Inside Saks Fifth Avenue's New Downtown 'Concept Store'

It's the most fashion thing to happen to lower Manhattan since "Vogue" moved in.
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Dhani Mau
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It's the most fashion thing to happen to lower Manhattan since "Vogue" moved in.
A Vetements "installation" at Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

A Vetements "installation" at Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

Just a few years ago, the only worthwhile retail destination in lower Manhattan (the financial district and Battery Park) after 9/11 was the designer discount emporium Century 21 — and even Carrie Bradshaw didn't go there unless she had jury duty. But the area has transformed from a desolate cluster of office buildings near a ferry dock and New Jersey portal to a modern, bustling and — dare I say chic? — section of Manhattan, with high rents, fancy restaurants, Condé Nast and lots and lots of retail. 

Urban Outfitters, Gap and Zara have all opened up stand-alone stores on Broadway. Cos, & Other Stories, Boss, Forever 21 and Sephora occupy the Westfield Oculus Mall, whose futuristic design is an Insta-bait tourist destination in its own right. Luxury companies are getting in on the action too; just a five-minute walk from the Oculus is Brookfield Place, another mall where you'll find Gucci, Burberry, Bottega Veneta and Hermes. And on Friday morning, New York's second Saks Fifth Avenue will open there, anchoring the whole shebang. 

Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

"Saks Downtown may be our second store in NYC, but it is the first of its kind," said Saks President Marc Metrick. It's true. We got a sneak peek on Tuesday and the design and product offering are both unique to the location, and — honestly — awesome. On the product side, shoppers will find many of the hottest, most desirable brands in fashion right now — Balenciaga, Simone Rocha, Dries Van Noten, Monse and Tome. Even the holy grail of Cool Fashion Brands, Vetements, has its own installation: an intentionally disheveled group of rolling racks near the escalators from which sales associates will actually pull to replenish stock. 

That's largely thanks to Roopal Patel, who joined Saks as fashion director almost exactly a year ago after an impressive and varied career in fashion retail (including the same role at Moda Operandi and Bergdorf Goodman). "When I was asked to join, I was asked to be a part of the reinvention taking place at Saks Fifth Avenue. That’s what Marc Metrick and [Chief Merchant] Tracy Margolies told me," explained Patel on Tuesday. "We're definitely moving the Saks brand forward and taking a position as a fashion authority in the market." For context, the Hudson's Bay-owned retailer's sales have been on a decline: In the first quarter of this year, comparable sales were down 5.7 percent; in fiscal 2015 they were more flat, with a decrease of one percent.

Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

For the new store, Saks also commissioned a cool group of New York-based designers to create exclusive, New York-themed pieces, including Public School, Opening Ceremony, Rag & Bone and Jonathan Simkhai. Patel says we'll also see more emerging, buzzy designers in Saks, and not just at this location, but at others (and online) as well. Gabriela Hearst, Rosie Assoulin and Johanna Ortiz are all on the docket for resort, for instance. "This store is really meant to have a much more advanced concept, so I think when you look at the fashion happening now on the runways, you’re seeing the spirit of a more advanced design aesthetic," she said of the designers she's chosen. 

But many of these brands aren't commonly seen in department stores because they're too small to meet the demands of such a large retailer, which involves meeting an order minimum or hitting a specific deadline. Thus, Patel describes the process of bringing on an emerging brand as a partnership. "We have daily communication," explains Patel. "We’re really looking to build and nurture their businesses together... Young designers are really excited about where Saks is going and they want to be a part of it, so I’m very happy; I’m very proud of that."

Patel went so far as to describe the new Saks as a "concept store," and it did remind us a bit of Space, Olivia Kim's newish pop-up at Nordstrom, Taylor Tomasi Hill's new Forty Five Ten outpost in Dallas, and Intermix's new "creative lab" — all of which feature a more experimental and fashion-forward assortment than the retailer would typically carry. 

Shoes at Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

Shoes at Saks Downtown. Photo: Romer Pedron for Saks Fifth Avenue

Of course, Saks Downtown (which is how the retailer is billing it — without the "Fifth Avenue") spans three floors and carries bigger brands too, including a large assortment of contemporary labels, from Vince and Theory to Rebecca Taylor and Cinq á Sept. It's all merchandised in a modern, intuitive way and the store itself is beautifully designed with an understated color palette including rose gold and brass fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows all around the circular shop. There are also gigantic — like, really large — sections dedicated to beauty and footwear, and seven rooms for stylist appointments. Saks Downtown also offering a service called the "Power Lunch," which includes a style consultation, quick beauty treatment (like a makeup touch-up) and served lunch.

"This is like the best store in New York!" I heard someone say enthusiastically during a tour of the new shop — which will get a men's counterpart next door in March. I think we were all somewhat swayed by the fact that the store was virtually empty, a serene and rare (OK, maybe not that rare in this retail climate) experience in New York City. But this store is really good.

See for your self in the gallery below (and/or check it out tomorrow).

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