On a recent, typically sunny weekend afternoon in Los Angeles, I spent about an hour and a half in the small parking lot in front of Paul Smith's LA flagship on Melrose Avenue, a popular shopping street. By the end, I'd gotten a subtle tan and a better idea of how big a phenomenon the storefront's bright pink wall had become. One visitor I spoke to even referred to it as a "landmark," and as of a few months ago, it has its own security guard tasked with preventing cars from colliding with photo-takers and attempting to enforce the no-professional-cameras rule.
There wasn't one moment during my time there that the wall wasn't at least 70-percent occupied by friend groups, couples and even entire families taking photos without any detectable shame or embarrassment. Visitors tended not to take a quick shot and leave, but rather spend upwards of 10 minutes crafting the perfect photograph, pausing to look at the results, giggle, and start over with a new pose. The scene was more reminiscent of what might go down in front of Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower than your typical Instagram wall. Most of these people didn't just happen upon the wall during a casual post-brunch stroll, either. (That's not a thing in LA. People drive.) They came expressly to make content. This is unsurprising given that the wall tops multiple "most Instagrammed walls in LA" lists.
"I wanted to take a selfie," said Faye, a young girl visiting from China when I asked what brought her to the store. "I heard about it from my friends; they are saying it's a landmark." The majority of the 16 visitors I spoke to — most of whom were students visiting during spring break — had seen the wall on their social feeds, inspiring them to make the trip: "A lot of YouTubers like this wall;" "I see it on social media;" "My daughter saw it on social media;" etc.
While they were all very familiar with the wall, they were not so familiar with Paul Smith. Faye thought it was a makeup brand; most admitted they were not knowledgeable at all — except for a girl named Mai, who went inside after taking photos and bought a tie for her boyfriend. She was the only wall visitor I saw enter the store and purchase something; most did not go inside at all, or just popped in and out quickly.
The most familiar with the brand were Ariel and Chris, a local couple that could be aptly described as "hip." They'd been at designer vintage boutique Decades across the street and decided to walk over. Chris, a 29-year-old writer, said he "loves" Paul Smith and used to shop there when he had a "more lucrative" job. "He's a real designer," said Chris. "They make amazing clothes [with] thoughtful attention to detail and fun, whereas I feel like most brands in this price point are just trying to sell perfume, basically catering to whatever sells, and it just doesn't feel like Paul Smith does that."
Many are surprised to learn that the LA store has had this bright-pink facade since the day it opened in 2005. It's one of more than 300 retail locations Sir Paul Smith has opened since starting his menswear label and opening his first store in 1970 in Nottingham, UK. He began showing menswear in Paris in 1976 and quickly became known for his quirky, eccentric, fun approach to traditional British tailoring. He introduced similarly colorful, but still work-appropriate, womenswear, which now shows in London, in 1993. A stickler for quality, his clothes don’t come cheap: Suits cost upwards of $1,000, while dresses range from $200 to $800, depending on fabric.
The brand couldn't have predicted that its pink wall would become a social media phenomenon when it was painted over a decade ago — years before Instagram existed or the terms "Millennial"- and "Tumblr"-pink were coined.
And while the fun, punchy color is certainly on-brand for Paul Smith, its use as a digital marketing tactic isn't, really. Smith has always seemed to pride himself on eschewing trends and keeping things traditional and, as Chris mentioned, not making decisions based solely on increasing his bottom line. "I've just always put our money back into being solid, being very down to earth, very ordinary, old fashioned you could say — but a very traditional approach to business," he told Business of Fashion last year. The 47-year-old company has remained privately held (with Smith owning 60 percent) for a reason.
But clearly the brand couldn't ignore the massive, organic, free exposure the wall began generating over the past two-to-three years. According to visual intelligence platform Dash Hudson, the geotags Paul Smith Melrose, Paul Smith Pink Wall and Paul Smith Limited have a combined 28,728 posts as of Wednesday (and that doesn't include many posts that were not geotagged). Better yet, those posts reached as many as 129 million users combined. Dash Hudson found that 1,476 geotagged posts, which reached about 7.5 million people, also tagged the Paul Smith account in their shot. While that's a relatively small percentage, it was likely enough to make a significant contribution to Paul Smith's follower growth, which is currently at 122,000.
While the brand hasn't entirely embraced or done much to promote the wall's popularity — it has yet to comment publicly about it and declined to comment for this story — it hasn't denounced it, either. The wall is still pink; there's a sign in front of it at all times listing rules and the brand's Instagram handle, geotag and preferred hashtag; and there's the aforementioned security guard. According to Yelp reviews, staffers also provide water to photo-takers who do come inside, and allow them to use the restroom. Clearly, the brand sees some value in the wall as a marketing tool; but the wall may not be as good for business as one would think.
While the wall was bustling, the store was basically empty. And no wonder: It's unlikely the 19-year-old (the average age of people I spoke to) students who came to take photos can afford, or have a need for, the $1,000 suits and $800 dresses the store stocks. The few people I did see shop rolled up in fancy cars, walked straight into the store, and straight back to their cars when they were done. It was easy to differentiate the shoppers from the photo-takers. A sales associate confirmed my suspicions, that the Instabait does not contribute to foot traffic, and that if anything, it deters real Paul Smith customers from shopping. Indeed, those who prefer an intimate, exclusive setting when dropping thousands of dollars on work clothes might, understandably, try to avoid such an environment. Despite the wall's prevalence on Instagram, only 0.17 percent of geotagged images came from people who actually follow Paul Smith's account. And as we mentioned earlier, most of the people we spoke with knew little-to-nothing about the brand. Had this been in H&M or a Topshop, the wall probably would have generated more business.
In fact, Carrera Cafe, which opened directly across the street about a year ago, might be capitalizing on it more. It features rotating Instabait wall murals on its side of Harper Avenue, in addition to the most Instagram-friendly interior you can imagine: graphic tile, lots of light, a neon sign and succulents on every table with little hashtag signposts stuck into them. Of course, it's best known for its latte art — a natural opportunity for wall-goers to enjoy a refreshment and make more content.
But while Paul Smith may not be seeing a lift in sales in the short term, could it in the long term? As Chris put it, "How many people now know about Paul Smith that didn't because they saw the pink wall?" While knowing about a brand doesn't translate to sales now, that doesn't mean it can't in the future. The concept reminds me of the aggressive millennial influencer marketing strategy Dolce & Gabbana has adopted recently. Why market to 19 year olds who couldn’t possibly afford your products and really have no business in one of your stores? Well, perhaps 20 years from now, when they're celebrating a recent job promotion by treating themselves to a new work outfit (Paul Smith) or cocktail dress (Dolce), they'll remember the brand that provided so many exciting Instagram moments during their youth.