Retail Intervention

Collages by Kate Nakamura

Mute by JL Black mesh tunic and white collared shirt by Joanne Lu, MFA Fashion Merchandising. 

If you build it, they will come. 

That has been the working philosophy behind SHOP657, a unique retail experience that has taken shape under the auspices of the School of Fashion’s Merchandising Program.

The 1,500 square foot space – previously home to Marty’s Liquor and Gourmet, at 657 Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco – is nowAcademy of Art University’s first permanent retail location and serves as a demonstration of the University’s continuing commitment to practical, real world experience. 

How did this unusual project come about?

As Keanan Duffty, the School of Fashion’s Senior Director of Merchandising, puts it: “SHOP657 evolved from SHOP the pop-up store that the Merchandising department created for the 2014 Spring Show.” It was an instant hit, one that Academy President Dr. Elisa Stephens called “a highlight of the Spring Show,” Duffty adds. 

“SHOP657 is an incredible opportunity for merchandising, marketing and product development students to work together,’’ Simon Ungless, Executive Director of the School of Fashion, said. “It is a role model for the innovative programs we undertake in the School of Fashion. Providing real world retail experience is an invaluable experience for students and faculty to cross-pollinate and collaborate throughout the entire University.”

Given the overall positive reaction and the support from President Stephens and Simon Ungless, Keanan Duffty and Graduate Director of Merchandising Sharon Murphy decided to take it to the next level.

“We felt SHOP deserved a permanent space and Dr. Stephens allowed us to utilize the 657 Sutter Street retail location,’’ Duffty said. 

Once the location had been decided, it was a case of building the store from the ground up – literally – with key contributions from former Assistant Visual Merchandising Director Russell Clower, who is now Assistant Director of Merchandising Online, and Martin Zanfardino, a long-standing Visual Merchandising instructor tasked with the actual building process.

“The concept was to base the pop-up on a traditional street market, a back-to-basics trend we are seeing at retail all over the world,’’ Clower recalled. 

While the Academy’s original pop-up shop was very
“raw – something that felt like the skeleton of a retail space without walls,’’ the new store needed a different feel.

“The space was in terrible shape, walls had to be patched and painted, a new floor was laid and basic electrical and lighting needed upgrades and updates,” Clower added. “We wanted something that was very crisp and white – it’s a small space, so we needed to open it up.”

Clower gives Martin Zanfardino major props for taking on the arduous project.

“The time frame from concept to production was very short – less than six weeks,’’ Zanfardino said. “Overcoming the challenges required many hours of work from the students and being inventive with materials on hand.’’

Zanfardino added that the students helped produce props and location set up and also were involved with product placement and styling.

“The students’ experiences were, without question, the most rewarding aspect of these projects,’’ he said. “The knowledge they gained of real life work situations helped them develop confidence in their skill sets. They also learned to collaborate on projects, exactly as it’s done in the real world.”

Shoes designed by Shih Kai Tai, MFA Fashion Merchandising

Once the store was open and ready for business, the added value, of course, was in the brands that they stocked – again providing inestimable experience and training.

“In order to be selected for representation in SHOP657, there are three approaches,’’ Duffty explained. “First, Sharon Murphy and myself reached out to a number of alumni whose collections were in production and available [for resale]. Second, the alumni pitched their collections to classes in the Merchandising program, which could be ‘bought’ for the store. Third, [our] Product Development classes create original products during the semester which are then given retail exposure in the store.”

Murphy agreed. “Collaboration is key – they can’t forget the logistics that would be needed to run any actual business. We have a ‘state of the art’ POS [point of sale] system that includes the same software used by many leading brands and retailers. This means our students can learn about all aspects of retailing including management and financial reporting in a ‘Case Study’ setting.”

“In the first week that SHOP657 opened in the Spring 2014, six students from a laser cutting class came in to meet with senior merchandising students to find out how to sell their designs.” she added. “They sorted out exactly how [the different] pieces would be part of each collection – from pricing to packaging, visual display, and branding. Students were sharing ideas, using all they had learned in classes. It was exciting to see ‘best practices’ in action. That’s what the goal of having this shop is all about, it’s a showcase, and an incubator.”

The brands being offered are an eclectic group, according to Store Manager, Amanda Sanchez.

They include: Mute by Joanne Lu, VOIDTHEBRAND, SFC SanFranCycle, Apartment 415, Snaku, Gazel, Diana Garcia, Rinat Brodach, neighborhood.hoo and Dale Beevers Jewelry. 

