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Navigating the Crisis

Torquil McIntosh & Simon Mitchell, Co-Founders, Sybarite

"We have worked with China closely and ongoing pre- and post-Covid... There is certainly a positivity and a strength to the latest numbers in footfall in retail bricks and mortar, and there is a momentum which is visibly getting stronger every day." What does the future hold for retail spaces? And how is China recovering post-COVID-19? Torquil McIntosh & Simon Mitchell, the founders of architecture firm Sybarite - and design pioneers of SKP, a new luxury and experiential retail concept in China - discuss how both the country, and their business, are navigating to the 'new normal'.
28th May 2020
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Navigating the Crisis  Torquil McIntosh & Simon Mitchell, Co-Founders, Sybarite

How is Sybarite involved in building China’s retail landscape?

Sybarite is no stranger to working and, importantly, cultivating long-term relationships in China and Asia having been involved in that part of the world to some degree over the last 18 years.

The extent of Sybarite’s involvement has varied over time from luxury retail monobrand store roll outs and flagships for Marni, Joseph and Thomas Pink to name a few, as well as high-end Department Stores and Malls. Sybarite has also looked to China in terms of their sophisticated logistics and capability in manufacturing prototyping to deliver a great multitude of projects.

In 2011/12 Sybarite made a conscious business decision to focus on China in terms of new business development strategies. The idea was to cement large scale projects and relationships. One such relationship came from winning a prestigious private competition to redevelop and reimagine Shin Kong Place, which we now know as SKP, further to Sybarite’s rebranding exercise. A project which resulted in a 3 Billion RMB turnover becoming 15 Billion RMB.

We took numerous trips to China as well as teaming up with the services and support of trade missions organised and recommended by the DIT (Department of International Trade China)

From your perspective, what can you tell us about China’s recovery post-Covid?

We have worked with China closely and ongoing pre- and post-Covid and have managed to continue the design and planning and presentation process regardless.

There is certainly a positivity and a strength to the latest numbers in footfall in retail bricks and mortar. There is a momentum which is visibly getting stronger every day.

The way that China handled Covid was radical and exemplary as we are now seeing for ourselves being in the same position as they were months ago. It is also important to note that they continue to be extremely cautious.

How are you navigating Sybarite through Covid-19, and what do you think will be the long-term impact on the business?

We are pleased and count ourselves as very fortunate to be prospering under Covid-19, we are working on our existing projects but also in addition to these are actively involved in new projects in South Africa (Durban), South of France, Shanghai, New York, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces at the current time.

Sybarite has managed to adapt its entire operation to be remote. We are servicing all our clients internationally according to usual practice and in line with their expectations. We are fortunate that this is proving successful due to tech, IT and a very dedicated staff of 60+. We invested, a while ago, in our IT infrastructure and capabilities, this has paid off. To an extent, we were able to pre-empt the situation so we had time to plan and invest even further in terms of remote IT needs. Having worked with China through the crisis we had a good idea of what to expect and how we could and should adapt.

We have had to restructure daily comms to enforce structure and service the current, as well as looking into the future pipeline of work and demands from our clients.

Longer term: the beautiful thing that has happened during isolation is that with our staff working from home, it has made us see how productive this can actually be. It has also taught us that global travel can be reduced as we have managed face to face presentations and still keep it on a very personal level. We hope that for the sake of the carbon footprint that there will be less of a need for travel in the future as we realise what we can get done by staying put and communicating clearly and frequently, and by utilising the tech and visualisation tools that are available to us. Using Skype and hand sketching in real time to a captive audience is very effective in terms of communicating ideas and design intentions and discussions for us.

This proven productivity with new found flexibility is definitely an advantage that we can learn from for the future.

We have been using the time away from the office to hone in on our unique essence and DNA as architects, designers, marketers, graphic designers, visualisers and worked on the relaunch of our website which will be happening early Summer. The distance has made us even more focussed and edited in the process.

It goes without saying that what is missing in our working life right now is the office culture in our studio, which is our great strength and something which is heavily cultivated. We miss eating lunch together with our monumental daily lunches prepared by our unbelievably talented in-house chef and just talking about everything and nothing. We have managed to operate our Yoga and PT remotely so at least that can continue and so the work-life balance is not compromised.

How is the the consumer mindset evolving as a result of Covid-19?

The consumer luxury mindset is likely to become more discerning and more edited having had time away from retail as we know it. Our current on-going reliability on an entirely e-commerce existence, will mean that the allure of bricks and mortar is likely to have even more currency than ever. The luxury brands and conglomerates have won a huge amount of favour and respect amongst the world at large, wielding their power, to be able to adapt their factories and production to support innovation, health and wellbeing during a critical time. They have cemented and secured their already great following but have injected this with a marked level of humanity on a global scale.

