David Jones has reopened. Finally. The first stage of a two-stage launch of their Bourke Street store. A hundred million dollars and hundreds of hours of labour have gone into new buildings, new facades, refurbishment and some new grand gestures that, we’re told, will be revealed in time.
It’s no easy task writing about a department store; they are so intertwined into the background of our lives we usually just let them drift in and out of our day, as required. David Jones has long strived to maintain an air of luxury a step above the norm, more typical of the romanticised department stores of old. But it’s tended to promise more than it delivers of late.
So what’s happened and how will the changes affect shoppers’ experience of David Jones? Well, firstly the famous marble and timber-lined elevators have been retained but moved to the eastern wall; as part of stage two, escalators will replace the resultant cavity to create a grand staircase/atrium open to a glass roof, letting light flood in. These gestures – bold strokes of confidence and conviction designed to make shoppers feel special – will take the store to any challengers.
Most of the aesthetic action has taken place at the rear of the building, where a whole new façade has raised the architecture stakes. A triangular grid pattern of glass gives the entire Little Bourke Street elevation a transparent skin that contrasts nicely with the original buildings. What’s interesting is the effect this has on the interior. For so long department stores seemed fixed on the notion that what goes on outside can’t be allowed inside. This new feature overturns all that – it’s just a shame that on these floors much of the natural light and view has been blocked with merchandise walls. Still, it’s pleasant and a nice touch.
It’s on the third floor, the lingerie and shoe departments, that you really start to see what’s going on. The lingerie is displayed beautifully, divided into neat concept-store niches and corners for the likes of Princesse Tam Tam and Australian made eco-chic Cylk to bare their wares. A huge poster of store spokes-model come superstar Miranda Kerr makes men smile and women grin, and from behind the extraordinarily long service desk you start to get sense of what all the fuss is about: this luxury is tangible and approachable and it doesn’t make you feel as if you’re in a gallery with ‘do not touch’ written on everything.
A walk to the front of the building brings you to the current jewel in the crown: the shoe department. David Jones buyers have traditionally bought well and from great designers like uber-lux brands Bottega Veneta and Christian Louboutin. Now, finally, they have a place deserving of all this high fashion, high-heeled style. It’s great space that is open, luxurious and welcoming. No easy task.
In the Men’s Building, which is 70 per cent finished, the results are no less exciting. One of the best things about the Little Collins Street site is the new Sensory Lab coffee bar, devised by the team at St Ali. Sensory Lab serves up some of the best coffee in Melbourne and David Jones no doubt plans to capitalise on the credibility that brings.
The first floor is where the real work is. The youth labels look slick and gain added kudos from Ksubi’s take on concept-store design as well as Levi’s old-school panache. There’s a smattering of international collections here too, but the buying is more Euro trash than Euro style and feels out of place next to local takes on similar trends. If there is going to be a presence in international men’s ready-to-wear, the buying and merchandising will have to change to give a more value-added experience. At the moment it feels neither special nor value added.
From here, heading up, it’s suits, suits and more suits and the big guns do their best impressions of mini stores. Armani, Zegna and Boss are all here and all lend a sophisticated air to the store. Some welcome additions like Paul Smith and his PS label add youth, while Savile Row pioneers Gieves and Hawkes introduce us to their Hong Kong tailored suits, and their ready-to-wear diffusion line. There’s a lot here, but staff are friendly and helpful and know their product.
So there you have it. Does it redefine Melbourne retail and establish a path for laneway diehards to leave for more mainstream retail? Never, but that’s the beauty of any city and of any great department store. You don’t want it to and nor should it be. David Jones have managed to tap a little into the zeitgeist and still keep their feet on the ground. They haven’t alienated anyone by going too hip and they’re not so boring the hip won’t come. It is special and that’s the point.
The biggest challenge for David Jones, or any department store for that matter, is to be relevant. With their new building and completed works they have managed to put themselves on new maps. They don’t need to compete for the international dollar the same way Barneys, Selfridges or Joyce may have to, but if you’re travelling through Melbourne and looking for somewhere up to such international standards, David Jones can hold its head up high. They’re a proper grown-up store and provide an authentic Melbourne experience.
The real test will be when stage two is completed and Myer opens their 300 million dollar extravaganza.