Suh Architect’s Aesop Pangyo, Seoul
In 2004 Aesop marked its transition from just another natural personal care product brand vying for attention in other retailers’ shops to a brand with its own signature outlet. From this first foray – in the relaxed Melbourne neighbourhood of St Kilda– the company demonstrated its alignment with thoughtful sustainable design.
Situated in an unlikely space that had once been the ramp to an underground car park, this first try-out in a signature retail style already pulled together some of the ideas that have become something of a leitmotif.
Since then – during the years that have seen Aesop’s international star ascend even more rapidly- the story has also been one of local engagement and individuality. Going against a certain mainstream retail received wisdom about creating a globally recognisable, plug ‘n play style, Aesop has rather aligned itself with the luxury fashion market. The products themselves are the continuity and each local shop manifestation is an individual vision of its particular style only available in that specific space and location. It’s worked well for the high-end players like Prada, Dior or Hermès and now it’s translating equally well to the context of luxury natural grooming and skincare products.
For example, the brand’s third signature store in Korea, situated in Seoul’s Hannam-dong neighbourhood, has seen local firm Suh Architects look to the work of famed minimalist sculptor Donald Judd for inspiration. Within the 45-square metre interior, stark geometries and industrial materials dominate, stripped back to a very clean finish that steers clear of signalling “post-industrial chic”. The display and recycling counters in a gunmetal brass alloy read almost as sculptures by Judd, perhaps rather ironically since the master of minimalism’s signature gesture is for his works to often suggest a practical function yet never really reveal one. By contrast, Suh Achitect’s ‘sculptures’ overtly serve a useful function.
This is actually the third collaboration between Suh Architects and Aesop. And in this project, effectively the first real shop since the other two outlets are technically upmarket kiosks within retail complexes, Suh Architects have made a notable departure from the elegant, vaguely traditional use of wood that dominates in the two earlier designs.
For Aesop, it’s yet another demonstration of the brand’s commitment to contemporary architecture and design. Dennis Paphitis, the founder of Aesop, has spoken of his own horror at the thought of Aesop becoming a soulless international chain. He compares his vision for what he wanted for the company to an elegant woman travelling the world and collecting a different charm for her bracelet in each city; an Aesop shop should be a unique experience that is different every time. Thus, Aesop now has some sixty stores around the globe in addition to its strong presence in other high-end retail outlets and each of these is unique. In almost all cases, each of these stores is a collaboration with a hot architect talent or some emerging design star. And in every case Dennis delivers on his wish to make the experience unique each time.
Suh Architects’ Aesop Hannam, Seoul