For the uninitiated: Gentle Monster (or G.M., as the brand is known to its fervent following) is a trendsetting purveyor of premium eyewear. Founded in Seoul, in 2011, the label has quickly become a hype sensation, and is now sold in more than 20 countries, with dedicated boutiques on three continents. Still, operations remain headquartered in South Korea, so it comes as no surprise that technology and futurism are hallmarks of G.M.’s aesthetic. Look no further than the wild and winning collaborations with Places+Faces, Hood by Air and, more recently, Alexander Wang.
This distinctive design DNA is also cleverly integrated into Gentle Monster’s retail concepts. But, in a neat juxtaposition, every store offers a unique take on the high-tech motif; unlike rows of identical motherboards and microchips, no two G.M. spaces are alike, making each a premier example of contemporary destination shopping.
“We approach our own experiential retail strategy by experimentation,” says Taye Yun, chief marketing officer of Gentle Monster U.S.A. “We learn about ourselves, deliver our most pure intentions and allow the space to curate emotions around the experience.”
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This ethos is a thread that runs throughout all that G.M. does. And the wedding of technology and artistry is so important to the brand that, in some of its brick-and-mortars, entire floors are dedicated to gallery space and experiential design—with actual merchandise nowhere in sight. (Such is true of the London location, which opened in July.)
In the case of its new, 6,000-square-foot New York flagship, located at 70 Wooster Street in Lower Manhattan’s trendy SoHo neighborhood, G.M.’s artistic leanings manifest in a dystopian presentation; the narrative is as out-there as the brand’s more obscure, not-for-sale SKUs.
When Surface toured the space, the environment felt otherworldly, and its mazelike layout encouraged discovery through different installation rooms. In the foyer, a room-width screen depicts a floating lava rock, suspended in outer space, serving as a backdrop for the post-apocalyptic décor. Installations are made from bizarre and uncategorizable woods, tissue paper, and industrial plastic tubing. Some are static, strange skeleton-like figures that eulogize an unfamiliar world. Other pieces are motorized, their anthropomorphic shapes composed of strawlike fibers and metallic tinsel. They move according to pre-programed, nonsensical choreography. G.M. calls kinetic sculptures like this “objects”—but that hardly does justice to the complexity of the work we saw in SoHo. Nor does it communicate the amount of effort—and allotment of resources—that goes into making this kind of space a reality.
“During the process of creating a flagship, seven to eight artists from different mediums join as a team and collaborate on ideas, inspirations, moods, et cetera,” explains Hogil Ryu, lead designer of the new SoHo location. “After numerous meetings, the concept is refined and we can then decide what each artist can contribute to bring the space to life.”
That requires a huge amount of creative firepower. Accordingly, G.M. maintains an impressive, dedicated in-house installation department, which totals some 60 employees, who are strategically deployed for different projects. Each store opening is ultimately a collaborative work among the brand’s creative minds. The architects and interior designers apply the given concept to lighting, store plans, and furniture; the sculptors and other visual artists create works at G.M.’s studio in Korea; and the graphic and web designers translate their visions into an immersive digital experience, presenting it to global customers who may not be able to physically visit the store.
The next challenge is logistical—ensuring that the space actually come together. This demands significant preparation—especially, Ryu says, in dealing with the different types of kinetic art. Each piece is tested and disassembled at the Korea studio, then reassembled in its intended space. Timing is a major consideration (installations must be put together on location in as little as one week), as is the enduring appeal of the pieces themselves. Once completed, these exhibitions can live inside a G.M. store for up to two years. That kind of long-term design thinking might seem unexpected, coming from a brand whose products live at the bleeding edge of fashion. But, when it comes to Gentle Monster, there’s always far more than what meets the eye.