Online | Interiors

Aesop and the Future of Retail

London, UK

Luxury skin care brand Aesop recently enlisted London-based practice Al-Jawad Pike to design their latest outpost in Shepherd's Bush. Here, Jessam Al-Jawad and Karl Wederell of Aesop discuss the future of retail in the age of coronavirus

DESIGN ANTHOLOGY UK: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest collaboration on the Shepherd’s Bush Aesop store?

Jessam Al-Jawad: We have always felt that Aesop’s approach to design is aligned with ours – their stores tend to be driven by only one or two ideas, there is an interest in natural materials and the palette is also quite pared back. The design and arrangement of the product is very well considered – so the architecture is really just there to provide an interesting background to the ambience created by the brand.

Karl Wederell: We are delighted with the store. What is particularly pleasing is that even against such a striking architectural backdrop, our product remains the prominent focus within the store. This location was always going to be an important, commercial store for Aesop and the resulting design has given us every confidence of success – particularly during these strange times.

Ceramics by Hanna Dís Whitehead
What is particularly pleasing is that even against such a striking architectural backdrop, our product remains the prominent focus within the store

DA: How has COVID-19 impacted each of your companies?

JA: It impacted us initially with the pausing of several projects, some of which are still on hold, and like everyone else we had to get used to remote working and all the benefits and drawbacks that came with it.

KW: At the height of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, we observed an increased demand for products that provide nourishment for the self, the home and to others, with many sending gifts in place of human interaction. With temporary store closures in the majority of the geographies in which we operate, we had to move fast to meet these changing needs of our customer, taking the signature Aesop hosting experience and adapting it for the digital space.

DA: Do you think there will be any positive takeaways from the current pandemic within your respective industries?

JA: I believe the enforced lockdown made everyone pause and realise that we should have more patience and kindness. Often under the pressure of deadlines in a studio environment, things can get intense, and perhaps the lockdown made us all realise that there is another way. We want to try to remember that as we slowly return to a more normal working routine.

KW: One of the most important takeaways is that Covid-19 has reminded companies of their ongoing social responsibility to support the communities they trade in. We’re proud that Aesop, and the other brands under our parent company, Natura & Co, made both financial and product donations around the world to frontline health care workers and family violence refuge organisations. There are many beauty, cosmetic and healthcare companies that responded in these ways and I feel it is a better industry as a result and we hope that this support will continue.

DA: As coronavirus has fundamentally changed how people engage with retail, what do you think the future of this sector will look like?

JA: It is often said that crises accelerate changes in society that are already taking place and it seems that this is what is happening with impact of coronavirus. In terms of retail, the idea of stores being more about an experience or an event or just social interaction rather than the act of purchasing products was already happening – this will surely now continue and increase even more. Therefore, brands will need to think about each of their stores’ unique offering. Because every Aesop store is interesting and different in its own way there is always a reason to go and seem them in the flesh.

 KW: In a post-Covid-19 environment, one would optimistically hope that physical retail will be more diverse, vibrant and creative with less of the banal and homogenous ‘cookie-cutter’ retail that has dominated the sector for too long. Sometimes moments of retail ephemerality on a suburban high street can be a good thing if it keeps the landscape interesting. However, the long-lasting impacts of Covid-19 on society may take a generation to be fully realised and appreciated.