Through the looking glass: the uncanny world of Gentle Monster

Horses with mechanical tails whip silently in the air around you. A vast and inquisitive robotic human face stares back. You hesitantly step backwards, as a large, six-legged robot approaches, looming imposingly overhead with its metallic, tarantula body. No, you’re not dreaming, you’re just inside one of Gentle Monster’s stores. Welcome to retail surrealism of the 21st century.

The brand has become famous for their fascination with the bizarre, and the only thing you can really expect from the South Korean eyewear brand, is the unexpected. A cliché perhaps, but inside each and every one of their stores lies fantastical, high-tech, dystopian designs that resemble art expressions in their own right – installations that would fit in as much at MoMA as they might on a Steven Spielberg film set.

From Beijing, to California, Gentle Monster’s stores are journeys through their boundless imagination; each and every location is entirely unique, a story of the brand’s philosophy of expression and the art of concept. But despite each store’s originality, they are all so absolutely recognisable - their difference is the common thread that unites them. From the dream-state of a hyperrealistic old lady robot recalling her childhood memories, to a tribe of Kung Fu extraterrestrial creatures inspired by the martial arts of Earth, their stores certainly leave behind more questions than answers, leading you on an adventure through curious, otherworldly universes, delivered with an elusive edge of futuristic eeriness.

Inside the brand’s new HAUS

Gentle Monster’s latest foray into the amazing, is their new HAUS concept which launched in Shanghai on Huaihai Road last month – the second HAUS concept following the opening in Seoul, and their largest store to date. This time, it’s more than just a brand home, it is a sprawling, four-storey multi-brand house where Gentle Monster take on the role of curator, playing host to their new, fantasy-inspired dessert café NUDAKE, and sensual artisan cosmetics brand Tamburins. Two brands, that if you hadn’t guessed, know a thing or two about artistic expression.

Inside, The Probe – the brand’s signature robot and their very own monster - welcomes visitors as they step into the brand’s dystopian world. Alongside kinetic horses, that appear to have lost their way, NUDAKE awaits, with ‘never-before-seen gourmet pastries and treats’ – edible delights manifest from Gentle Monster’s conceptual aesthetics.

On the second floor, lies the brand’s store, you’ll be able to find a pair of glasses amongst the theatre. The glasses, ordinarily, are offset with artworks and installations that trigger visual and auditory stimulations, with the aim of creating tension and rhythm throughout the space. And if all of this simply doesn’t sound artistic enough for you, then the third floor is an entirely dedicated exhibition space for you to lose yourself in even more. On the fourth floor, you’ll discover Tamburins, the minimalist cosmetics brand birthed from the minds of Gentle Monster themselves, and with a scent called Fear, you’d expect nothing less.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that Gentle Monster employ 10 times more spatial designers than product designers. An interesting ratio, that as a product-led brand, might make you question where their priorities lie, but a prioritisation that drives their commercial success: Gentle Monster’s pre-pandemic store sales used to total up to 90% of the brand’s total revenues in the UK. Meanwhile their very own robotics lab signals their devotion to innovative design, where they cook up all manner of fantastical ideas, to fuel their high-tech fantasies in-store.

With such retail bravado at play, does the product fade into theatrical obscurity? You might think so. But with 90% of sales taking place here, it becomes a treasured token of the visit. The fact that Gentle Monster’s store design seems to bear little relevance to the product they sell, in a way, becomes irrelevant because of who they are, and what they represent. Anyone can sell glasses, only Gentle Monster can make the experience of buying them quite as thrilling, and uniquely unusual.

A monstrous lesson in bold retail

Well versed in the eccentric, Gentle Monster is a brand that marches to the beat of its own drum. Their difference separates them from the rest of the pack making them the black sheep of the retail family, but in the best way possible. Call them whacky, wonderful, downright weird, whatever you want, but you can’t argue that this is memorable retail that works.

Whilst most brands wouldn’t venture to Gentle Monster’s audacious heights – and perhaps nor should they, when GM do it so well - they certainly tell a tale or two about how to master the epitome of destination retail and the power of brand differentiation.

By eliminating the usual suspects from a retail store, Gentle Monster succeeds in achieving visionary, expressions of what their brand stands for. Probably ahead of their time, the future of the store certainly lives in the realm of GM, where product supports brand discovery and rich storytelling reigns supreme. Beautifully executed, and delivered with artistic precision, Gentle Monster win the competition for show-stopping, striking visual expression every time. Viva brave retail.

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5 min20 Oct 21