At the moment, our greatest luxury is safety, space and freedom. As humans start to feel more secure in their own environments and in their skins again, they will crave the escapism and the ability to be inspired by the subtle dimensions of what constitutes luxury and craftsmanship – the real touch, the feel and the textures, rather than the restrictive social media and e-commerce version of retailing. Human beings by nature are wired to interact and express themselves and feed their souls. Luxury, fashion, food, hospitality and experience are important outlets which will never lose their importance in society but whose offers and product may vary according to spending power.

Barriers have been broken down by the shared experience of Covid-19. The aftermath will be a new perception of luxury, a differing sense of occasion and a new-found respect for the products themselves and the environments which house them. It is a time of critical questioning of business models: the overproduction, the need for improving processes and refining supply chains and the importance of cultivating homegrown support and celebrating niche producers. A sense of rediscovery is what lies ahead, one which is less fragmented.

The initial reaction, for those who are able, will be aggressive acquisition of goods as an expression of freedom and joy. Looming recession will mean that a large part of populations will be buying less and essentially better, all being well. Retailers will look at how to future proof environments and brands post Covid.  Retail environments will, most likely strive harder and emerge stronger and more innovative and purposeful as a result.

Self-isolation has proven to businesses that they can exist remotely and without global travel to an extent, this could spike a change in behaviour. Offices may adapt their ways of working. Less commuting, less overheads resulting in a positive saving of time and funds and an increased quality of life. Luxuries in the home environment – technology to support a new way of working and communicating essentially, interiors and design solutions will become more focussed.

Covid -19 has been a test and continues to be one of agility in thinking, in business, in design, and in luxury for survival of the fittest and bravest and to reflect changes in attitudes and habits and remain relevant. Experience will always be coveted. Luxury will always be a benchmark. Brand, legacy and heritage will always be powerful. Innovative and intuitive design will always champion. Environments which successfully marry these elements will always prevail, albeit it in the new normal context of luxury in the aftermath.

SKP-S Beijing offers an ever-changing experiential retail environment.

In light of the current climate and the Covid effect it is more important than ever for luxury and department stores to raise the bar in terms of newness, being relevant and an ability to ultimately identify with and to transport customers- all aspects that SKP-S exemplifies.

Bricks and mortar retail will be about survival of the fittest and bravest, not necessarily the safest. It will also be about accountability, responsibility and transparency.

SKP-S is about devoting more space to fewer products where the end game is greater immersion that resonates well beyond the retail store itself – a catalyst, a though-provoking platform. Shopping on Mars alongside the worlds most desired brands, reimagined, is certainly a benchmark.

SKP-S is about curating a different journey of a customer and the impact of an environment that questions norms, it readily invites exploration and imagination. It is something to look forward to.

About SKP

Sybarite is SKP’s architectural and design partner in essentially opening doors to luxury and experiential retail in China. Sybarite have been working with SKP for the last 8 years. Key to this was creating a brand, architectural language and vocabulary which is synonymous with SKP but also has the capacity to evolve, and be one step ahead, dependent on offer, and in context with location.

Sybarite has already created three stores for SKP: SKP Beijing (2017), SKP Xi’an (2018) and SKP-S (2019.) SKP Beijing was ranked No 2. Amongst the top 20 department stores worldwide in 2019 according to analysis by GlobalData and No 1. In Asia. This is flanked on either side by Harrods, London (no.1) and Le Bon Marche, Paris (no.3). That was the result of the rebranding and repositioning exercise by Sybarite and SKP owners. SKP Xi’an is the largest luxury department store in China (20 storeys of retail over 250,000 square metres).

Sybarite continues to plan department stores as well as hospitality and lifestyle projects for SKP, working on plans for several projects in the next 5-8+ years, most of which are not disclosed yet but each pushing the boundaries of retail further and each unique.

About CR LAND (China Resources Land Limited)

Sybarite have worked with CR Land since January 2018 culminating in the first successful project, the 2019 MixC Cinema located in Shenzen. MixC has been leading China’s lifestyle trend by advocating innovative products, experiences and store design. We worked with MixC, to elevate their current cinema offer and to engage with an evolving clientele,

Sybarite are continuing their work with CR Land by creating a new shopping mall experience for their MixC brand in Tianjin due to open in the next year.

Sybarite are also pleased to have recently been awarded the luxury retail at Shinmen 1st Road Shanghai in the capacity of interior architecture and branding for the commercial mixed-use landmark. Sybarite will be working alongside the designs of fellow British architecture firms Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners LLP (RSHP), who are responsible for the tower, and, David Chipperfield Architects, who are responsible for the Zhang Garden master planning.

Expected opening date is Summer 2023.