Interview with award-winning La Maison Simons store designer, Chris Wright

Rendering: figure3

Rendering: figure3

By Craig Patterson

Designing a world-class, award-winning store takes creativity, vision and research. La Maison Simons at West Edmonton Mall has won several design awards including, most recently, the prestigious EuroShop RetailDesign Award. We interviewed its designer, Chris Wright of Toronto-based design firm figure3, to get his insight into the designing of the West Edmonton Mall store. 

Men's furnishings department. Photo by Ben Rahn/ A-Frame Studio     

Men's furnishings department. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame Studio 


We first wanted to see the award-winning store for ourselves. In January of this year, we visited West Edmonton Mall's Simons store for the first time. It surpassed our expectations, both in its design and its merchandise. The store was big, bright, visually interesting, quirky, and it engaged the shopper with digital media. It featured extensive collections of trendy womenswear, menswear, accessories and home furnishings, spanning about 118,000 square feet. The store's high ceilings created a sense of drama, and its pervasive lighting contributed to a positive environment, highlighting the store's merchandise. Artwork was featured throughout the space. Expensive designer clothing and accessories mingled with value-priced in-house designer labels, a signature of Simons. Sales staff were friendly, professional, well-dressed and plentiful. Overall, it was a positive store experience that is generally lacking in Canadian retailing. 

Designed by Toronto-based design firm figure3, West Edmonton Mall's La Maison Simons opened in October of 2012. It was the seventh location for the Quebec City-based retailer, its first outside of the province of Quebec. A few months after its opening, the store won the Chain Store Age Retail Store of the Year Award. And in February of this year, it won the prestigious EuroShop RetailDesign Award in Dusseldorf, Germany. It was the first Canadian design firm to win the award: a very proud moment for figure3. 

Fitting rooms punctuate key departments and include: serpentine wood-screened areas in the women’s department. Photo credit:  Steve Tsai Photography

Fitting rooms punctuate key departments and include: serpentine wood-screened areas in the women’s department. Photo credit: Steve Tsai Photography

In our conversation with figure3's Chris Wright, it was revealed that research was key to the store's design and execution. Edmonton shoppers were interviewed at length to ascertain what they wanted in a store. Research showed that the Edmonton market lacked exciting and innovative retail, both in merchandise as well as in store design. Figure3 set out to create a retail environment that was 'high fashion' as well as exciting and artistic, in close collaboration with the store's CEO and visionary, Peter Simons.

Pod-like fitting rooms that descend from the ceiling complete with Photostar booth. Photo credit:  Steve Tsai Photography

Pod-like fitting rooms that descend from the ceiling complete with Photostar booth. Photo credit: Steve Tsai Photography

Initial research pointed to the Edmonton customer as being more 'casual' than the Quebec shopper. The high-income Edmontonian also has a tendency towards buying expensive designer jeans. With this in mind, Simons initially limited its designer clothing options for this store, instead concentrating on its moderately-priced in-house labels and some casual designer lines. Not long after the store's opening, however, the unexpected was discovered: the Edmonton shopper had a taste for luxury fashion. More top-tier and 'edgy' designers were thus introduced into the Edmonton store. Racks of high-priced designer clothing from designers such as Balmain, Mary Katrantzou, Versace, Jil Sander, Kenzo and Jean Paul Gaultier now feature prominently at La Maison Simons in Edmonton. 

To make the store spectacular, figure3 worked hand-in-hand with Simons' CEO, Peter Simons. Mr. Wright explained to us how Mr. Simons is a brilliant visionary who seeks to incorporate art into his fashionable stores. What transpired in Edmonton was a store featuring artwork throughout, complementing its fashion. The store's largest piece is a massive installation occupying a double-height portion of the northwest corner of the store. Inspired by the aurora borealis, Canadian artist and architect Philip Beesley created 'Simons Aurora', a stunning canopy of crystalline columns that form a gently swelling and rippling ocean of light. Smaller memorable art pieces are also featured throughout the store including our favourite, sweater-covered 'trophy' deer heads in the men's fitting room area. The store's exterior facade is also unique, featuring vertical, sinuous titanium blades that lighten the surface while a 30-foot cube of glass cuts into the corner of the building, illuminating the entrance and drawing people inside.

Canadian artist and architect Philip Beasely created ' Simons Aurora  ',a stunning canopy of crystalline columns that form a gently swelling and rippling ocean of light.  Photo credit:   Steve Tsai Photography

Canadian artist and architect Philip Beasely created 'Simons Aurora ',a stunning canopy of crystalline columns that form a gently swelling and rippling ocean of light. Photo credit: Steve Tsai Photography

Digital media also enhances the shopping experience by 'plugging-in' the store. A 'Photostar' booth, for example, allows shoppers real-time social media photo sharing. A video gaming wall was installed to entertain non-shoppers. And in-store digital tablets interface with the store's e-commerce site.  

Sweater-covered 'trophy' deer heads in the men's fitting room area.  Photo credit:   Steve Tsai Photography

Sweater-covered 'trophy' deer heads in the men's fitting room area. Photo credit: Steve Tsai Photography

Edmonton's luxury retail has traditionally been limited to a handful of stores, with conservative merchandise and rather lacklustre store interiors. Most of these are located downtown within Edmonton's Maulife Place, a retail complex at the base of an office tower by the same name. Holt Renfrew operates a two-level, dated-looking 43,000 square foot store within Manulife Place. Although Holt's features a Louis Vuitton shop and carries some luxury designers, it pales in comparison to the substantially larger Holt Renfrew stores in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Upscale menswear retailer Henry Singer operates a store across the hall from Holt's, and upscale womenswear retailer Blu's is upstairs in the same complex. Outside of the downtown core, upscale menswear retailer Harry Rosen operates a 12,000 square foot store at West Edmonton Mall. La Maison Simons has created a bright and innovative shopping environment unlike any of these stores. 

Another photo of Philip Beasely's ' Simons Aurora  '. Photo by Ben Rahn/ A-Frame Studio  

Another photo of Philip Beasely's 'Simons Aurora '. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame Studio 

While Edmonton's luxury retailers lean towards the conservative, Simons now stocks parts of its Edmonton store with trendier designer items, at a variety of price points. The response from Edmonton consumers has been surprising - they've taken to the store in a big way, making it one of Simons' best performing locations. When asked whether Simons underestimated the Edmonton customer or if the Edmonton customer warmed up to Simons' high fashion, Mr. Wright said that it was likely a 'little of both'. Edmontonians are certainly more well-dressed these days, and Simons is partly to thank. 

Mr. Wright's design firm, figure3, is also designing La Maison Simons' stores at Ottawa's Rideau Centre, as well as at Mississauga's Square One. These stores will feature artwork and similar fixtures and interiors to the Edmonton store. The Edmonton store has acted as a forerunner for which other store fixtures may be replicated. Thanks to figure3 and La Maison Simons, Canada can now boast some world-class retail environments.

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