LONDON, United Kingdom — From the minute you enter the space, it’s clear that Louis Vuitton's new “Townhouse” in London's Selfridges is no ordinary shop-in-shop. Designed by French-born, Japan-based interior designer Gwenaël Nicolas and set over three storeys facing the perennially busy, populist melting pot of Oxford Street, the mega-sized concession, which launches today, is a symphony of glass, leather, stone and bronze-painted wood, featuring work by British artist Barnaby Barford, made from thousands of ceramic and porcelain flowers, leaves and butterflies, embedded within mirrored walls.
The new space is roughly eight times the size of Louis Vuitton’s previous Selfridges concession, a highly productive, but small and crowded ground floor shop-in-shop, selling leather goods and accessories, where customers were often forced to queue and opportunities for brand storytelling were limited. By contrast, the new “stackable” Townhouse, which sells leather goods and accessories on the ground floor, also shows off Louis Vuitton's men's and women's ready-to-wear fashion ranges on the first and second floors, respectively, adding new richness and dimension to the brand's Selfridges presence.
“Louis Vuitton first opened in Selfridges in 2000 with two concessions offering leather goods and accessories. Over the past 13 years, the Louis Vuitton universe has grown and it was, therefore, time to give the collection in Selfridges room to breathe,” Tom Meggle, managing director of Louis Vuitton UK and Ireland, told BoF. “We wanted to introduce our full offer of leather goods, accessories, women’s ready-to-wear and, for the first time, a full offer of our men’s ready-to-wear collection.”
By far, the most dramatic and innovative feature of the new Townhouse is the double helix-like structure that spirals up from the floor and houses a glass elevator that gently revolves as it penetrates the three levels of the concession, providing a playful and engaging way for customers to experience and interact with the brand's multi-faceted offering.
“The new lift alone is a wonderful example of how exciting the customer experience is going to be… The Louis Vuitton Townhouse is, ultimately, a true testament to our on-going commitment to pushing the retail boundaries to constantly amaze and surprise our customers," said Selfridges managing director Anne Pitcher.
“This structure wraps itself around a circular elevator that connects the different Louis Vuitton universes and is a suggestion to the visitor that their journey of the Townhouse is destined to continue upwards,” added Meggle. “London, today, is a destination for innovative retail theatre… The Townhouse has a real sense of theatre, designed to surprise the visitor and trigger their curiosity.”
But perhaps the real genius of Louis Vuitton’s Townhouse is the decision to anchor a theatrical, flagship-like experience within an accessible, high-traffic department store that attracts large flows of aspirational customers, whose experience of the brand might otherwise be limited to its monogram bags. Indeed, according to statistics provided by the store, on an average day, Selfridges draws over 40,000 visitors, many of whom are unlikely to visit Louis Vuitton’s more rarefied “Maison” on Bond Street, one of London's traditional luxury shopping corridors, only minutes away.
“Within London, each district has its own character; each street has its own energy. Bond Street’s tradition is rooted in the arts, having been the original home for London’s art galleries and auction houses. It is the home of the collector, the connoisseur,” said Meggle. “Selfridges is democratic in its approach to fashion, effortlessly combining and curating the best of the British high-street and international luxury brands. The energy of the store is engaging and fast paced — it is a retail playground."
Cleverly, each floor of the Louis Vuitton Townhouse opens onto a corresponding department at Selfridges, allowing the space to easily interface with the rest of the store and draw in relevant consumers. For example, the entrance to the first floor of the Townhouse, housing Louis Vuitton's menswear, is located directly opposite Tom Ford's menswear concession.
But once inside the Townhouse, consumers are invited into an accessible and immersive monobrand experience, complete with a "Digital Atelier" of table-mounted multi-touch screens featuring content that brings to life Louis Vuitton's brand heritage, savoir faire and products.
“The Townhouse is designed to surpass the expectation of the Selfridges client by offering a completely new interactive in-store experience," said Meggle. "Whereas, traditionally, a department store shopper would be obliged to navigate themselves through the store from concession to concession, the Townhouse offers the client a seamlessly connected and entirely encapsulated Louis Vuitton destination."
As the same time, the Townhouse aims to re-engage the traditional luxury client — for whom the previous Selfridges concession was not meeting expectations — with a series of customer interaction innovations that are consistent with Louis Vuitton's recent moves to reassert its high luxury positioning, which has eroded in recent seasons in the face of growing consumer fatigue with the brand's more ubiquitous and much-copied products, like the monogram and checkered Damier print bags.
Critically, the Townhouse does not have a "bag bar," a key feature of many Louis Vuitton stores launched in recent years, which has been criticized for its "over the counter," transactional feel. Instead, the atmosphere is more personal and lounge-like. In fact, the Louis Vuitton Townhouse is the only concession on the ground floor of Selfridges to offer seating, along with iPad-wielding sales associates offering personalisation services.
But can Louis Vuitton's Townhouse successfully pair greater openness and accessibility with increased refinement and sophistication?
It's a goal that reflects the brand's ultimate strategic challenge: how to strike a delicate balance between the company's lucrative, high volume leather goods business and its exclusive high fashion image, while attracting and serving the wide range of consumers — from aspirational shoppers to traditional luxury clients — that make up Louis Vuitton's increasingly diversified clientele.
Whether the balancing act will work remains to be seen. But it's certainly a sight to be seen.
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake in The Business of Fashion.