Zara not only took on a five-floor design challenge with its new Rome flagship, but also a huge restoration project. John Ryan pays a visit

Set your sights on opening a store in what is debatably the world’s most historic city. Locate a building within it that looks like a palace, but which, frankly, has seen better days, and convert it into a store that will be fitting for its august surroundings.

Zara

Palazzo Bocconi, 189 via del Corso, Rome

  • Building area 56,700 sq ft
  • Selling area 27,450 sq ft
  • Design In-house and architectural practice Duccio Grassi
  • Incidental fact This is the 5,000th Inditex store

That, more or less, is what Zara has done with a five-floor former outpost of Italian department store chain La Rinascente in Rome, a stone’s throw from the Trevi foutain, the Pantheon and the Colosseum (if you happen to be a Roman gladiator). And in so doing, it has become, almost overnight, the most alluring retailer in the centre of the Eternal City.

A somewhat churlish question at this point might be to ask why a mid-market clothing retailer should feel the need to take one of the more high-profile sites in a part of a city where the normal retail modus operandi is grand luxe? The answer, in part, is provided by Jesus Echevarria Hernandez, chief communication officer for Inditex, who says that the 56,700 sq ft building, built in 1886, will be a “milestone” for the retail group as it is its greenest to date. “It is important for the Inditex group because it’s a new step in terms of environmental issues.” He says that there is a 30% energy reduction when compared with a conventional Inditex store and that it uses 70% less water.

All well and good, and no doubt just the sort of thing that we’d like all retailers to be looking at, but the fact remains that this is a fashion store and, more to the point, it looks like one. Huge windows, with perforated cream metallic screens through which spotlights shine, provide a suitable backdrop for mannequins positioned in a range of poses and heights on rotating plinths and bench-like shelves. The windows are double height and above them are more of the same - all the way to the top of the building if you stand before the store’s front elevation.

This is a grand building of the kind more usually associated with a respectable and time-honoured retail dowager - a 19th century department store, in short. Except that it’s a department store that has been worked on and improved and the starkly contemporary windows notwithstanding, this is apparent from the moment you walk into the store.

Stripped back

“The reconstruction work was 50% of the work. That’s the bit that will stay in place - even when things change - because this is fashion.”

José Froján, Zara

The initial impression is of space and height. This has always been a galleried structure with the three floors above the ground level consisting of balustrades that circle a vast central atrium, allowing you to see up to the ceiling, which in days gone by boasted a glass dome. For the opening, in December, Zara architecture and interior design director José Froján and his team had an installation created in which lines of transparent plastic were strung from the balustrades and attached to a central feature in the middle of the atrium on the ground floor. It’s actually a relatively simple device, but one that helps to focus the attention on the fact that this is a towering Victorian interior.

It is also a space that has been stripped back to its essentials. Froján says when this was operated by La Rinascente, much of what is currently on view was hidden. Now you can see pretty much everything and the white-painted cast iron pillars with elaborate capitals that support each of the levels have rather more in common with a store in lower Manhattan’s SoHo than with retail in Rome.

Froján says getting to this stage has not been easy: “The structure itself was a problem. We didn’t look at what we could do with the floors as they were, but on how we could add value. We pulled down all the walls that did not belong to the original design and we worked with the internal slabs to maximise the volume,” he says. He continues: “The reconstruction work was 50% of the work. That’s the bit that will stay in place - even when things change - because this is fashion.”

And as well as being a major work of restoration, this Zara store is about trying out new things. “Everything has been designed and redesigned from scratch. We made 1:1 scale models of all the fixtures,” says Froján. Practically, this means that the entire building is a prototype. A “one-off” as Froján puts it. But the scale models mean that whatever works has already been made semi-modular and is, to an extent, ready to be taken to other locations.

New tricks

The merchandise offer is heavily weighted towards womenswear, with three out of the five floors devoted to it. The top floor, accessed by a dramatic series of escalators at the back of the shop, is menswear, while there is a kids’ shop in the basement. And if you had to characterise what’s been done in this store, it would be hard not to mention the visual merchandisers in dispatches.

Much of the mid-shop stock that is on display has been laid on tables or hung from single rail fixtures. The tables vary from rectangular blocks with grained wood sides and smooth white tops, to see-through moulded acrylic fixtures. Both of these are light and therefore easily moved. Around the perimeter, it’s a case of lines and levels, with multi-tiered hung stock and, at different points, single tier with a single shelf above this, used as a visual merchandising display feature. This is simple stuff but it is done so well it looks entirely new and you wonder why things haven’t been done like this before.

Mention also has to be made of the mannequins. These are everywhere, organised, for the most part, in catwalk-style groups. All of them are black and high gloss and in a number of cases wear identical outfits - Zara has clearly decided that repetition is a powerful tool. All of the floors have high ceilings and afford shoppers the chance to lean over the balustrade and, on the higher floors, watch the action that is taking place on the floors below.

Change of scenery

Now take a trip to the basement. The kidswear department on this level functions as a quite discrete entity, principally owing to the fact that it has no hole at its centre and a ceiling that exends across the whole of the space. As such it feels very different from what is happening on the floors above this, and the colour palette is also at odds with the rest of the store. In place of the cream perimeter and terrazzo floor tiles is a somewhat darker floor and the ceiling has an industrial feel, thanks to the exposed air-conditioning plant that has been painted white. Matt steel tables and wooden slats on the mid-floor walls give a more neutral feel to the floor, allowing the brightly coloured merchandise to speak for itself.

By any standards this is an impressive shop and the work that has been done on the building’s listed fabric is testimony to a year of planning and careful crafting. And although Zara is a determinedly mid-market offer, the environment in which all of this is displayed somehow has the ability to make things look very much better than you might expect at this price point. The Palazzo Bocconi is back and looking better than ever… and it’s green(ish) too. If only the rest of the mid-market took this kind of care over its flagships.