Artistic interventions and the new era of shopping

One of the best things about being in executive search over a period of 28 years has been seeing outstanding people reinvent themselves. I first met Neil McCausland shortly before he became managing director of C&A, back when it still had a huge presence in the UK. It’s hard to remember that the store which is now the state-of-the-art Primark on the corner of Oxford and Duke Streets was the C&A flagship store.

It was a big shock when C&A closed up shop in the UK, and it was particularly sad to see that store empty. Enter one artist, Michael Landy, in February of 2001, when he gathered all of his possessions in the empty C&A store. It had taken him three years to catalogue his 7,227 possessions, including his passport, birth certificate, photographs, his car, and art works. He set about to destroy them, using a reverse industrial assembly line to reduce every item to its basic components, which were then destroyed and sent to recycling or landfill. The work attracted 45,000 visitors – of which I was one! Michael’s full investors was published as the 300-page Break Down Inventory in 2002, and he was left with no possessions.

Designers collaborating with artists for collections is an age old idea, but more recently, these partnerships are extending beyond the realm of production lines and moving into the stores themselves, bringing new life to brick-and-mortar locations as digital sales grow at an exponential rate. Just recently, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has transformed the interior of Le Bon Marché, Paris’ high-end department store, with paper and bamboo sculptures based on Chinese children’s tales in a temporary display (until 20th February). As ecommerce continues to expand, it is important for companies to remember the role that physical locations play in providing customers with the experience often sought, particularly in the luxury sector.

Le Bon Marché, Paris
Le Bon Marché, Paris

As ecommerce sales continue to grow, with no sign of slowing down, so many companies are having to invest significantly in their online proposition. But let’s not forget that many companies have, in fact, gone in the opposite direction too – starting digitally and moving to physical locations with time. Glasses retailer Warby Parker, which traded from a web platform initially but soon opened a showroom in New York City, is one of the latest to expand across more than a dozen locations across the United States as its physical stores have outperformed expectations.

Although luxury brands have historically provided customers with an experience alongside their actual purchases, the role that physical retail locations can play now with the rise of ecommerce and online sales is especially apparent. Many consumers find the ease of shopping from home enticing, but branded retailers are in the position to make the experience of buying in-store a testament to the entire brand, rather than just the products available to buy.

In November, contemporary artist Eddie Peake teamed up with designer Victoria Beckham to revamp her flagship Dover Street store, with the site’s walls and windows serving as the canvas for his word sculpture entitled “Courgettes”. Beckham’s site was designed by Farshid Moussavi, who looked to make the space tangible to consumers. The store has functioned as a gallery for the contemporary art scene, featuring works from Shirazeh Houshiary and Martin Creed in the past year and a half.

“What’s a store supposed to do these days? A lot of shopping is done online, so I thought, [a store is] more like a gallery, an immersive experience where the brand can be well presented and understood. Though unlike a gallery, you must feel that you’re being invited to touch and try things, to get involved.” – Farshid Moussavi

Artistic collaborations can allow retailers to provide the ultimate experiential shopping that simply cannot be provided on a website. Partnerships with artists such as Andy Warhol for Yves Saint Laurent or Rolf Sachs for DeBeers  might be limited to the luxury world, but the message they send about the importance of the shopping experience is one that can be heeded within any sector and at any price point.

What is the most interesting location for a work of art you’ve ever seen? Let me know at and have a great weekend.