Retail in Asia

In Shops

Meet the architects transforming China’s luxury malls, marrying the physical, digital and whimsical

In recent years, luxury retailers in China have recognised the importance of designing immersive, experiential spaces for shoppers. Despite the growth of online shopping, offline shopping remains a crucial component of the luxury industry. Luxury retailers, like renowned luxury department store chain SKP, are moving towards creating spaces that not only showcase brands but also provide unique experiences, blending elements of art, culture, and of course, digital.

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SKP was founded and operated by Beijing Hualian Group, one of the largest Chinese retail enterprises. With flagship stores SKP and SKP-S in Beijing as well as Xi’an, SKP is setting a new standard for shopping malls that is truly unique. SKP-S is not just a shopping mall, but a work of art that showcases the best of design and architecture. The mall is a haven for shoppers looking for luxury brands, and its design is a reflection of the elegance and sophistication that SKP represents.

Just before the end of 2022, SKP opened Asia’s first largest sunken luxury shopping mall in the up-and-coming city of Chengdu. The space, designed to look like a park, includes 33 different landscapes and hosts over 1,300 brands comprising SKP and SKP-S department stores. On social media, the space has been dubbed a “palace-like underground world.”

SKP co-founders Simon Mitchell & Torquil McIntosh sat down to talk about the innovative architecture and design studio Sybarite, sharing their vision for the mall and the inspiration behind its design.

What is Sybarite and how do you approach architecture and design?

Mitchell: Sybarite is an architecture and design studio best known for innovative retail design. Myself and my business partner Torquil McIntosh co-founded the studio 21 years ago with a niche specialism of retail and all that naturally bolts on by way of experience and lifestyle. We have always gravitated toward pioneering clients and their inspiring projects to support our own expansive viewpoint. Our intention was a holistic approach, and, as such, our projects intentionally traverse the boundaries of many of the arts disciplines. Our portfolio supports our belief in engaging in projects of all scales working from the micro to the macro, as minute as a lift button, all the way through to a mega mixed-use masterplan such as the latest 190-acre site of SKP Chengdu recently unveiled.

How it SKP Chengdu different from other Sybarite projects?

McIntosh: The scale is the main point of difference, it was an opportunity to put into practice all that we have developed for SKP retail operators and more. This is an exponential expansion on the other projects in Beijing and Xi’an and a culmination of all that we have developed for the client in terms of both contemporary and next generation retail. 

The unique feature of SKP Chengdu is the ingenious combination of urban park and underground building. Its realisation comes from the ingenious conception and close cooperation of the ground landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations, well known for his projects namely The High Line in New York. 

The site of 260.000m2 was excavated more than 30 metres below ground to construct the interchange of three new subway lines. An innovative and sustainable blueprint was proposed presenting the largest sunken luxury retail space of its kind covering 190 acres with 99% of the buildings below the horizontal plane.

The project was three years in the making and masterminded to boast a colossal half a million square metres of mixed-use retail and hospitality.

There is a magnificence to it, in that you arrive at a pure park – an uninterrupted vista and only upon closer proximity and once immersed in the environment does the customer get a hint of what lies beneath. The parallel connection of park and corresponding plunging architecture emerges as if quarried into the landscape akin to a canyon as one descends. Although sunken, it is importantly light drenched and airy. Retail, hospitality, experience and art are constantly in motion, evolving and changing, and yet underpinned by a common narrative – a celebration of diversity living under one ‘roof’. From a bird’s-eye view, SKP Park artistically weaves shopping space and vegetation into a beautiful botanical quilt. 

You mentioned “storytelling through creating experiences that merge the brand into an environment.” How does Sybarite approach and execute this in physical spaces? 

Mitchell: Our approach at Sybarite is to begin first and foremost with looking at what constitutes the essential DNA of the brands that we are proposing an architectural and design concept and solution for. This is why our holistic approach is very important because our aim is always to derive a set of subliminal codes that will be realised in the architectural and design form – these will uniquely stand for that brand and that operator. We look at things from a branding perspective firstly and are often involved in rebranding, brand diversification and repositioning projects. The customer should feel that they are in a recognisably branded environment but that should never be overbranded and therefore not reliant on the brand name above the door as the sole signifier. 

If a designer has done their job very well the experience will resonate for quite some time and instill a feeling for return and secure brand loyalty. 

The design of SKP Chengdu embodies the concept of the parallel world, can you elaborate on this?

McIntosh: The idea of parallel worlds as the lynchpin to the design concept starts with the gardens. 

In an abstract sense, there are multiple worlds that exist within the individual worlds of SKP-S and SKP and these offer unique experiences. The gardens are more than an expression of nature, they communicate stories, and they act as the foundation for what lies in parallel and elegantly sunken beneath – the word of retail, hospitality and ultimately experiential design. 

At SKP Chengdu, the parallel world and our journey through it is a metaphor for a world in motion that evolves and changes. The Parallel World is a place which embodies possibility and betterment – an elevated experience and a symbol for what could be. 

SKP Chengdu is a place shaped by familiarity, possibility, and instinct – a place of fierce optimism. It is where destiny is calling us. A story of the journey of humanity, the possibilities and challenges of endless curiosity and captures our instinctive desire to explore.

The journey from SKP to SKP-S is one from elegance to energy and demonstrates an interconnectedness fuelled by momentum. SKP-S has a distinctive story here at Chengdu, this is the next ‘episode’, previous SKP-S destinations have been at Beijing where we imagined moving to Mars and Xi’an where the nostalgia of returning to a devastated Earth for rebirth post pandemic were showcased ad the underlying narrative.

SKP-S has always been about seeing things in a different dimension linked to otherworldliness. Hence the robotics and art curation that ties in with this vision and that these department stores are about ‘experience per square metre’ in a laboratory-like immersive environment. 

We often talk about a “Phygital” world in China, merging offline and online – how much does this concept impact your China projects?

McIntosh: Retail is about experience and enhancing that experience. The experience must always be relevant to the here and now and relate to the future. Retail relies on newness and as designers and architects that is front of mind, but we have to future-proof our work as much as we can – transformability and agility are key considerations and deliverables. The projects must speak of culture and the sentiments of our day and beyond, and intrinsically communicate the globalisation of culture and ideas. Although our projects embrace the physicality of store design there is a natural and continual convergence that we must navigate. For instance, if we look at SKP-S and how a sense of otherworldliness has been achieved this is a place this takes the customer on a journey of discovery well beyond the physicality of a bricks and mortar store. 

How do you see the Metaverse affecting architectural design?

Mitchell: The metaverse is an interesting conversation. As an architect, the metaverse offers us the opportunity to design devoid of any laws, gravity, permits, construction worker, material shortages and promises limitless possibilities. Naturally architects, through an awareness of the past, are positioned to design for the future. 

Although the metaverse offers the chance to take our designs beyond the physical realm and experiment. For the integrity of the rendition to be as sophisticated as we would want it to be it requires faster bandwidth for the live streaming to accurately represent materiality. Like any world or city – the metaverse needs good architects its about realising the design authentically that matters.

Source: Luxury Conversation