“Service is definitely a lost art,” believes Andrew Dryden, buyer and co-founder of Los Angeles’ newest retail concept, Departamento (Dpto). “Even in the most established retailers, customers aren’t treated the way they once were.”
Positioned on the second floor of a warehouse-turned-art-studio in Downtown LA’s Arts District, Dpto is striving to restore the allure of service and personalisation to create the ultimate shopping experience. For starters, customers buzz in to enter and are greeted by a member of staff. “Something like that means a lot to consumers, it creates excitement and it’s more personal,” explains buyer and Dryden's co-founder Joseph Quinones.
Stefanie Dorfer, retail editor at research and advisory firm, Stylus, knows that creating this sense of excitement is crucial to driving foot traffic and retaining interest in today’s current climate: “In an era where spending on experience continues to outstrip possessions, luxury retailers need to morph into experience-heavy and consumer-centric beasts if they want to distinguish themselves from an e-transformed retail landscape.”
Dorfer also identifies that providing a variety of interactions (like galleries, installations and a rotation of brands) — rather than simply selling luxury goods — is key to presenting a powerful lure for today’s consumer. “Luxury spaces that invest in their creative and cultural equity reframe the store as a visually and culturally edifying feast, akin to a gallery or a museum,” she says. Enter Dpto, defined by art exhibitions, immersive music events and private shopping, designed with this very idea in mind.
Quinones and Dryden believe that vital elements, such as brand experience and aesthetics, are often lost once a collection moves away from the showroom. Focusing on strong brand representation and awareness through in-store installations and weekly events, the store’s current brand mix offers familiarity with established names like Loewe, J.W.Anderson and Marni, alongside underground favourites like Yang Li, Siki Im and Martine Rose, with average price points sitting at US$1,200 for a coat, US$650 for a hoodie, and US$500 for a pair of track pants.
“We want customers to receive the same excitement that wholesale buyers experience when they first encounter a collection”
“The designer’s voice and vision aren’t translated well by many retailers, and their collections end up on tiny racks,” says Dryden, proudly adding, “at Departamento, we want customers to receive the same excitement that wholesale buyers experience when they first encounter a collection,” From the books available in store, to the rotating artworks from Night Gallery (a contemporary art space in Downtown LA) Quinones says: “We want our customers to feel like they are learning something new every time they enter our space.”
According to Dorfer, those who merge fashion with lifestyle experiences are finding exceptional success, creating an attraction rather than a retail space. A prime example is Gucci's Florence-based Gucci Garden. “Stores wrapped around the consumer – in terms of the products they like and services they are interested in – will win the race of consumer engagement,” she believes.
Globally, retailers are taking note. In 2017, British department store Harvey Nichols began to deliberately move its womenswear department away from the traditional store model by inviting all its brands to co-create the space. “This personalised approach cleverly taps into booming consumer interest in brand storytelling, to the extent that it’s almost as important as the actual process of buying products,” Dorfer adds.
This applies to digital too: E-tailers like Montreal-based Ssense, who have triumphed online, are also seeing the benefits of bricks-and-mortar as multi-functional lifestyle spaces. Opening its first physical store in May 2018, it blends online shopping with a ground floor art gallery, creative installations, bookstore, café, and personalised fitting areas excluded from public access, offering the perfect balance between exclusivity and inclusivity.
“Stores wrapped around the consumer in terms of the products they like and services they are interested in will win the race of consumer engagement”
Although Dpto's curated physical space is a key focus for Dryden and Quinones, they also place particular emphasis on their social media strategy. “This current generation is all about social media, and for us, connecting with people online is extremely important,” says Dryden. He references renowned retailer, Atelier, as a point of inspiration: “They simply started with a blog of images featuring everyday consumers in full Atelier looks, and through that, they fostered a real community.”
Dpto’s self-produced imagery, of LA citizens in Dpto-styled outfits, is distinctly relatable to local consumers and those who aspire to the city’s authentic street culture. “We want to build a community embodying Los Angeles, and the lifestyle and people associated with it,” says Quinones. Dorfer believes this strategy will reap benefits: “Trading on shared passions is especially relevant to affluent or aspirational consumers who seek more meaningful connections from luxury brands,” she explains. “It’s a space that luxury brands, with their influential networks and cultural clout, are primed to exploit."
Going forward, Dryden and Quinones face the challenge of finding a happy medium between a curated product selection and a sustainable business model. At present, the physical store is thoroughly edited to preserve its uniqueness, whilst Dpto’s e-store offers more variety to cater to varying demands. “We have a lot of creative freedom for now,” says Dryden. “But once you reach a certain level of growth, the data and numbers start to weigh on a buyer, which can influence decision making.” Determining when to cater to certain product demands, without compromising integrity, will be essential to Dpto’s success.