“Apartment 415 is a line of pillows designed by Agustin Sanders, a 2009 Interior Design and Interior Architecture graduate who teaches Commercial and Industrial Design courses [at the Academy],” Sanchez said. “SFC SanFranCycle is designed by Tommy Pham, a men’s knitwear graduate from 2003. The entire line centers on the ‘bicycle culture’ concept,” she said. “The ‘Homies’ design (a crew neck t-shirt in tribute to the “homies of the Mission district) is our best seller by far!”

“We get a lot of people coming walking down to work from the Financial District, tons of students and their parents stopping by, as well as people who happen to be in the neighborhood.” SHOP657 has become an in-the-know hot spot for a coveted souvenir!

Students and graduates whose work has been on display are glowing about the experience.

“I graduated from the Academy in 2013 and my final project, Mute by Joanne Lu, was presented at the University’s Fashion Show,’’ Lu said. “One year later,
I decided to bring it to the real market. Of course the first shop was SHOP657!”

Shih Kai Thai, whose innovative sneaker line is featured in the shop, agrees that the SHOP657 can be a big career boost. “Keanan approached me about showing my line there, and also taught me about product line development and how best to market it,’’ he said. “SHOP657 is a great place to help students promote their brand.”

from left to right: Bronze cast pendant by Deanna Wardley, MFA Jewelry & Metal Arts. Laser-cut leather cuff by Ariella Greenfield, BFA Photography. River rock pendant by Deanna Wardley, MFA Jewlery & Metal Arts. Mritika laser-cut pendant by Nandini Misra, MFA Fashion Design. Ceramic dome pendant by Deanna Wardley, MFA Jewelry & Metal Arts. 

For Merchandising major Chau Bui, interning at the shop was invaluable.

“I learned more about the retail side of fashion and the real experience of working in-store than I could have in a traditional classroom,” she said. 

“We had to learn the point of sale [POS] software system that large scale retailors use, giving us experience in buying product, managing inventory, selling product, and financial reporting,” she added. “The experience of working on a team, learning from mistakes and my responsibilities at SHOP657 contributed to my personal growth and will no doubt help me in whatever I choose to do later.”

Other Academy department heads are equally enthusiastic about their students’ participation in Shop657 – an important component of President Stephens’ goal in greenlighting the project. 

Charlene Modena, Director of the School of Jewelry and Metal Arts, said: “The collaboration has presented eye-opening opportunities for our students to learn how to balance the search for and focus on one’s unique creative voice with the design and marketing challenges of fashion and production work.”

They can then “learn to apply this philosophy to styling, trends, designs, technical challenges, production, presentation, marketing and the give-and-take of collaboration – and overall to see production work not as a ‘sell-out,’ but a creative challenge.”

Arts Technology Director, Gordon Silveria, agreed.

“Students from the digital design and laser cutting classes developed two projects that turned out to be ideal inventory for SHOP657,” he said.

“We set up times for the students to present their work, negotiate retail prices and figure out profit. The students gained invaluable knowledge about how to present their work to a retailer, how to negotiate prices figuring in labor and materials and the experience of seeing their work in a beautiful retail setting.” 

Duffty cites other successes.

“Nike, Sears and other major corporate brands have visited SHOP657 since its inception and their response has been overwhelmingly positive,’’ he said. “They are excited to see a unique point of view from Visual Merchandising classes, emerging designers from our alumni and current students and those who are gaining truly valuable experience by interning at SHOP657.” 

Textile design by Narisi, BFA Fashion Design, printed on a University sweatshirt.

Duffty and others involved in this one-of-a-kind project are aware of the changing nature of retail, in the midst of the electronic explosion.

“Amazon has superceded Macy’s as the biggest retailer in the United States, so e-commerce has now overtaken physical retail in one respect,’’ he acknowledged. “However, fashion moves in cycles and with the rise of mass production ‘off price’ shopping via the online marketplace comes a counterpoint in niche, boutique retail spaces with curated product that is ‘small batch’ production. SHOP657 speaks to that movement.”

“Creativity, collaboration and communication are all key ingredients to the SHOP657 experience,” Duffty said. Customers, suppliers, students, family and members of the Academy family all second that emotion. 

And they are ready for the next round of technological, economic and creative challenges. Plans for an electronic version of SHOP657, with an e-commerce element, are in the works. The Fashion Journalism department will join in by contributing to the SHOP657’s future blog. 

But however it evolves, it will be a team effort – and a labor of love.