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Talking Retail Design With Aesop

In a fortnight we will be hosting our second Masterclass in Melbourne with arguably one of the most iconic Australian retail brands, Aesop.

What does it take to create a world class brand with award winning interiors? How do you manage an international team working on multiple projects across multiple continents? Moreover, how do you deal with all the chaos that we know can exist in the design and construction of commercial projects, still maintaining an air of calm and wellness that is vital to your brand and identity?

We chat with Aesop’s Head of Retail Design and Development, Rowan Lodge about how he operates as a conductor, driven by the vision “to nourish through intellectual interaction”. With teams in Melbourne, Paris, Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo, Rowan spends a large part of his year traveling the globe nurturing the relationships that form the foundation of the company’s significant success.

TDC: How many stores do Aesop currently have in Australia and across the globe? How many countries are you currently trading in?

RL: Currently we have 35 stores around Australia and over 200 stores globally. In addition to that we’re in around 100 appropriate department stores around the world. As Australia is a mature market, 90% of our focus is on developing our off-shore presence with stores in 24 countries. It’s an organic growth that’s not driven by numbers.

TDC: You have engaged a broad range of designers and architects to create your store concepts. Can you explain to us a little about the process you go through to choose a design team for new stores?

RL: We’re contacted by architects and designers daily and, to be honest, it’s very rare that we’ve worked with someone that has approached us. More often, we’ve approached them. We court architects now, knowing that we probably won’t give them a project for a year or two.

It’s important to get the architect at just the right moment: the right time of the year and the right time in their career. We have a list of about eight per region, and the courtship is ongoing. It’s a love affair and starts with getting to know them: looking at their work, having meals with them, walking the streets with them. Seeing how they think, their ideology and just finding our what sort of people they are. There’s always a clear fit.

Once engaged, we really collaborate with them; we push them but we also let them explore.

TDC: How often would you work with the same practice?

RL: We work with architects about 3 or 4 times then we pause work with them, which is good for both of us. We want fresh ideas, which not all architects can continue to produce, and we want to finish the working relationship well. These are architects who are emotional, not vanilla. You have to get them when they are on a high, not a low.

TDC: Despite the incredible individuality of each of the store designs, there is a strong brand consistency across the board. What policies and procedures do you have in place to ensure that this consistency is maintained?

RL: We don’t have manuals and we don’t have guidelines; we have principles. These principles are open for our designers to interpret and embellish. If it was purely about the rules, then we would become formulaic and predictable.

Some of these principles are plain to see: warm over cold, matt over gloss, tactility of materials.

Less visible are the underlying principles of celebrating the individual and making people the focus. This goes beyond just the design of the store.

People should come away from one of our stores saying “I felt good being in that space.”

TDC: What’s the biggest challenge in finding the right team to create a new store?

RL: One of the biggest challenges in finding the right fit is architectural ego. Where we’ve had incredible success with our stores is when we’re working with like-minded people. Where we come unstuck is when we don’t listen to our intuition about the fit.

That’s why we invest so much time with architects during the courting period. Someone may just be speaking about their architectural practice as “me” when there is a team of 20, and that’s not great. There’s so much of that ego in architecture, and it’s not in-line with our philosophies.

TDC: What are some of the myths about Aesop that you would most like to dispel?

RL: There is this notion that we only hire young architects from the local area. Just because they are under 30 and live above our shop, doesn’t mean they are going to get the job.

We definitely seek out new thought, but whether that’s coming from someone young is irrelevant. We’re prepared to experiment with new people. Henry Wilson has been engaged to design a store for us, and he’s never designed retail. We’ve provided him with more guidance than we would other firms, but it’s more than a transaction, it’s a relationship.

TDC: What does an average day look like when you’re here in Melbourne?

RL: Communicating with teams across the globe means my day is segregated according to the time zones of different continents. In the morning I’m communicating with the USA until 10am, then Australia, then Asia starts at around lunch time. I’m finishing the day talking to Europe in the evening.

Most of my day is managing people. There’s 18 in our immediate team here in Melbourne, and as you know, you’re only as good as your team

TDC: What do you love the most about your role?

RL: My role literally changes all the time. I will write my strategy for the next few years, and within a couple of months I’ll think “Can you believe I was thinking that?”

It’s a business of growth. You just have to be agile, nimble and adaptable.

TDC: What is it about the future at Aesop that most excites you?

RL: You’re part of the retail story, which is a legacy. When I joined, we had 90 stores, now there’s more than 200. To be a part of that growth is incredible.

While we embrace the progression of on-line retail, successful retailers are not purely digital. Brands that rigorously apply the design traits of humanity will remain the core of good retail.

A quote from Aesop's Taxonomy of Design: "Our sincere interest in intelligent and sustainable design extends to every aspect of Aesop’s workings. We believe unequivocally that well-considered design improves our lives."

Our Masterclass with Rowan Lodge is coming up in 2 weeks. We will be supplying beautiful wines and nibbles in the serene environment of their Melbourne Head Office.

Time & Location

7th September, 2018

6:00pm – 8:00pm

Aesop Head Office, Smith Street, Fitzroy

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