, intensely planned week-long trip, with an itinerary which they'd curated with retail consultant Linda Krueger (formerly VP of Global Store Design at Hong Kong's DFS Group).

The schedule featured store visits, sightseeing, guided tours and cultural events, alongside presentations and lectures from local retailers, developers and architects. And it was pretty full-on; depending on what options you selected a typical day could start with tai chi at 7am, a quick breakfast and then on to a bus to start visiting stores. Generally, we'd just keep going right through till dinner and drinks at night!

The quirky Teddy Bear cafe, a restaurant located in an old abattoir in Shanghai
The quirky Teddy Bear cafe, a restaurant located in an old abattoir in Shanghai

We'd both worked on projects in China before, at different points. But this visit really showed us that the Asian market is changing so much faster than ours. Our latest project there, the Galeries Lafayette outpost in Beijing, only opened three years ago. But things have shifted dramatically since then -- in terms of the way retail happens, in terms of how the supply chain operates, in terms of the balance between Western and local brands and, above all, in terms of who the key customer is. (Then, it was predominantly seen to be male. Now, the female consumer is becoming increasingly powerful. And so, too, are children; the country's one-child policy means that there are, on average, four adults to every child.)

Our five days in Shanghai were packed with extreme contrast, from travelling on the world's fastest train to wandering through the trendy arts and crafts enclave of Tian Xi Fang, in the city's old French quarter. Whole new districts had appeared since we last visited, like Pudong on the East Bank; once farmland, it's now mushroomed into a 21st-century Manhattan. We got to visit some great new retail experiences, like Yabu Pushelberg's Lane Crawford store and 10 Corso Como's Nanjing branch (created in consultation with American artist Kris Ruhs) -- as well as David Chipperfield's beautifully detailed Valentino flagship, with its palazzo-like sequence of rooms and its dramatic facade stacked with row on row of mannequins. There was a crop of local names to look at too, from sportswear label Li Ning (China's answer to Adidas and Nike, founded by a former Olympic gymnast) to the quirky Teddy Bear cafe (a restaurant in an old slaughterhouse, crammed floor-to-ceiling with toy bears in every shape and size).

In Tian Zi Fang, the arts and crafts enclave in Shanghai’s former French Concession
In Tian Zi Fang, the arts and crafts enclave in Shanghai's former French Concession

And of course, given the nature of Chinese shopping, there were plenty of malls to explore -- most notably the K11 Art Mall in Xintiandi, an innovative blend of retail, art and social space.

You could sense a new level of maturity too as the market has grown and evolved. The Chinese consumer has become more affluent over the years -- and with this new affluence, there's been a gradual shift back to heritage, and to the rediscovery of indigenous craftsmanship. That's why it was so fascinating to see Shang Xia, a new brand developed in partnership with Hérmes, whose aim is to re-establish artisan disciplines that were on the brink of extinction; so traditional, handcrafted items such as woven bamboo and handmade porcelain are elevated to sit alongside fine jewellery, clothing and exquisitely simply furniture. Everything was simple, but everything had that unmistakable Hérmes stamp -- the best materials, the best quality, the best fabrication. The concept also signalled an antidote to China's frantic pace; we were shown around the store by Shang Xia's founder and creative director, Jiang Qiong'er, who explained how they'd spent several years gradually building the brand and encouraging the new Chinese luxury customer to look into their own culture.

Set in a Twenties' mansion, the Kengo Kuma-designed flagship touched every part of the senses - from the ethereal 3D fabric that wrapped throughout the interior, to the hundreds of handmade bamboo screens, to the top-floor pavilion surrounded by fragrant, tea-soaked bricks (where we also experienced a traditional tea ceremony).

Shinsegai staircase in the original part of the Department Store, the first in Seoul
Shinsegai staircase in the original part of the Department Store, the first in Seoul

The actual hub of the Shanghai trip was a visit to the first-ever C-Star, a satellite version of Euroshop aimed at the Asian market. Staged at the city's SNIEC complex, the event already boasts an impressive list of exhibitors, and we were able to catch up with some familiar names such as Ganter and Schweitzer. And as the show's statistics suggest, the potential is huge; the Chinese retail market is growing by around 17 per cent year-on-year, with more than 4.6 million sq m of new retail space coming on stream this year alone.

Korea, by contrast, was new to both of us -- and the differences between Shanghai and Seoul were immense. Both are vast, modern cities, and both are hugely significant retail destinations in their regions. But in Seoul, the home of K-Pop and Gangnam Style, the city's history of cultural freedom was evident everywhere. Most people had great, individual style -- and retail-wise it seemed like that translated into a very different kind of luxury.

You didn't get a sense that it was just huge flagships on every corner -- at least not in the areas we visited.

Relative to China, we saw a lot more independent shops and much more of a cross-levelling of every sector of retail.

Aesthetically, the design end of things seemed more Westernised, to an extent -- exemplified by experiences such as Peter Marino's Boon The Shop, and Burdifilek's The Galleria. But the way that places such as Bukchon Village, one of the city's oldest districts, were carefully curated and beautifully landscaped seemed to suggest a real sense of local pride.

Within stores there was always something to look at, at every level, whether it was the design or the product edit. There was a storytelling that was primarily about the shop environment, but which translated into every aspect of the retail experience; Korean brands such as Gentle Monster, for example, which had converted the ruins of an old restaurant into a showroom for its imaginative sunglasses, weaving its product through the crumbling, baroque interior. Everywhere we went there were other interesting, forward thinking stores - places such as Shinsegae (the city's original department store, which had a terrific food hall) and Åland (think Urban Outfitters meets Uniqlo; a Dover Street Market of sorts, translated for the mass market: raw, industrial and engaging).

Detail of a wall print in the Shang Xia store, Shanghai
Detail of a wall print in the Shang Xia store, Shanghai

Across both cities it was interesting to see how the role of technology was evolving. On shopfronts and facades you see lots of activity, as stores clamour for attention in the noisy cityscape. But then you didn't see that reflected anywhere within store environments generally; technology, where it happened, was about service and was largely invisible.

Of course, everyone's walking round glued to their phones these days, so maybe we don't need to shout about digital any more. Our intuition as designers, though, is always to ask 'How do you engage an audience?'

But the reality we saw in both cities is that the audience's attention and engagement is still there -- just in a very different format.

Overall, what did we take away from the trip? Primarily, a greater understanding of the cultural shifts happening now in China and Korea, and a sense of the perception of 3D retail environments in those two cities.

Inside the Shang Xia store in Shanghai, Design is by Kengo Kuma
Inside the Shang Xia store in Shanghai, Design is by Kengo Kuma

We also had some incredible, memorable experiences along the way. The highlights? Far too many to pick just one! Retail wise, Shinsegae and Åland in Seoul, and then K11 and Shang Xia in Shanghai. But beyond that, the breakfast-time Street Eats tour of Shanghai (where we fell in love with xiaolongbao, the city's soup-filled dumplings); hitting 260mph on the Maglev train; having 15 minutes to see all four floors of 10 Corso Como; discovering Seoul's historic Bukchon district, and shopping along Sinsa-Dong's Garosu-Gil; and the sight of thousands of lanterns floating down the Cheonggyecheon river by night, during the city's annual Lotus Lantern festival.

We'd love to go back and spend more time -- we just need to start doing some projects over there! Mind you, at the speed both cities are moving, everything will probably have changed again by then...

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