Gentle Monster. It's retail, but not as we know it.
Retailers trying to cross a frontier and doing some really exciting new things: we kind of miss it. If we see new brands, we experience mostly small, incremental changes. A new kind of display idea, new designs or styles or a different routing. Few physical formats take a more lateral (some call it crazy) route to market.
Enter Gentle Monster. This Korean high end eyewear brand has been around since 2011 and literally changed all retail codes. The network, with 41 stores is largely in APAC, but recently they have opened stores in NYC, London and Los Angeles. Other sales channels are gentlemonster.com and also Nordstrom is reselling Gentle Monster merchandise. Company revenue in 2016 was $250M and LMVH bought a 7% stake in 2017.
The really exciting stuff is the store experience. Each store is different and has a total non store feel. It's more a mix between a design gallery, with pop up scultures and displays of alien creatures all moving. And in between this mix: eyewear.
Travelling with Froukje de Jong (楊昱萱), I visited the Chengdu store themed "The new generation, after the tsunami". If you think this is weird, read this: "Gentle Monster Chengdu Flagship store is set in a world washed away by an all devouring Tsunami. In the end, will life prevail? Gentle Monster Chengdu imagines a post apocalyptic world, where life was reset and reimagined. Creatures of land and sea inspire a completely new form of life, for an uniquely enchanting post world experience".
You have to watch really carefully for the merchandise. It's there, but easy to miss and obviously not with any signs. It's almost by accident that you will see sunglasses. Gentle Monster stores are actually very special art galleries, the eyewear being the byproduct. The Gentle Monster sun glasses, cater to Asian millennials, able to pay around $200-300 per item. Regular and premium US or EU eyewear often lack nose-pads, with the glasses easily sliding off. Gentle Monster's mostly over sized models all have nose-pads. Some 400 new unisex models are being released annually, designed by an in-house staff of 8 and produced in owned factories. They employ 100 people to design the stores.
Gentle Monster really took off in Asia with the help of KOL's (key opinion leaders), as many premium brands do. Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun was wearing Gentle Monster sunglasses on the "My Love from the Star" show. In the UK Tilda Swinton helped creating
traction for the brand: "Gentle Monster, in partnership with Tilda Swinton, proudly presents an exclusive collection which celebrates creative élan and independent spirit. Tilda's directional influence inspired and guided both the designs and the visual concepts of Gentle Monster's latest happy collaboration."
I really liked it. In beautiful up and trendy Taikoo Li mall, it was a really outstanding brand. Doing different stuff. VP of communications Taye Yun: "We sought opportunity in a very flat and stable market where eyewear is not being explored or experimented with excitement and creativity". Rightfully so, more retailers should act this way. Yes, it's hard for Western retailers to understand the business model and key metrics. Being hardened in decreasing economies the sales KPI's are difficult to understand. To operate a format like Gentle Monster with high store expenditures and rent, and with modest traffic feels like a far stretch.
Apparently Gentle Monster attracts enough sophisticated young customers, able to afford the premium prices for really hip designs. They really are in for this unique blurred experience: a store, annex gallery, annex installation. Who wouldn't?
Address: Unit 1213, Building No. 12, TaiKooLi, 8 Middle Shamao St, Jinjiang Qu, Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Opening Hours. Monday – Sunday. 10:00 am – 10:00 pm
Credits: Yew Kee Chung, Matte Amsterdam