It’s a Brand New World: Department Stores
Jill Wheeler in Brand Design, Retail, Retail

Image © Charlie Mayer Photography

I recently posted a blog entitled It’s a Brand New World , where I discussed the need for multi-line retailers to express their own compelling brand identity in an increasingly loud vendor shop environment. Gensler's recent remodel of the Neiman Marcus Bal Harbour store dramatically accomplishes this goal in a unique and unexpected way.

Significant difficulties exist when remodeling a department store. The sheer size of the remodel area makes tight cost control an imperative. There is also a need to keep the overall architecture simple, as the inevitable business changes require space flexibility. And so, innovation within the department store design world typically moves forward slowly, with only slight adjustments being made incrementally. Layering on the need to create a distinctive brand experience for the retailer compounds the complexities.

This is one of the reasons that the Bal Harbour renovation is so refreshing. Considering the realities that argue against extensive change, the renovation uses a simple, on-brand concept that weaves through the remodeled area, presenting an elegant but playful new image for Neiman Marcus. The thread consists of a series of sculptural installations that serve both in space articulation and merchandising. In speaking with the designer on the project, Kyle Jeffery, the pavilions were inspired by art pieces of the 1970's, the decade in which the Bal Harbour store originally opened. A contextual decision at heart, it is also an entirely appropriate response for Neiman Marcus, a brand that has always been a leader in art curation within its stores. This new design can be viewed as an evolution of this approach, moving to a larger, more environmental scale.

The basic element in these installations is a rectangular aluminum tube that takes on a surprising sophistication in the manner that it is used. If one sees these installations as art, then the pieces throughout the store can be seen as an art series, each taking inspiration from the department that it resides in. While the arrangement and use of the tubes varies by department, its form provides a consistent visual narrative for the remodel.

The main entry of the store is defined by an architecturally-scaled pavilion that customers walk through. This humble and simple construction generates big results: With a few gestures, it heightens the entry experience, pulls the customer into the store and creates a brand statement out of those first, usually forgotten, 10 or so feet of the store. This move introduces the customer to the new Bal Harbour in an intriguing way.

At two other locations on the first floor, the installations perform more typical, merchandising roles for the store. They provide a foil and an implied space for the beautiful visual presentations that Neiman Marcus is known for. The merchandise looks particularly relevant and new within this artistic environment. On a macro level, the angularity of the composition directs site lines around the floor, framing views and directing interest to other parts of the store.

Image © Charlie Mayer Photography

The story develops when we take a look at the individual departments. Take Precious Jewels for instance. Here the design uses the metal tubes in an entirely different way. Placed vertically floor to ceiling, they become the support armature for the precious jewelry vitrines. Deceptively simple, the tubes' contrast in scale and material to the fine jewelry, showcases the merchandise in a particularly alluring manner.

In the Ladies Shoe department, we again see the vertical aluminum tubes, but in a new role. Here, the design transforms the ubiquitous department store valence into a thin metal beam, washing the wall and merchandise in a glow of uniform light. The vertical tubes move back and forth along the beam, supporting it with single points in a light, and rhythmic fashions that frame merchandise vignettes along the way. The pearlescent finish of the tubes, which reflects light and glimmers as one walks past, is reminiscent of the city of Miami’s cultural diversity and proximity to the ocean.

Image © Charlie Mayer Photography

CUSP, Neiman Marcus’ contemporary department, has a branded look that is distinct within the store. In this environment, the metal tubes are painted in bright colors, a treatment that is appropriate for the more casual and younger CUSP department. The tubes serve multiple purposes, defining space while creating a backdrop for a striking mannequin display.

The tube elements appear throughout the renovated areas of the store in different forms that are always purposeful. The various compositions are informed by the need to articulate space and to highlight and enhance the merchandise. While performing these essential tasks, they also present a fresh and distinctive new look for the store that is simple and cost effective.

One of the original goals of the renovation was to attract a younger demographic to the store. This seems to have been successful as the store has moved from the 16th to the 2nd position in sales within the Neiman Marcus fleet of stores. In addition to being appreciated by customers, the project recently won VMSD’s Retail Renovation of the Year award.

At the beginning of this piece, I reflected on the need of department stores to have their own brand identity while recognizing the difficulty in achieving this in concert with myriad, often dueling, needs of the business. This project demonstrates that the means to achieve such disparate, occasionally competing, goals do not have to be complicated and costly. Sometimes a light, clever approach can deliver a big impact.

Jill Wheeler is an architect who was bit by the retail bug about 15 years ago. The constantly evolving retail landscape has ensured there hasn’t been a dull moment since. Her passion is fueled by this dynamic change as she seeks the perfect retail alchemy. Contact her at
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