Despite the convenience of online shopping, there’d still a case to be made that brick-and-mortar stores will never be eclipsed because they offer an all-sensory experience that by definition a digital retailer cannot provide. This is especially true for beauty retailers where feeling the product on your skin or savouring a perfume’s fragrance is an integral part of the shopping experience, which explains why a successful cosmetics e-tailer such as HARMAY decided to enter the foray of traditional shopping. Starting with a store in Shanghai in 2017, the brand has just opened its second location in Hong Kong. Designed by AIM Architecture, the Shanghai-based practice behind both stores, the Hong Kong shop eschews the conventional set-up of modern beauty emporiums for the austerity of an old-school apothecary, proving that the ‘traditional’ shopping experience can be anything but traditional. Minimalist in sensibility and industrial in aesthetic, the store swaps glamour for mystery, transforming the shopping experience from a browsing activity to a journey of discovery.
Located on a winding, narrow Hong Kong street packed with shops and restaurants, the shopfront, half glass – half perforated metal screen, stands out in its understated simplicity, the only visible indication of the brand being the letter H formed by light tubes. The same subverting sensibility defines the shop’s interior: no visible products, promotional signage or attention-grabbing screens are anywhere to be found; instead, the walls are lined with stainless steel drawers, stacked up to the ceiling in an orderly fashion just like safe deposit boxes, giving the impression that you’ve entered a bank vault – an impression, which far from subtracting from HARMAY products’ allure, enhances their preciousness. Guided by subtle signage, this peculiar set up encourages visitors to open drawers and discover the products inside.
Enveloped in exposed concrete and visible brickwork, the shop’s purposefully unglamorous interior conveys a no-frills sensibility whereby the quality of the products speak for itself – flashy surroundings, the architects seem to imply, are the equivalent of fancy wrapping paper, they’re just not needed if what you are selling is indeed exceptional. The industrial aesthetic of the stripped down building fabric, which continuous on the upper floor, makes the 141 square metre store appear much more spacious than it is – a blessing in Hong Kong’s notoriously cramped property market.
Upstairs, the stainless steel drawers are replaced by stainless steel mirrored cabinets suspended from the ceiling inside of which visitors have the opportunity to discover more products. The reflective cabinets imbue the space with a sense of wonder and illusion and further enhance the discovery aspect of the entire shopping experience. Similarly, the glass-fronted powder room on the same level confounds shoppers with its lack of privacy urging them to second guess its function until they spot the curtain that allows for visible separation. Much like the drawers downstairs that visitors are encouraged to open, drawing the curtain shut is one more opportunity for physical contact; a tactile experience after all is the one thing that online shopping can never compete with.