New York: A Creatively Charged Retail Design Capital

In our second instalment on retail design capitals, we explore how New York has established itself as the 'Godfather' of modern retail.

Words by: Mike Tristram

Senior Strategist


New York City, often referred to as the "Big Apple" is renowned for its vibrant energy, diverse culture, and towering scale. It's positioned itself as a place where dreams come true, where innovation thrives, and where the world looks to for the next big thing. When it comes to retail design, New York stands tall as a world-leading capital of creativity and commerce. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," and this adage couldn't be truer in the world of retail design.

Following on from the first in our series on retail design capitals, where we looked into Tokyo’s influential yet under-the-radar status - in this blog post, we'll delve into why New York is loudly and proudly at the forefront of retail innovation. Exploring the unique characteristics of its key shopping destinations and showcase our role in designing unique retail concepts for this dynamic market. Finally we’ll share what concepts past and present, continue to inspire us and have put New York retail on the map.

The New York State of Mind:

New York City's retail design scene is unlike any other, and is characterized by several factors that set it apart as one of the most creatively charged capitals, establishing a reputation as ‘The Godfather’ of modern retail:

Most Competitive - and Most Expensive

New York's retail real estate market is notoriously expensive and highly-competitive. The sky-high rents and fierce competition drive businesses to innovate with their retail design, to secure prime locations and capture the attention of customers. In NYC brands ‘suit up’ and bring their ‘A game’.

Trading on Newness and Novelty

The city thrives on novelty and the constant pursuit of the next best thing. Shoppers in New York are always looking for unique experiences and new products, which keeps retailers on their toes. This forces brands to continuously re-invent themselves and push the boundaries of retail design to stay on consumer's radar.

The World's Biggest Stage

New York is a global capital where fashion, art, and commerce intersect. It attracts a diverse and discerning audience from around the world, making it a place where trends are born and where retailers can establish their brands on an international scale – as well as break into the world’s largest retail market.

New York Retail Design: Tall, Triple Shot, Extra Hot, Extra-Whip

When it comes to what epitomizes New York’s retail design scene, many people wouldn’t go amiss conjuring up images of corner shop Bodega’s and private shopping in high-fashion boutiques. As the city is always in a constant state of change (notably expressed by the inordinate amount of scaffolding), this would be doing it a disservice. New York is a maelstrom of brand activations and new store concepts, a city where there is always something new and exciting vying for attention. So here we’ll look at what’s hot right now, journeying through Upper East Side down to Brooklyn and everything in between. Exploring the rich retail design scenes in some of New York's key shopping districts.

Upper East Side: High Class, High Society

The Upper East Side is synonymous with luxury and sophistication. Bordering Central Park and housing the ‘Museum Mile' – it is one of least crowded areas in Manhattan and generally has a more relaxed vibe. Retailers in this district focus on creating elegant and inviting spaces that cater to the highly-discerning, high society of the New York elite.

Here you will find high-end departments stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdales as well as the most notable up-and-coming designers like Gabriella Hurst, Stella Mc Cartney and The Row as well as luxury resaler The Real Real – all housed on the illustrious Madison Avenue. Alongside such esteemed brands, we launched FaceGym’s facial workout studio across the pond and created an experiential Christmas campaign activation in Hermès Flagship. So very Carrie Bradshaw.

Midtown Manhattan: Where Commerce is King

Encompassing; Times Square, Rockefeller, 5th Avenue (the most expensive shopping street in the world) and the Flatiron District – Midtown Manhattan is a bustling tourist retail hotspot. Here size seems to really matter, as you will find the world’s largest Levi’s store, the world’s largest department store Macy’s, Nike’s 6-storey House of Innovation and Tiffany’s newly renovated, ten-storey ‘Landmark’ Flagship. These behemoth retail stores sit shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the world’s largest Nintendo and Harry Potter stores, and the larger than life CAMP toy store/indoor playground, with an experience that changes every 8 weeks.

In the midst of this retail mecca, we designed adidas’ stadium Flagship store - the most awarded retail store design EVER (and you guessed it - the brand’s largest store in the world). A few blocks away in Union Square, we worked with American Eagle on their AE Studio concept store next to the NYU dorms. A Gen-Z focused brand experience with a free launderette and in-house social media team, it was heralded as ‘the holy grail of modern retail’. Midtown's vibe really is, ‘go hard or go home’.

SoHo: Art Scene, Style Playground

SoHo is known for its artistic and creative vibe. It’s been the epicenter of Manhattan's youth culture since its Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat days. This is the place where you’ll find New York’s trendsetters shopping and where fashion bloggers/editors go to get a feel for what’s hot right now. It’s also one of the most authentic neighborhoods in Manhattan with protected architectural status preserving the loft-style, brick spaces and exterior fire escapes.

