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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Lisa Contreras, Mancini Duffy & Retail Design Inspiration

Lisa Contreras, Senior Associate and Retail Group Resource Director, recently invited me to visit her at the NYC offices of Mancini Duffy. She wanted to show me the studio and how her group arrives at decisions, spots trends, makes presentations, etc.

You can imagine - I jumped at the opportunity.

Now Lisa is a friend and has also contributed several posts to Flooring The Consumer: Bathroom Blogfest Brings It Home to Retail, Reactions to the Target Store Experience, and Bloomingdale's Bathroom Makeover.

Her retail insight is invaluable, and I hope to share more of it with you.

Before joining Mancini Duffy in 2004, Lisa was part of Tucci, Segrete + Rosen. She and her two associates there - Evangelo Dascal and Edward Calabrese - now form Mancini Duffy's Retail Group.

Lisa and I regularly discuss the state of retail, consumers' search for experience, and overcoming the dreadful sea of retail sameness plaguing the country. Per Mancini Duffy's brochure: "... Customers, increasingly sophisticated and design-savvy, expect an experience. Shopping is entertainment, wish-fulfillment, a gratification of the senses. And the challenges to retailers are enormous: to provide an ambience that reflects their customers' lifestyle aspirations; to balance familiarity and brand-recognition with continual renewal and surprise; to create stores that are compelling destinations."

Many of the projects Lisa works on relate to department store [e.g., Bloomingdale's - do check out the March 2008 issue of DDI Magazine and an article titled Chevy Chic. It features fabulous photos and a great writeup of Bloomingdale's new Chevy Chase, Maryland "highly edited" concept story.]

[Photo of MD Resource Library reference wall.]
We got to talking more about department stores, but I thought I should share with you several unique aspects of Mancini Duffy's offices.

First, the resource library pictured here. I was mesmerized by the reference wall. So much information captured in one efficient, heavily-used space. Note the range of colors and swatches.

In the foreground are other samples, architectural books, and product catalogs with space for browsing.

This second photo offers a better perspective on the Library.

[View of library as you stand at the entrance. Reference wall above is immediately to the right.]

Note the fabrics hanging in the background? These rotate on a monthly basis and represent new concepts or ideas for the entire location to be exposed to.

On the wall immediately outside the Library - which is a highly trafficked area - you will see showcased the office's newest work projects. These are updated four times per year, and offer those not involved in specific projects the opportunity to remain plugged in.

In fact, many aspects of the office layout encourage informal sharing of ideas. Lisa said that the current offices had been occupied by a Dot com organization prior to Mancini Duffy moving in, and features communal spaces [e.g., a wonderful kitchen/luncheon/reception area] that have adapted extremely well to the architecture and design vibe.

Back to the department store discussion.

Lisa explains that department stores went through a period of the doldrums. The SoHo Bloomingdale's store - opened in April 2004 - represented a turning point.

The store edited merchandise for specific customers. It also celebrated the iconic use of black "which began in the '70s with the flagship at 59th and Lexington. There, Bloomingdale's Barbara D'Arcy, then head of store design, created the "B'way," a fragrance and cosmetic concourse on the main floor" [from the DDI article above].

The use of black reinforces the Bloomingdale's brand and creates a strong retail identity.

Which is what has been lacking: strong retail identity.

Lisa has lately been involved in Lord & Taylor. I have fond memories of Lord & Taylor. That's where I successfully found my business school interview suit; where I bought many of my work clothes after business school, including my favorite trench coat, etc... In the last ten years or so, though, it has lost its way. It is now refocusing with the first step being determining what the brand stands for in consumers' minds. After research and soul-searching, Lord & Taylor decided that it is equivalent to American Style.

Pictured here are some of Mancini Duffy's renderings for the NYC 5th Avenue storefront.

Interestingly, you'll note a front elevation rendering for nighttime as well as one for daytime. These images made me appreciate how important it is to consider the extreme visual conditions that consumers will experience at some point when looking at a store.

The final Lord & Taylor image you see is of an interior scene: the show department. It is residential in feel, not just as a result of the fixtures, but also because of the different table styles.

Before making any kind of decisions relating to materials or design elements, though, it is critical to determine what is the brand essence of retailer. That begins the project and the process.

Once brand essence is identified - with the active participation of the retail client - then the Retail Group works on creating a visual representation of that essence.

The visual representation - usually a series of Inspiration Image Boards - serve as a visual guidepost or map that gets everyone onto the same page, and also keeps them there throughout decisions.

At that point, Lisa and her team can go into search mode. The goal is not to have blinders on, not to be too restrictive in interpreting product possibilities, but rather to remain open-minded and creative, which leads to unexpected solutions.

Next, the group can edit/choose. In the case of Lord & Taylor, what would "American Classic" patterns look like? Argyles, checks, dots, circles.... But, think unusual interpretations.

Then, create an implementation document so the final concepts can be built.

The last step is on-site sample approval.

Lisa mentioned as examples the intense editing that Ralph Lauren, and Barbara Berry implement to keep the brand essence of their products so very pure and consistent over time.

In selecting materials to express a retail brand's essence, Lisa looks for 5 year window, although that depends.

Mancini Duffy's Retail Group captures unusual creativity. In fact, the rest of the corporate group comes to the Retail Group for ideas. Lisa considers it critical to challenge the people in her group to be open to ideas. to constantly be on the lookout for the unexpected. "We each have our own rainbow of certain colors that we gravitate toward," says Lisa. Making it important to mix rainbows with others'... "If you like something, then experiment with it. Turn texture into a new medium. Let that be your inspiration."

Later that same day, Lisa participated in a forecasting session. These are the elements she brought with her to illustrate what she considers important trends:

+ Luminous, layered fabrics that show depth and iridescence - not really a color
+ Charcoal instead of black or brown [she loves brown, but it is overused now]
+ Warm gray and jewel tones like marigold, emerald and rose
+ Photos that illustrated the combination of the jewel tones with warm greys and examples of luminous layering combined with glass, etc.
+ A beautiful "copper" silk velvet

I'm inspired! Aren't you?

I'm also eager to experience more of the new Lord & Taylor. This post - A Rose Is A Rose, Is A Rose - by Retail Design Diva captures some of the magic that we can expect.

Thank you, Lisa!

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