Pompei’s prophecy: Ron Pompei interview

Mar 12, 2009
  • Article by David Sokol
  • Designer Ron Pompei

DS: Retail makes up such a huge part of the US’s GDP. With the collapse of Bear Stearns, the subprime housing crisis and the weak dollar all screaming recession, how have you taken the pulse of the industry?
RP: Obviously there is pullback, although I think the magnitude of it depends on what category you’re in. Some people see luxury as suffering, for example, because the middle of the market isn’t buying aspirational items. But there’s a bigger opportunity right now.

DS: How so?
RP: Some people see that this recession is really more than a downturn, but a holistic change in the retail cycle. When the markets start to rebalance themselves, we’ll be in a different place that is more value-based and content-rich. By that I mean that people will want to become more involved in those products and services that have meaning to them, not just status. The iPod, for example, plays mp3s, it allows people to be creative, it’s quite beautiful and it comes with the Apple community built-in. This downturn is an opportunity for other companies to really understand who they are, and how to be more culturally relevant. And that will entail a shift in the physical experience, too.

DS: What will be the look and feel of this new era of retail? Considering your C3 value statement, would you say there are projects in your portfolio that are harbingers of the future?
RP: Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, certainly, explore the idea that a store is not just a store, it’s a social venue. There’s a huge difference between creating a place for people versus a place for products. The decision-making is different. People will stay in a place they feel was made by their peers, and they will come up with multiple reasons for going there.
In Los Angeles, we’re doing a small complex for Urban Outfitters that is another way for brands to differentiate themselves. We came up with this concept called the C3 Centre, a place of culture, commerce and community. What we’ve been able to do is take Urban Outfitters and wrap around it a whole social space for people who share the same values to congregate. There are a number of different brands involved, because the way brands will differentiate themselves in the future is by the networks they create around themselves, even if that includes complementary businesses.

DS: Back in Moon Zappa days, people would hang out at the mall.
RP: The C3 Centre is the next iteration of the lifestyle centre. The lifestyle centre is really just a mall with some bells and whistles attached. We’re making each C3 Centre very regionally specific, because people are going to expect it.

DS: Imaginably, the interiors of these stores have to be equally targeted as well as multifaceted – merchandise selection, staging exhibitions and so forth.
RP: You can’t be a chain, simply put. In the end it pays off, but it goes against the old mechanistic ideas of efficiency and distribution.

DS: In that vein, what kind of research is required when making a retail destination that’s so site-specific?
RP: Companies do demographic research that is data-driven – one-dimensional focus groups and exit polls and surveys. That’s all analytical. They don’t do analogical or empathetical research. Our research is very anthropological. For Old Navy, for example, we went on a road trip from Seattle to New York, asking customers in 80 stores about their joys and apprehensions, what they aspired to, the positive aspects of their lives. By making somebody a co-author of their brand, we’re looking at the spaces between hard data and translating it into real actions and immersive experiences.

–page break–

DS: I’d like to revisit this concept of site specificity: Over the years you’ve completed a series of mobile projects, such as the Stoli Hotel. Is such mobility antithetical to this more deeply rooted, place-based approach?
RP: The mobile project falls under the broader category of the pop-up store, and we first created this venue for Levi’s in 1998. That event, called Exposure, took place in Nolita [a Manhattan neighbourhood adjacent to Soho], and rolled up all the great things happening there at the time. We brought in the best jeweller, fashion designer, glassblower; in the evenings media artists staged installations and performances. To your point, these projects become neighbourhood hubs by their programming and activities, and by integrating relevant strategic partners.

DS: This sounds like a more controlled, three-dimensional version of user-generated content.
RP: Indeed, advertising is collapsing because there’s no more mass media. Everybody can have some kind of impact. Nokia says that 25 percent of entertainment will be user-generated by 2010.

DS: We’ve spoken about different communities of shoppers and their unique needs and demands. But won’t there be some phenomena that cut across all niches, such as an ecological imperative? Your own work – in particular a green demonstration space involving both mega-retailer Wal-Mart and MTV – shows that sustainability cuts the widest swath.
RP: That is going to be as pervasive and as expected as the handicapped laws. Businesses are going to look at all their stakeholders, meaning the public and the environment and not just the investors who own their stock. Developers, meanwhile, are being faced by community groups and municipalities that say that building retail won’t be allowed unless it goes green.

DS: While trends like community programming and environmental awareness seem poised to grow, despite the coming recession, other phenomena will surely peter out. What’s doomed?
RP: I think the idea of luxury is changing. It’s more an emotional state now. Look at the rise of spas and of farmers’ markets. ‘Luxury’ is not just about expensiveness and exclusivity. In fact, the idea of exclusivity is really boring: Ten years ago, I could walk into a party wearing a $45,000 wristwatch and all I’d need to do is look at my watch three times and everyone would know what car I drove and where I lived. Today, telling people at a party that you just came back from Java is 10 times more interesting that a heavy wrist.

DS: Some of those people still exist, annoyingly.
RP: Creating identity through exclusivity is going to topple. Think of your reaction to a woman who wears all Chanel. Does she have a mind and self-expression of her own, or just money? What’s her authentic self? The industrial age is turning into the age of transformation and creativity, because we’re not so connected to a pyramid view of one another or of ourselves

Conversation • 0 comments

Add to this conversation



Your email address will not be published.