How many times have you passed the corner of Lonsdale and Swanston Streets in the last few years, barely registering the permanent-looking roadblocks and fluoro-clad workers directing traffic? But the end is in sight. On April 16, after years of union battles and costly delays, the 48,000-square-metre Emporium shopping centre will finally open its doors. Between H&M unveiling its new GPO takeover, and a swag of other international retailers hitting the city, the opening is further evidence of Melbourne's transforming – rather than dying – retail scene.

Broadsheet took part in a walkthrough of Emporium at the end of March and found the site swamped by tradesmen. Many shops were still nothing more than bare plasterboard boxes, but the fundamental design, helmed by renowned retail architects The Buchan Group, is still clear and present. Striking ribs of dark timber line each level's underside, and bluestone floors peek out from protective plywood. Graceful walkways span overhead, adorned with downlights and geometric patterns. The façade of the original 1911 Lonsdale Street building remains in place.

The futuristic-looking mall will offer 170 stores initially, with a total of 225 trading by August. These are the centre's point of difference, selected to attract a more discerning customer. In the food court, for instance, there won't be an American fast-food chain in sight. The 1100-seat space will be populated by eateries such as I Love Pho, St Kilda's Chinta Ria, George Calombaris' souvlaki bar Jimmy Grant's and Sydney burger chain Charlie & Co. “We believe people in Melbourne love their food, and they're always looking for a new and interesting food product to visit,” centre manager Steve Edgerton said as he showed us around.

The fashion departments tell a similar story. Twenty-one Australian designers, such as Manning Cartell, Willow, Bianca Spender, Jac + Jack, Skin and Threads, Scanlan Theodore, Gorman and Alannah Hill will occupy an entire level. Four internationals will make their Australian debut at Emporium, including Uniqlo and The Waiting Room. Nineteen other brands will open sprawling flagship stores; Topshop, Oroton and Muji among them. A hotel-style concierge is even planned to help shoppers book theatre tickets, transport, or anything else they might desire. But by far the most extravagant part is Baz Luhrmann, who's been hired to choreograph the official opening in August.

The development is a joint venture between Colonial First State and Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, GIC. Which begs the question: why not pack the centre full of popular, low-risk chain stores and fast-food outlets? Edgerton addressed these sorts of questions by explaining how keen his team is to develop something uniquely “Melbourne” and to create a “sense of destination” which residents can feel proud of. “Melbourne has a new retail story. And it starts at Bourke Street and goes all the way to Latrobe Street. That's 1000 retail premises,” he said. “We've worked really closely with Melbourne Central, The Strand, GPO, Myer and DJs to make sure that we're all telling the same story about city retail.” There's strength in numbers, it seems. Online shopping might be cheap and convenient, but it's also one-dimensional and impersonal. By offering such a bottomless well of plush, experience-focussed shopping, Emporium and its allies hope to show us the light. As Edgerton said: “We're confident this is the right time.”

Emporium Melbourne
287 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Daily 10am to 7pm, from April 16

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