The retail design scene in SoHo is energetic and eclectic, with a focus on blending creativity and commerce seamlessly. Some of the most notable new store concepts here include Glossier’s sub-way inspired Flagship, Alexander Wang’s new concept which features a ‘digital canvas’ wrapping the interior to change the store with each season/collection. It’s also a strategic location for brand’s like ESPRIT marking its return to the US market and Jay-Z founded Paper Planes first-ever brick and mortar store. It’s also where Coach launched its new sub-brand Coachtopia earlier this year. Here experimental pop-ups are rife, with new tenants always in rotation like the Museum of Ice Cream, Gentle Monster collaborations and Harry Styles’ beauty brand Pleasing. It’s all going down in SoHo, and we’ve been lucky enough to flex our creative muscles with the likes of Hunter, Skullcandy and Nixon on their first retail ventures in NYC.

Meatpacking District: A Diamond from the Roughs

The Meatpacking District is a unique fusion of grit and glamour. On the west bank of Manhattan, in between Chelsea and Greenwich Village, it retains its industrial heritage whilst embracing modern cosmopolitan life. Hoteliers, hospitality brands and retailers alike have repurposed old warehouses and factories over the years, combining raw materials with contemporary experiences giving it a diverse and charismatic attitude - in turn making it the most highly-trafficked neighborhood in NYC.

It breathes in the culture of its surrounding; the immersive drama from the West End and nearby Artechouse. The art sensibility of MoMa and the grandeur of the recently renovated Gansevoort Hotel. Whilst also bringing in the oasis of calm from the Highline and the Little Island on Hudson River. A place ‘to leave the city behind’, the Meatpacking District is going through somewhat of a second renaissance with a host of new luxury tenants including Bally, Gucci, Rolex and Loro Piana opening doors here. Adding to its rich retail tapestry are newcomers like Google’s world-first Flagship and Waterford’s first standalone retail concept that we designed to sit alongside firm favorites like Warby Parker, Neighborhood Goods, Theory and Restoration Hardware. It's giving shopping followed by cocktails, before heading off to the latest musical/exhibition.

Williamsburg / Brooklyn: The Bohemian Cool-Kid

On the opposite side of Manhattan, head south east from Lower East Side and over the East River, and you’ll find yourselves in one of the most up and coming areas in New York; Williamsburg. At the heart of Brooklyn, this neighborhood is proving you don’t have to be on the island of Manhattan to make a name for yourself.

The retail design scene here embraces the bohemian spirit of the area, with concepts that are both trendy, without even trying and down to earth, whilst equally captivating. Humanised retail, sustainability and local authenticity go a long way out here, seeing streetwear staples like KITH's new Flagship and Supreme’s new store with a fully-fledged skate bowl fit right in amongst the vintage shops, indie coffee houses and ‘it girl’ brands like Ganni, Byredo, Bottega Veneta and Everlane. It’s also where you will find H&M’s Williamsburg pop-up, an experiential showcase store we designed to be like none other in their retail portfolio. Think free immersive fitness classes and a partywear brasserie ‘serving up fashion’. This is an area many brands are putting on their radar and attracting new audiences.

We ❤ New York

New York City is undeniably one of the leading retail design capitals in the world, fueled by its competitive spirit and relentless pursuit of something new. From the tourist traps on Times Square to the trendsetting pop-ups of SoHo, each shopping destination offers a distinct retail experience, reflecting the diverse and dynamic nature of the city. When it comes to store concepts that have influenced our creativity and the wider world of retail itself, we could draw up an endless and exhaustive list for you – but here is just a select few that have inspired us over the years.

First up, Opening Ceremony. The OG curated retail space that built a reputation for being ‘the city's most consistent arbiters of cool’. If it was new, now or next you would find it here. Brimming with brands and products you had never heard of, but needed to know – it was so New York and went on to establish a retail format the rest of the world would follow.

In more recent times we’ve seen more experiential offerings break through. Like Galeria Melissa’s experiential Flagship, where you have to walk through a digital art gallery to enter the store. Globally renowned architects, Snarkitecture also created their ‘art theme park’ here called Snark Park – their first branded space and a testing ground for immersive installations. And one of our personal favorites ‘The Dreamery’ by Casper – completely redefining how to sell mattresses by selling sleep instead, via fully fledged nap rooms and a sleep school with all the trimmings - in the city that never sleeps. Lastly adidas x Alexander Wang selling LTD Editions out of the back of a truck, reimagined the nature of pop-ups for a drop culture generation. New York never fails to deliver new, novel and notorious "Big Apple" energy.

Is New York on your Retail Design Radar?

As a global retail design agency, we have had the privilege of working on numerous projects in what is the world’s biggest retail stage. The adrenaline and excitement we get for retail briefs in New York, is second to none. If you want to push your brand to new heights in the world’s most competitive and creatively charged retail design capital? Let’s Talk.