Away, Dallas Store. Courtesy Mythology.

In 2001, students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, under the direction of architect Rem Koolhaas, published The Harvard Guide to Shopping, a wide-ranging survey of the spaces, techniques, and ideologies embedded in contemporary retail experiences. Moving from early village markets to the first arcades, then into malls and airports, they argue that shopping has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, profoundly influencing one’s experience of the city — the city, in essence, has become one big mall. But it also goes a step further: not only has retail infiltrated all of public space, it’s completely reshaped our conceptions of what public space is.

The research clearly had an impact on Koolhaas, whose firm OMA was at the same time designing Prada’s flagship store in New York’s SoHo. The two level store feels less interested in filling the space with product than creating an experience. In the New York Times, the paper’s then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp — in a review titled Forget the Shoes, Prada’s New Store Stocks Ideas — marveled at how little of the floor plan was actually dedicated to product. Instead, the store featured wall-length murals (designed by New York based studio 2×4) and a sloping ramp to the basement level that could double as stadium seating, turning the store into an event space. The dressing rooms were outfitted with video screens and technology was implemented so customers could check out anywhere. “If you’re in the market for ideas, here’s the place to stock up,” Muschamp wrote, “Think of this as a museum show on indefinite display.” (In a bit of irony, the space was the former home to the Guggenheim Museum’s SoHo outpost.) Twenty years later, Koolhaas’s theories prove prescient and Muschamp’s description of Prada could apply to any number of retail experiences around the world. In fact, a whole industry around “experience design” has built up around retail stores. Luxury brands have always seen their brick and mortar stores as destinations, but as more and more shopping moves online, perhaps even more so in a post-pandemic world, the flagship concept has been democratized — a store is no longer simply a place for commerce, it must also be a place for content.

This is seen most clearly in the direct-to-consumer brands who have been opening retail shops of their own in trendy neighborhoods in cities around the country. Throughout the 2010s, brands like Casper and Warby Parker, Allbirds and Glossier, marketed convenience — you no longer need to go to the mall optometric or the local mattress shop, it’d just come right to your door! — while wrapping otherwise utilitarian products (glasses, sneakers, mattresses, face wash) inside a fully-branded package. They mixed good design and a strong social media game with the ease of one-click shopping, foreshadowing an end to brick-and-mortar retail. So when these brands started opening retail spaces of their own over the last few years — beginning with temporary pop-ups before quickly moving into full fledged brick and mortar shops — they borrowed the language of the luxury flagship. They are not simply places to shop, but also destinations, experiences, content. A brick and mortar store can do many things a website cannot: provide a place to feel the materials, try items on, and experience the product in a real context—but what they do best is create a space for the brand’s faithful to congregate. These stores are less brazen shopping experiences and more like immersive sponsored content: works of total branding, temples unto themselves, a capitalist Gesamtkunstwerk.

A store is no longer simply a place for commerce, it must also be a place for content.

While the religious terminology might feel extreme, according to Ted Galperin, a partner and the director of retail at the New York-based branding agency Mythology, it’s not far off. “As we, as a culture, become less religious, these stores sort of replace the churches and synagogues and mosques,” he tells me. “You go to the store because it says something about you.” Mythology, formerly known as Partners and Spade, has designed many of these new experiences, counting Warby Parker, Harry’s, Away, and Sonos as their clients. “These stores are about selling a product, but these environments are really about creating a narrative,” Anthony Sperduti, the studio’s co-founder, continues. “We develop a series of codes and stories that make the brand personal in some way.”

Walk into their Warby Parker flagship store in SoHo, for example, and you’ll find the walls lined not just with glasses but a curated collection of books also available for purchase. Glance across the two long tables that stretch down the middle of the store and you’ll be presented with a museum-like timeline of key moments in the company’s history. (Disclosure: I worked as a designer at Warby Parker from 2011 to 2013, shortly before they opened this store.) The flagship Casper store features pod-like structures, the insides decorated like faux bedrooms so you can privately test their two mattresses, the walls lined with cheeky slogans and tips to get a better night’s sleep. Off Canal Street, you walk into the Glossier store (designed by Peter Rich Architects and Gachot Studios) by entering an epic pink staircase that takes you through mirrored rooms to try on product and take selfies, a vibe that’s less Sephora and more the Museum of Ice Cream, the popular millennial pop-up experience. Around the corner, you’ll find an almost 900 square foot Chobani Cafe designed by architecture and branding studio a l m project, where, while you’re eating your greek yogurt in an environment clad in wood, glass, and steel that “represents our brand elements of agriculture, transparency, and manufacturing,” you can look at a menu “that pays tribute to our founder’s heritage.”

