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We’ve all grown accustomed to ordering just about anything online, from groceries to home-office equipment to makeup and clothing. The pandemic has made door-to-door delivery a no-brainer, while boosting the coffers of major e-tailers like Amazon. But bricks-and-mortar stores are part of city life, and (even if we can’t browse just yet) we experience them on a more social level than filling a digital cart could ever provide. That’s why as soon as lockdowns are lifted, Main Street shops are met with huge lineups.

As ever, great design can make IRL shops more enticing. That’s what Permission, a unique store that opened on Toronto’s popular Ossington strip during the city’s second wave of COVID-19, is betting on. “As the full impact of the pandemic started to take shape, we all appreciated that launching a bricks-and-mortar retail space, as online shopping was soaring, would be challenging,” says Trevor Wallace, whose firm, Reflect Architecture, designed the shop. So the owners and designers focused on what felt most real about IRL. “We kept coming back to the value of physically trying on athleisure — and feeling empowered about your self image is what Permission is all about, as its name suggests. That feeling doesn’t happen online. In fact, quite the opposite.”

Deciding to stay the course, the team had to make sure that the design was “an inspiring space where people could feel great about themselves.” And, by the looks of it (see below) they’ve succeeded.

Overall, a trend toward intimate spaces with soothing textures — in sumptuous materials like clay, plaster and travertine — and organic, almost-primordial forms is taking shape as a way to engage the senses and provide a counterpoint to the flatness of online shopping. Here, we look at five boutiques around the world with deeply immersive interiors that have no use for tech.

Permission, Toronto
Photos of Permission by Jeremie Warshafsky

Permission emerged on Toronto’s trendy Ossington strip midway through the ongoing pandemic like a jealously guarded secret. Taking over, and rejuvenating, an existing building, it welcomed gazes within through its arched window. Inside, a colonnade unfurled along the narrow, 86.3-square-metre shop.

The athleisure brand’s physical home, designed by Reflect Architecture, took its inspiration from “the voluptuous curves and softness of the female form. Varying hues of nudes, pinks and browns on the painted walls and textiles represent the variation and range of skin colour. Diversity and inclusion drive the narrative and are emphasized in architectural elements.” 

Once inside, patrons can appreciate the arches as deconstructed, light-traced elements dividing up and elegantly framing the merchandise. They are ceiling-suspended above a long terrazzo counter featuring acid-etched glass inserts and topped with a rock garden that “lends an organic sensibility to the space.” And they create an embracing alcove feel for visitors making their way to the back, where cylindrical fabric-wrapped changing rooms are ringed in halo-like Artemide lights. Who wouldn’t want to experience this firsthand?

Maison Margiela Concept Store, London
All photos of Maison Margiela by Henry Bourne

For this Maison Margiela concept store in London, Netherlands-based Studio Anne Holtrop drew from the brand’s visual language, established by creative director John Galliano. The result is a space that feels both elevated and nonchalant, refined and quirky. “Familiar shapes skew in form, as they lean and fold around the demarcation of the space, drawing on ideas of dressing in haste native to Maison Margiela’s vocabulary,” the brand states in its press release.

One of the interior’s defining features is its plaster walls, with surfaces hand-cast in textile moulds to subtly evoke fabric and “hand-spun tactility.” In fact, “the store encourages the human touch that created it.” The irregularly shaped furnishings — shelves, display tables and seats — are all hewn from stained travertine, the natural indentations filled with colour-contrasting epoxy resin in optical white. Even the ceiling is a standout, its circular cut-outs providing an otherworldly, aliens-were-here feel.

Dulong Flagship, Copenhagen

Natural, honey-hued stone gives the Dulong jewelry store, designed by Norm Architects, its sumptuous look. The flagship was inspired by the art studios of Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi — to evoke both artistic production and exhibition in a warm, embracing space.

The palette balances humble and luxurious materials: The designers preserved the original oak parquet floor and coated the walls and ceiling in real clay from the British company Clayworks. Then they introduced custom elements in travertine (the reception and furniture), caramel suede (lining storage consoles) and linen (the curtains), in neutral tones so that details in burnished brass and dark walnut could create an intriguing contrast. Museum-worthy display cases line the back wall along a colonnade inspired by the neoclassical architecture of Copenhagen.

Gisela, Malaga, Spain

Textured plaster also plays a major role in this Spanish lingerie brand’s flagship store in Malaga, Spain, designed by Ciszak Dalmas. The material gives major character to the interior columns, which resemble ghostly tree trunks. The goal, according to the designers, was to “create an unexpected experience that conveyed beauty through a random-like natural sensuality.”

The human touch is pronounced here, through the handmade curtains — comprising layers of “makeup-coloured” tulle — and organically shaped partitions, as well as in a choice of materials that feels both sourced and sculpted by hand: Marble from Macael, in southern Spain, is used to adorn some of the walls as well as the clothing display. The “white gold” stone’s unusual properties are highlighted by the naturally occurring scratches that lend it a beautiful imperfection.

Samo, Chongqing

SAMO, a high-end menswear brand, revels in layers. Inspired by the works of sculptor Rachel Whiteread and by the idea of the palimpsest, the new store in Paradise Walk mall in Chongqing, China, was designed by Sò Studio. Overall, it feels like a combination of raw, honest materials and high-tech architecture. The latter vibe is established by the scaffolding-like display system that spans the width of the entrance; functioning as an easel, it allows for photographic posters to be propped up like artwork.

Inside, built-ins constructed from slotted granite slabs and rectilinear niches tiled in glazed-orange bricks complement the steelier elements. The designers nodded to Whiteread, who evokes quotidian objects and forms in her sculptures, through subtle gestures like the island fitting room — “gradually assembled from cabinets” — and a kit-of-parts furniture system made of metal modules that repeat an I-beam form. “The materials,” say Sò Studio, “are spliced, reorganized, and collided into different spatial attributes.”

Web-Exclusive: 5 Retail Interiors Proving the Power of Bricks-and-Mortar

A trend toward intimate spaces with soothing textures and forms is beckoning patrons back to IRL boutiques.

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