After 10 years of searching, Dries Van Noten finally found a suitable location for his first-ever standalone store in the U.S. What a dream! But patience has a funny way of paying off sometimes: The store only became available in the middle of a pandemic. More than that: He could only sign the lease because of the pandemic. As a result, Van Noten’s new Los Angeles store is thoroughly molded by the effects COVID has had on the world, from the raw space housing it to the people manning it. And it can not only tell us how to open a store during a pandemic, but also answer a question: In an era when people were already shopping online more than ever, what is the purpose of a store at all anymore?
After starting negotiations for the property—formerly the Los Angeles branch of Opening Ceremony—in March, Van Noten’s team started building the store out in the middle of July for an opening last Friday, in early October. After three months and many Zoom and FaceTime calls, the store is complete, despite the fact that the designer has never actually seen or visited the reconfigured space in person. This is what happens when a store opening runs into a pandemic.
Over a Zoom call from Antwerp, Van Noten, wearing a pair of glasses and a scarf tied neatly around his neck, laments the day work on the store was nearly completed, ready to welcome everyone but him. “I have to say, ‘Okay, people, enjoy L.A. I go now to bed—to be honest, I took a sleeping pill,’ ” he says, laughing a little.
For Van Noten, opening a store in the middle of a pandemic is tinged with sadness. “It's quite strange and quite unhappy,” he says, “because it's really a very absurd situation that you put a whole store together, you design it, you choose the furniture, I designed the clothes”—and he has to watch it come together from Antwerp, he says with his head in his hands. Since March, Van Noten has coordinated the opening through Zoom. Employees took him around to local nurseries—the designer famously tends to his personal, flourishing garden that frequently inspires his design, so he had to see the flora at least over video. “You have to direct people: ‘Can you turn around 90 degrees? Can you do this? Can you guys see that side? How does it look from in the hall when you look from that side?’ ” he says.
Those employees, too, come from a COVID-affected retail universe. Half of the staff used to work at Opening Ceremony, and much of the other half is made up of former employees from the Los Angeles location of Barneys, another retail casualty (and one that sold plenty of Dries). There’s a joke among staff members that their parents got divorced and Van Noten adopted them, the store manager says.
But the new store’s obstacles aren’t limited to the viral—Van Noten is also opening a shop in the face of a retail apocalypse. Or at least this is how most industry experts have agreed to describe the past decade of carnage that’s hit physical shops and stores. Van Noten is well aware: “Brick-and-mortar, a lot of people say, it's over,” he says. “Everything has to be digital.” So why open a store now, in the midst of this deathly confluence? “I like that I can do a real store that you can go to, where you can share emotions, where you can see things, where you can touch things—that for me is also very important,” he says. “Voilà, that's what we are doing now in L.A.”
Van Noten wants his new store to make the case for the experience of in-person shopping. There’s a turntable setup that’s spinning curated vinyl until real DJs can step in. There’s an open kitchen on the top floor—Van Noten wants to have a chocolate tasting pitting Los Angeles’s hippest chocolatiers versus Belgium’s. In the store’s entrance is a Grand Steinway piano—"to announce the fact that it's not a normal store,” Van Noten says—that he’ll invite clients who remember “Chopsticks” to bang away at. But it all comes with the footnote that, for now, everything, including the bathrooms, is off limits until after the pandemic.
Even in its constrained form, though, the store still serves as an important monument for the long-held philosophies Van Noten’s sharpened over the past several months. Pay attention and you’ll find connective tissue throughout the store. Many of the tables housing accessories are from furniture designer Johan Viladrich, whom Van Noten admires for his commitment to generating zero waste. Van Noten has been banging a similar drum in the fashion world, penning a letter in May beseeching the fashion industry to slow down, reduce waste, and reconsider a system that discards last season’s clothes for the latest and greatest. Taking a page out of Viladrich’s playbook, Van Noten has created an “Archive Room” to house clothes from past seasons. In most stores, this would be the clearance section. Van Noten doesn’t get that. “A beautiful garment stays a beautiful garment, and it's not so normal that after five or six months, everything has to go on discount,” he says. That ability to make connections—between avant-garde furniture and commercial fashion, or between old collections and new ones—isn’t possible through a website. Neither is feeling fabric—and “I put a lot of effort in fabrics!” he stresses. And chocolate cannot be tasted through even the most fibrous of fiber-optic networks.
Maybe the best reason to open a store right now? People want to shop. My first visual of Dries Van Noten’s store is of a parking lot crammed with Range Rovers, BMWs, and Audis—a classic Los Angeles tableau if I’ve ever seen one. The palatial store is easy to social distance within and teeming with customers. All around, prospective customers are pressing their fingers against glass display cases, trying on sunglasses, thumbing through racks of clothing, and playing with a fur hat—every touch now comes freighted with the mental image of a harried contact tracer attempting to connect dots. Even the store manager expresses shock at how many people were willing to come out in the midst of everything. “I really like Dries and I know the only other store they have is in Antwerp [there are stores in Paris and Asia, but this is the first in the U.S.], so I wanted to check it out,” says Thiago, a customer who has mostly been online shopping until now.
He’s not alone: I find people going out to shop all over the city. Down the block, there is a long line outside TheRealReal’s massive flagship. Not far, in Beverly Hills, & Other Stories is delighted to welcome customers back, so a sign says; COS tempts shoppers with a sale; and people standing in a line that spans an entire block wait for their turn to gain entrance to the Louis Vuitton store. If not for the masks paired with their velour sweatsuits and distressed jeans, I’d think this was a vision from our unfettered past or post-vaccine future. There is some concrete evidence supporting the idea that people are warming to stores again. A recent McKinsey survey found that the number of people comfortable with going into physical locations has increased from 27% to 36% over the past couple of months.
Dries Van Noten isn’t the only one determined, or brave, enough to open a store right now, either. In Chicago, the resale platform Stadium Goods is opening its second-ever physical location. Unlike Van Noten’s store, which came together in mere months, Stadium Goods’ Windy City location has been in the works for two years. “The pandemic obviously posed challenges to the opening, but we never considered changing course,” says Jed Stiller, Stadium Goods’ cofounder and co-CEO. Now, more than ever, the current state of the world is forcing Stiller and cofounder John McPheters to reconsider the value of a store. “Stores will have to provide something more than transactional volume. There are very few things that can’t be bought with ease online now, so simply providing a place for people to buy stuff isn’t enough,” McPheters says. He insists that no matter how much is accessible online, people want to come to stores just to gawk at what’s available. “Our stores are museums,” he says, “and our sales associates are expert docents.”
In 2020, though, maybe the most compelling argument for a store right now is something more abstract, and maybe a little saccharine: hope. Hope for a future out of the shadow of pandemics and apocalypses. Hope for playing the piano and eating chocolate and admiring gallery-grade shoes or clothes without worrying about where you’re going to find your next pump of hand sanitizer. Van Noten stresses that he’s been around long enough to weather 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and “wars and things like that,” he says. A store is a promise of coming normalcy. “I have full confidence in the future,” Van Noten says. “So I really want to show that with this store, so that people don't give up hope. That there's a future, and I hope the future is going to be here really soon.”
Originally Appeared on GQ