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, legacy retailers around the world filed for bankruptcy, from J.C. Penny to Brooks Brothers, J. Crew to Century 21. Still, it’s a mistake to once again announce the end of retail. Sperduti told me he expects we’ll see even more direct-to-consumer retailers move into brick and mortar spaces as leases drop and people begin itching to leave their homes again. And since online sales have grown more than 30% this year, post-pandemic shopping might lean even more towards branded environments — online shopping gives us the convenience, the store gives us the experience. You order the product online, but you visit the store to make the brand pilgrimage.

In addition to their own products, many stores now feature coffee carts or juice bars encouraging you to stay and hangout, carefully curated products that signal brand values, and photo booths and vibrant spaces that seem custom-engineered for sharing on social media. Instead of filling the store with product, every surface becomes content that furthers the brand narrative. These are environments for interacting not just with the products, but with like minded customers and friendly representatives. “Brands are how we relate to each other,” design critic Alexandra Lange tells me. “They are how we communicate and find common ground.” Brands have always strived to create a religious-like loyalty, suggesting feelings belonging and the language of community. Social media largely closed the gap between brand and customer and these stores are recreating that feeling: turning your Instagram feed into a real place. Just as we signal our values, interests, and desires on social media, this is what brands do inside the store itself. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of direct-to-consumer brands parallels the rise of Instagram — it’s only natural for the two to begin influencing each other. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that studios like Mythology and a l m project — branding agencies — are designing these stores as opposed to a more traditional architecture studio. Like the Prada store, these retail spaces are selling an idea just as much as a product. 

In many ways, we can trace this approach to Apple, who opened their first retail store in 2001. When Apple announced their plans, critics called it dead on arrival — Apple only sold a handful of products at the time, none of which carried the cultural currency they do now. The genius (haha) of the Apple store was turning the store into a destination. It wasn’t just about selling an iPod but giving you an experience: bring your iPod to be fixed at the Genius Bar while you shop for other products. These stores became physical advertising for the company and, alongside the iPod, helped turn it around to the behemoth it is today. 

Apple clearly understands the value these experiences have for their brand. In the last two decades, as Apple’s products have gotten smaller and thinner, their stores have only gotten bigger and more architecturally complex — think of the famous Park Avenue store, completely underground except for a transparent glass cube; or their new Singapore store, an orb floating directly on the Marina Bay. In 2017, Apple’s then-retail executive Angela Arendts announced Apple wouldn’t even call their stores ‘stores’ anymore. Now, they’d be called ‘public squares’ — a place to buy a new phone and get your laptop fixed, a place to meet friends or sit and finish work. Local stores organize daily classes around using their products alongside photowalks and lectures. As Kyle Chayka wrote for Racked in 2017: “Apple stores are like the sponsored content version of public space: advertising for the brand that would like to pass as something organic.”

“The marketplace is the final arbitrator and regulator of life,” writes Koolhaas in The Guide for Shopping. Indeed, the tension in these stores is that they are private property masquerading as public space. The Apple store is not more of a public square than the shopping malls were. Koolhaas notes the ever-invasive, almost predatory, tactics built into stores to entice customers, from smart shelves that track product movement and redesigned checkout spaces. This, perhaps, is another parallel between stores and social media — our feeds feel like a public forum, but are always controlled by corporations, who often are employing tactics to get you to come back. You might feel a more personal connection to a brand when you follow them on Instagram or visit their store, but the goal, as always, is to make money. 

“The mall was a collective experience, a place you visited with friends,” Lange, who’s writing a book about the history of shopping malls, tells me, “These stores are collective via social media posts. We visit to say we visited. We visit so we can post it.” As an influencer promotes a product on Instagram, every visitor in the store, then, becomes a walking advertisement. (I bet the proliferation of Glossier’s famous pink bags in downtown Manhattan communicate just as much as a billboard or bus ad would.) Sperduti told me that after a store opens, they’ve found that online orders in the surrounding area also rise. After you visit the brand temple you are more likely to go forth and evangelize. At the end of the day, just like on social media, the content is you.