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The reflective power of retail spaces

How department stores are inspiring brands and clients to reflect on broader societal issues

The celebrated department stores, like Macy’s or Selfridges, both in terms of size and product offerings, have always been ideal laboratories for experimentation, establishing current retail and social trends ahead of the game.

It’s clear these stores are now fully-fledged destinations in their own right. In major capitals we visit them in much the same way as we might an historic building or modern art museum. Indeed, the corner of 34th and Broadway in New York is the city’s third most popular tourist attraction. This is not the address of the MoMA – it’s where you’ll find Macy’s. 

Although their transformation into a destination is now a given, the idea of retail stores as places of reflection deserves a further look. Motivated by a desire to better reflect changes in society combined with the need to constantly reinvent themselves, the brands have embraced social causes for some years now, conveying different facets of their personalities through the choices they make. Even better, they’ve understood – ahead of plenty of other players – that the influence they’ve acquired has considerable value and they now use it wisely, on the whole. 

From gender to agender

With gender at the heart of debates like never before, Selfridges in London took a giant leap forward in 2015 by creating an entire space in which gender no longer exists – “AGENDER, a concept space”. The designer of this space, Faye Toogood, describes “a place in which men and women can come and shop together, without considering their gender”. The message is clear: you must choose your clothes to suit your personality, rather than your gender. This engagement reinforces clothing as a vector of self-expression and echoes a growing desire to see more inclusive fashion emerge.

Not a minor issue

Macy’s in the US seems to be the first to tackle this issue. The chain has recently announced its intention to sell a collection for Muslim women, demonstrating its openness to a community which is often stigmatised and regularly ignored. This initiative is even more interesting, given that it came about thanks to The Workshop, the company’s business development programme which aims at helping high-potential businesses owned by minorities and women to succeed.

Leading by example, this shows that engagement isn’t just a question of communication but rather something which is only meaningful when it’s part of an intrinsic, authentic approach, taking shape through tangible actions.

And to promote women’s rights, this year, for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Liberty unveiled new window displays featuring giant portraits of designers including Anya Hindmarch, Katharine Hamnett and Stella Jean. At the same time, the department store known for being the king of floral prints also organised conversations with influential women and sessions with the founders of engaged brands which are sold in store. An opportunity for Liberty to make an intelligent, sensitive connection between its own engagement and that of the brands it sells.

From the field to the coat hanger

In 2016, the Galeries Lafayette group created its Fashion Integrity line, a modern, well-cut, sustainable and fully traceable collection. Each piece had a QR code which could be used by clients to find out more about its creation – an initiative similar to those launched by brands Ekyog and Honest by. The value chain was well thought out from start to finish: Galeries Lafayette had also anticipated these clothes being given another lease of life, encouraging clients to drop them off at collection points for recycling or to donate them to charity.

Small things make a big difference

Although we only tend to remember major initiatives which have been highly publicised and made a real connection, less visible initiatives are just as interesting. For example, the Canadian department store Simons believes “in small things which make a difference”. The company has been environmentally engaged for years, advocating for greener fashion and making a concerted effort to show that businesses have a role to play in communities. The family company recently joined forces with Bullfrog Power, a Canadian green energy supplier with the B Corporation label, to reduce the environmental impact of its stores. Bullfrog Power has committed to using 100% clean and non-polluting electricity on its grid to match the amount of traditional energy used in Simons’ facilities.

A sustainable revolution

Lastly, David Jones has launched a limited collection for Fashion Revolution Week. This provocatively-named event was created five years ago to raise customer awareness of the first anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, in which 1138 people, mostly women, lost their lives. This year, four Australian designers working for The Social Outfit – Manning Cartell, Viktoria & Woods, Nobody Denim and Bianca Spender – have produced exclusive designs, created in a sustainable, responsible way. The pieces make quite an impact, asking a single question which leaves a lasting impression: “Who made your clothes?”

Department stores are helping to inspire others in a new, different way, encouraging brands and clients alike to reflect on certain issues. By conveying some of the challenges facing the world around them in their place of business, they help to shape the zeitgeist. 

First published on superunion.com

Camille Yvinec


published on

16 August 2018



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Consumer behaviour DE&I

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