The Democratization of Design
Jill Wheeler in Brand Design, Retail

Photo courtesy of Gensler.

JCP’s current transformation from a nondescript sales experience to a marketplace of delightful branded shops is just the latest example of how design is no longer the bastion of the wealthy and exclusive. Retailers at all price points are using design to differentiate their offerings. At the full store and shop-in-shop level, house and vendor brands and retailers and manufacturers alike are actively creating unique sales platforms that will distinguish them from competitors and encourage consumers to develop meaningful associations with their brand(s).

Design and its ability to speak to an individual’s lifestyle is a must for manufacturers and retailers in the development of products, the marketing of the product story, and the creation of an in-store environment. It’s relevant to all touchstones of the brand. We eulogize the “customer experience,” but in reality a deeper brand affiliation is at work. The new focus on design speaks to aspirations we all have for individuality and choice, and it is occurring at all price points. A retailer’s ability to respond to this basic human need will be the difference between the winners and losers. This has been the status quo for luxury brands for years, but it is a new reality for mass merchants and discount brands.

Brand differentiation in luxury products and environments is easily cultivated. A strong design sensibility, often represented by a fashion celebrity, drives the brand forward with clear positioning, supported by sensual imagery that speaks to the craft, character, and decadence of the luxury lifestyle. In the retail environment, signature architectural details, atmospheric lighting, and expensive materials frame the product in what is actually a stage—a carefully curated space representing that brand’s point of view. In recent years, luxury retail has become the favorite playground of the world’s “starchitects”—no doubt due to the opportunity for unique architectural expression related to these powerful brand characters. We can see these brands on parade on the high streets or in high-end department stores where brand shops continue to proliferate, not only at the couture level, but moving into the bridge lines as well. (When consumers identify foremost with the vendor brand, department stores are increasingly challenged to compete with specialty stores carrying the same product).

In the non-luxury retail world, brand differentiation through design is a newer and challenging venture. That’s not to say mass market products, even commodity products, and environments have not been “designed.” Everything that is produced required design decisions to determine its form, materiality, and function. What has changed is the level of character being demanded from moderately priced brands and products. Simultaneously, designer merchandise has a mainstream channel as mass merchants and department stores vie for celebrity designer collaborations. Nothing exemplifies this shift—or collision, perhaps—like the recent venture by Neiman Marcus and Target to develop designer merchandise jointly for the holiday season to benefit the CFDA. The message was simply that fashion design and style is for everyone.

One of the first milestones in this evolution occurred when Target’s bet on designed products at an affordable price became a raving success and caused people to start pronouncing the brand’s name in a French manner (TAR-jay). I remember vividly when a well-heeled friend explained to her dinner party guests that her unique and boldly colorful new dishware was from Target. We were all dismayed, and thus began my recognition that something new was happening in the retail world. Great design could happen at all price points, and consumers had new choice in deciding where and how to spend their money. Now the mass merchant landscape had an evaluation beyond price, and it became acceptable overnight for middle-class consumers to purchase their tableware at Target. Though it may seem ho-hum by today’s standards, the displaying of the Michael Graves Collection of kitchen utensils as a collection, instead of by function, was a noteworthy event in the history of discount merchandising, as was Target’s partnership with a famous architect for an exclusive line.

Photo courtesy of Gensler.

More recently, within the past 10 years, there has been the incredible growth of the Fast Fashion industry. This market is bringing fashion trends right off the runway into the hands of young fashionistas at extraordinarily low prices and in record time. At the heart of this success is a focus on design that allows value-oriented customers to be part of a current fashion trend. This has traditionally been the exclusive purview of celebrities, moguls, the aristocracy, and the few other indebted souls that can (or can’t) afford to spend $20,000 on a dress. While there are various opinions on this trend and concern over the long-term effects of the “throw-away” fashion industry on the Earth’s ecology, no one can deny that this trend democratizes fashion. There are many retailers capitalizing on Fast Fashion, but none exemplifies this ethos more than the Zara brand. In order to get the fashion to the store while it is still hot, Zara will produce the apparel locally, at higher prices. The strategy seems to be working, as fewer units are there for markdowns later in the sales cycle.

Equally as ubiquitous an example of design extending its reach are the various designer collaborations occurring in department store and mass-merchant chains. From Isaac Mizrahi to Missoni at Target to Michael Graves and Jonathan Adler at JCPenney, design celebrity is being mass marketed like never before. Beyond traditional design industries such as architecture and fashion, the new brand icons are musicians or actors, their celebrity status being the proof of their intrinsic style.

And so we return to JCP, formerly known as JCPenney. Despite being part of this trend toward broader design, I believe the makeover of JCP is revolutionary. The brands themselves, the unique product, and the level of distinction of the individual shop environments and their positioning within the JCP store is truly new. Modern, simple forms, expressive colors, and large-scale graphics combine in the shop to represent their brands’ most distilled and compelling voice. These shops will no doubt delight the JCP customer. I mentioned before that I think engagement with the customer must go beyond “experience,” and I believe the new JCP will.

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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