I’ve been studying sex.

And retail.
Since I was a teenager. Not necessarily in that order. Nor presumably together. But I’ve been studying them.

My first exposures to the concept was as a boy scout traveling in Europe, as an early teenager. What I’d discovered was that there were many “sex shops” — almost like a chain, scattered throughout Europe. Clean, well -organized, usually having some kind of peeping or video action, there were, understandably, layers to the experience. Mostly pornographic they are. There are of course certain levels of that experience that I never had the chance to explore as a teenager. Like the live-action peep shows. But of course I was curious about them. To this day, I’ve not seen that concept. Not sure that I ever will, either.

When I was studying in Germany in the 70s, trying to set up my first connections with famed designers, Hermann and Gudrun Zapf, I’d gone to a Sex Portal as a kind of dare with some of the other German students that were staying at the Jugend Hostel in Frankfurt. That, however, was definitely not a shop, but something tingling with live sexual exposure — and rather than being titillating, it was terrifying. More like illicit adventure, than exciting in a dynamic and constructive way. It was, for all intensive purposes, a brothel and sexhibition hall. Booze and sex, a bad performance combination.

Nonetheless, sex, the pure physicality of it — and all of the ramifications therein, tend to make it something that virtually everyone has some kind of positioning on. Literally and figuratively.

What I mean by that is that sex is definitely something that people have an opinion on. It’s either something that they relate to in their own entirely personal, quiet way, or it’s something to be out loud about. And there are plenty of commentaries in between. Clearly I’m crystallizing the obvious here — but what I’m getting to is the concept of the very spirit of sex — and the sexual connectivity and intimate magnetism with people — and how that relates to shopping and retail visualizations.

What I’m curious about is what is the best case scenario for linking sex and retail? Who does that best?

I’d venture that Kiki De Montparnasse is the best amalgam of sex, content, intelligence and retail. That is, at least that I’ve seen. Victoria’s Secret offers a sloshed-up framework of mass channel sexuality; Myla — another smallish British chain offers another positioning — very well lit and brightly merchandised. Frederick’s — what allure, lost there: . There’s Seattle’s Babeland, also nationally expanding — which is a functioning offering of a discerning sex toolbox, not much personality, but owned by women. On that note, too — there’s Laura Fitzpatrick’s award-winning OhBaby! grouping in the Oregon area: . And what is she doing? She’s drenching her sense of play, joy, sensuality in a sexily styled sense of merchandising and events. And no, I’ve not been in that one(s), I merely know her and stay in touch. I’m pretty sure that she’ll go places; her commitment is unbridled. Jimmy Jane has one round of retail, shop in a shop — that I know of, at Wynn | Las Vegas, Selfridges, Fred Segal, and some other European representations…http://www.jimmyjane.com/index.php

But Kiki positions a sense of high drama and expansive real estate in presentation; it’s not about packing it in, but packing it out — there’s a lot of content for sale, but it stretches out in the space — some two floors in Soho | Manhattan. The color modulations are deep and syrupy; they run from black, shiny whip spandex black to deep flushed purples, roughened pinks and creamy whites, tinged with softened metallics. Items range from the usual portfolio of objects to delight, the array of lingerie, to rare books, photographs, antique erotica, as well as customized products they’ve developed. The women there are remarkably articulate at expressing, quite precisely, the nature of the use and pleasure pointing character of the objects — authentically so. There are, as in Babeland I might add, plenty of sex classes.

Bound chairs and the explicit revealing on floor two > press, fashion show and workshop space.

Packaging is disciplined, deep black matte, with nothing other than restrained slightly letter-spaced san serif typography.

While some of the product treatments are stock containers, for product development, all table tops are wrapped in a slightly risque, yet subtle, black and white wallpaper.

The hall, the mirror, the art.

Something’s said, for the francophilic:

Ring of light — the main shopping entry, first floor.

The usual messages, the decisions proffered.

Art and commerce.

Sex gear in entourage.

The shopfront on Thompson.

The conclusions are what, then, to sex and retail?

• Like restaurants, sex and retail are more holistically sense driven. There’s a lot more to play with — and how consciously the design plays thematically into reaching this space of human consciousness.

• Like the European branded sex shops which are mostly pornographic and overtly if not viciously prurient, it’s possible to over tell, or over sell a story. How does one balance the implied sexual intimacies with a spiced taste that is accessible, yet authentically, truthfully, telling it for what it is. Sex is an action that is spectacularly close. So the concept of a sexually gratifying place of telling the story has to get close to that warming link; it’s got to bring you there in your own mind, comfortably. To each, their own.

• There’s always the presumption that those who do not want to explore their relationships in sexuality openly — will not enter a store like this, nor explore that story. That’s a consistent conditioning for retail — if the story’s relevant, resonant, they will go there. Otherwise, they’ll not cross the threshold. But the very nature of shopping is that it’s shared — when you are there, others will be watching you, listening to what you are saying, listening to what you are listening to. So in exploring this story, you’ve got to be there, be willing to be open, connected to the exclusivity of the experience. Store, story design needs to take this into accounting — space, while wide open, is sectioned — there are places to be absorbed and alone in one’s contemplations of intimacy. Openings are clear for access, as well as the character of the staff — open, direct, truthful and celebrative.

• The conclusions are that combining retail development and sex could be one of the richest possible sensate stories of how selling, environmental and experience design combine to reflect a new character in human spirit, or an attribute of it. The key would be taste, discipline, authenticity, defined character and positioning…

Tim Girvin | NYC | retail interactive