In the past few years, there’s been an uptick in stores that have a special kind of editorial panache. Take Project No. 8 in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. The hotel could have taken the road oft-traveled and sold drugstore toothbrushes and its own branded merchandise, but (and this being the Ace), they instead choose to curate a selection of wares from different designers and niche brands. Yes, this has always been so—department stores and boutiques are always, in essence, a curation of things—but there’s something different about this new wave of stores. You get the sense designers are backing fellow designers. It’s delightfully supportive.
New York City branding studio Partners & Spade was early to this trend. In 2008, when Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti left their longtime posts at Kate Spade and Jack Spade to start a design studio, J.Crew was an early client. Thanks in part to Spade’s history working with J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, the then-new Partners & Spade wound up with a killer assignment: to “do something for the men’s line,” says Elizabeth Dilk, a senior art director at Partners & Spade.“I think they could have proposed just about anything. They wanted something strong, really small, and niche. Basically a big brand wanted them to think like a smaller, newer brand.”
So Spade and Sperduti opened the J.Crew Liquor Store in an old Tribeca liquor storefront. Besides the menswear, the designers stocked the shop with a selection of high-design wares from other like-minded companies. “I think that was a pretty big deal,” Dilk says. “A lot of brands hadn’t yet started opening stores that sold products by other brands.”
Today, especially in New York City, you can find this kind of curation at places like Harry’s Corner Shop and Sleepy Jones, which sells pajamas along with goods like toys from Brooklyn craftspeople and specialty Portuguese toothpaste. It’s like being in a museum where everything is for purchase. This isn’t much of a coincidence: both of those stores are Partners & Spade clients.
Partners & Spade even emulated this edited approach to retail in its original office. Actually, calling the studio’s old workspace an office is a bit of a misnomer: the studio doubled as a storefront. In the original space, on Great Jones Street, young staff worked in the back while shoppers browsed through goods in the front of the store. On weekends, the staff would pack up their laptops, stash them in the basement, and let the whole floor turn over to retail.
Around four years ago, with a growing staff and a burgeoning client roster under their belts, Spade and Sperduti began scouting for a new studio space. They found it a few blocks from the original store. “It looked like a horror movie,” says Dilk of the raw space. “But they did a good job renovating it to our exact standards.” They pulled from their network and used the same contractor that worked on Harry’s charming barbershop, plus the guy who did the millwork in the Warby Parker store in Soho.
This, in a nutshell, is what Partners & Spade does. The studio has a knack for creating charismatic, offline design experiences. When Warby Parker was in its infancy, before the company opened its brick-and-mortar outposts, it hired Partners & Spade to throw an event for New York’s Fashion’s Night Out. “We did a tribute to Buddy Holly,” Dilk says. Partners & Spade was also the brains behind Warby’s Class Trip series, which involved converting a yellow school bus into a mobile eyewear store that traveled the country. It won them over, and when Warby Parker eventually began opening its physical stores, Partners & Spade was asked to lead the design.
“We craft each identity for each location, so in Venice in Los Angeles, [the store] had a little bit of a surf theme. It’s very open, and the front has this big beautiful illustration in Warby blue,” says Ashley Jones, also a senior art director. Or, for instance, “If there happens to be a lot of neon lights on that street, we’ll make it go with that,” Jones says in a nod to the upcoming Warby Parker outpost in Austin, Texas. “The Upper East Side store was an old pharmacy, and it feels old, like an institution. We hired custom illustrations for the wallpaper in the space.” Like everything Partners & Spade touches, the effect calls to mind the set from The Royal Tenenbaums: precocious, yet endlessly charming.
Partners & Spade will be rolling out more and more work in the coming weeks. Dilk and Jones just finished building the entire branding scheme—from the name to the packaging to the website—for a new direct-to-consumers Italian shoe company called M.Gemi, and will keep expanding on their branding work for big-name clients like Whole Foods, Target, and, of course, Warby Parker.