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Glass Sculpture's Increasing Presence in Luxury Retail Experiences

Canadian company Imagic Glass is riding a wave of demand for more elaborate stores as luxury retailers encourage consumers to forsake online shopping for brick-and-mortar experiences.
Imagic Glass installation in Richard Mille store | Photo: Philippe Lauzon
  • Bloomberg

NEW YORK, United States — Walk into Imagic Glass Inc.'s factory near Toronto and it's hard not to tense up.

In one corner, four workers gingerly manoeuvre an 800-pound (363 kilos) plate of glass onto a metal frame for shipping. In another, two artisans use tiny knives to peel away a vinyl template of an intricate watch face on another slab. Hundreds of pieces of glass are stacked around the 30,000-square-foot facility. Despite the ever-present danger of shattering glass, an air of quiet efficiency permeates the space.

Last year, Imagic created a two-story, 37,000-pound sculpture for luxury watch designer Richard Mille’s flagship store in Manhattan, making the storefront one of the ritziest in the city when it opened in October. Imagic recently shipped more glass timepieces for Mille in Boston and Vancouver and its project pipeline is full.

The Canadian company is riding a wave of demand for ever more elaborate stores from luxury retailers trying to persuade consumers to forsake online shopping for a luxurious brick-and-mortar experience. Saks unveiled a $250 million renovation of its New York store last month that featured an iridescent escalator designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom Inc. are also preparing to open flagship stores in the city next few months.

Mille's 42 stores around the world all feature a glass rendering of the company's RM 008 Tourbillon chronograph. But even such an eye-catching display was getting lost at the company's 57th Street location in New York, a shopping strip known as Billionaire's Row where multiple luxury watch stores compete for foot traffic. Audemars Piguet has a boutique just across the street. Jacob & Co. timepieces glimmer behind three little windows. Breitling's three-level flagship looms on the corner.

Mille needed a way to stand out and decided to commission a larger — much larger — version of the Tourbillon chronograph.

Creating the 30-foot-tall sculpture took Imagic artisans several months to complete, and there were some tense moments. The design required 24 individually engraved panels including 18 large feature glass pieces arrayed three layers deep and weighing as much as 3,800 pounds. Etching the most elaborate piece took more than 160 hours.

“The biggest challenge engineering-wise, was handling it here without breaking it because it was extraordinarily heavy,” said Adam Shearer, president of Imagic, said as he walked the factory floor last month. “We’re really happy that not one piece got damaged during several months of fabrication.”

These pieces of glass are tens of thousands of dollars. We treated this stuff like eggs.

The finished panels were packed, almost gift-wrapped, in custom crates and shipped from Toronto to New York in drop-deck trailers that allowed them to pass under bridges. When they arrived in Manhattan, the City shut down 57th Street so installers could bring in an industrial crane and get the job done overnight.

“The client is so particular about quality of finished material that we knew any scratches, chips, blemishes and imperfections would be rejected at great expense — these pieces of glass are tens of thousands of dollars,” Shearer said. “We treated this stuff like eggs.”

Inside the store, Imagic also created many of the fixtures which are based on various aspects of Mille’s designs. Floor-to-ceiling slim glass panels mimic the distinctive, rounded shape of its watches. Displays contain its marquee styles, including a million-dollar transparent pink watch with a case made from colored sapphire crystal.

Founded in 2001 in Paris, Mille  is known for its creative use of sapphire crystal and an aesthetic inspired by high-performance sports, with sleek and lightweight designs influenced by racing car chassis and aeronautics. Celebrity endorsers include tennis star Rafael Nadal, who won last year’s French Open wearing a $725,000 Mille watch.

Storefronts are like billboards, and Mille’s is designed to show off the company’s devotion to design and craftsmanship. One downside to investing so much in a single display is that the company might be loathe to switch things up when the concept gets tired, said Gabriela Baiter, founder of experiential retail studio Whereabout. It will be interesting at the beginning, but may lose its lustre over time, she added.

The Mille commission is the latest milestone in seven years of breakneck growth for Imagic. The company was founded by Colin Sless and Vilius Garsva, who left their jobs in the glass industry to pursue their dream of creating a niche shop focused on beautiful design. They started fabricating by hand and began to earn a reputation for custom architectural glass for office towers, casinos and institutions.

The firm has since landed projects for brands such as Dior and Givenchy. Other projects include fabrications for locations at New York’s Hudson Yards and a nine-story atrium for a government building near Toronto. The company has more than 30 employees and is looking for additional space to expand.

“We’re seeing more and more export opportunities to the US in particular — there’s a lot of construction going on,” Shearer said. Plus, the firm is “attractively priced” compared with its competitors in the US due to the lower Canadian dollar, he said.

As wealthy visitors exit the ornate lobby of the Four Seasons hotel on Billionaire’s Row, the first thing they see is the enormous glass-watch etching from Canada.

“This is the flagship of the company,” said Ludovic Donsbeck, who runs the boutique. “You don’t want anything small.”

By Natalie Wong and Kim Bhasin; editors: Jacqueline Thorpe and Robin Ajello.

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