James and Suzan Wines share how they designed an Off-White store in Ginza, Tokyo, for Virgil Abloh

Brick by Brick

James and Suzan Wines share how they designed an Off-White store in Ginza, Tokyo, for Virgil Abloh

(Courtesy Off-White, SITE, and I-Beam)

Architects working in contemporary retail design realize projects through a potent mixture of architecture, art, and business. This approach attempts to create a space that relays the retailer’s vision and ethos through space and material. Though clients near and far have been affected by the “retail apocalypse,” which saw a shift in focus from in-person shopping to online, recently there’s been a veritable renaissance. Again, art, and architecture meet.

I spoke with James Wines, founder of New York–based SITE environmental arts studio, and his daughter, Suzan Wines (SITE, I-Beam Architecture & Design), about their recent collaboration with Off-White and the late Virgil Abloh, and the importance of architecture within retail design.

Josh Itiola: Just the idea that SITE did not one but two showrooms for Virgil Abloh is interesting to designers. How did things first start between you and Virgil?

Suzan Wines: It started with an email I missed and found late one night while catching up. Off-White? I knew that the company designed cool sneakers, but not much else. I wrote back and then Abloh set up a WhatsApp call for the first store at the end of 2019. Retail projects are quick; James did sketches, we talked about the theme, which was about the color off-white and the softness of things like fabric and walls. Construction had just started when the pandemic hit. At the time, we were working on the Willie Smith exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, which was actually supposed to open on the day the pandemic shut everything down.

James Wines: When we had our first conversation with Virgil, it was like we were already in the middle of a sentence. We clicked right away: I like to work with the street, and he liked to work with common objects. He liked collage, too. We agreed on these and many other things. I noticed a real parallel between my previous work with Willie Smith’s then-emerging concept of streetwear and Virgil’s work, though Off-White was much more expensive! Virgil’s great virtue was that he wanted to get on with the creative idea. He was very optimistic in that sense.

With Willie, it was all about street collage: His showroom used recycled materials, junk from the street, and torn-down buildings, that sort of thing. That’s how I started with Virgil, but because he had gone corporate with Louis Vuitton, he had a more international feel. The power he had in this luxury fashion space was unbelievable.

At the opening of our Ginza store, I couldn’t believe the $700 sneakers were just being snatched up. It made me think, “Where did I go wrong in life?” It was a real ceremony. I enjoyed his energy and invention. The saddest part was that we never had the chance for real dialogue.

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