The birth of a retail brand can stem from many varied stories, but perhaps none so fitting (pun intended) as a footwear brand born of a broken heart. In an attempt to win back the affections of a departed lover, a young Dutch designer created what became the “Möbius” shoe to impress her, and despite the girl never coming back, the shoe went on to earn a Rotterdam Design Award nomination in 2003.
And so, the United Nude footwear brand was born. The tag team behind the brand is Dutch architect Rem D Koolhaas (nephew of famed architectural icon Rem Koolhaas and owner of the broken heart that launched the brand) and Galahad JD Clark, a seventh-generation shoemaker from Somerset, England. The brand’s products are about “clear concepts, elegance and innovation,” and with a spectrum of bold colors, original shapes and unexpected ornamentation—think injection-moulded shoes and high-end carbon fiber heels—many of the shoe designs are works of art in themselves. The brand is distributed worldwide in more than 300 points of sale across some 30 countries.
United Nude previously had opened several stores in international cities, including Guangzhou and Tianjin, China; Vienna, Austria; London; and New York—but all were franchise locations. Opening last October, the new Amsterdam store—located adjacent to Dam Square in the prestigious city center address of Spuistraat 125—is the first flagship operated by the brand, and as creative director Koolhaas puts it: “certainly not the last.”
“The store design, as well as the shoes, is about clear concepts and about having a clear identity,” Koolhaas explains. “What we did in Amsterdam was an extension of the brand, and really the store completes the brand’s presentation.”
The basis of the store design revolves around a “dark shop” concept that uses light only where it is necessary to display product. “It sounds more scary than it really is,” Koolhaas assures. “The amount of lights in the shop is similar to another ‘normal’ shop, but by painting the entire store—including the ceilings—black, you have the feeling you are in a darker shop. The ‘dark shop’ concept allows you to focus on the products without any other distractions.”
The back wall of the shop is designed as a “Wall of Light,” a curving perimeter element encompassing the feel of a very low-resolution screen. The color-changing, computer-controlled LED wall makes the shoes jump out in geometric frames, almost like images on a photo contact sheet. The 32-ft.-long wall stretches 6.5 ft. high from floor to ceiling, with mirrors in the store creating the illusion that the wall is double that size. Koolhaas compares the effect to that of a TV screen or monitor, where abstract animations can feel “either like an art installation or a hip hop music video.” The Wall of Light is housed in painted wood cabinets, and the light elements are custom-made LED strips that were developed in-house.
Complementing the dark store concept and bright Wall of Light, the design team used warm merbau wood on the floors, with black leather tufted ottoman sofas scattered for customers to try on shoes. A simple set of stairs in the center of the store breaks up the space nicely, giving a sense of depth perception to what might be a dizzying effect. The stairs lead to an upper level that houses offices for the brand.
In comparison to the dark regions, the store’s unique corner real estate has tremendous windows and frontage that allows a good amount of daylight into the entryway area. Here, halogen spotlights shine down on wooden steps, where customers are first introduced to new product.
Expansion plans continue into 2010, as Koolhaas confirms United Nude will be launching flagship stores in Shanghai and New York in the first quarter (both with a similar design concept), as well as one or two more company-operated locations before the end of the year, and perhaps two or three franchise-owned shops.
In the end, the shoe may not have won the girl, but the launch of a burgeoning fashion empire perhaps lessens the sting.
-- DDI Magazine, Nielsen Business Media