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MAY 1, 2004

Kate Spade Goes to Washington

by Lisa Antonelli Bacon

To see all those people dashing around Capitol Hill, file-stuffed bucket totes slung over cardigan-clad shoulders, few fashion observers would have guessed that Kate Spade had no store in Washington, D.C. Such, however, was the case for many years—and many Saturday afternoons of boarding the metro or digging out the car for a shopping expedition to the suburbs. So it's easy to imagine how much the opening of a Georgetown boutique has improved the weekends of bevies of dedicated customers.

From an interiors perspective, the shop represents another kind of improvement: the latest refinement in a retail template that Rogers Marvel Architects has been adapting and perfecting since 1995. That's because virtually all of the handbag label's seven boutiques worldwide are freestanding, whereas the realestate in Georgetown leans to 18th- and 19th-century row houses—now home to shiny new branches of Starbucks Coffee and Häagen-Dazs. "It's like an outdoor mall," says principal Jonathan Marvel. 

Boxed in on both sides, Rogers Marvel had only a single facade to draw in foot traffic. The solution was to clad the available surface in a running-bond pattern of Indiana limestone and bring the product to the sidewalk via an external vitrine, a new concept for the brand. "We had to address the issues of the site without veering too far from what we've done in the past," says project architect Eugene Colberg. "So we devised a way to take the storefront and pull it into the motif."

That motif has always incorporated an art-minded perspective—appropriate for architects whose past projects include New York's Studio Museum in Harlem and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Along three sides of the Kate Spade boutique, white display walls are divided into horizontal runs of boxlike compartments, each top-lit to showcase related products as if they were precious objets d'art. A single unit might hold a couple of bags, a few pairs of shoes, or bottles of Kate Spade's perfume Beauty, so there's absolutely no clutter.

Floating in the middle of one sidewall, a 27-foot-square mahogany-stained shelving fixture displays leather-bound notebooks and other writing accessories. Closer to the front of the space, mahogany also backs Kate's Closet, actually more of a mini-office where picture frames, note cards, and pencils keep company with a Dilbert-worthy metal desk and a vintage wooden chair.

The retro motif extends to the rear shoe salon, where a small black-and-white TV screen loops through the 1965 hit Darling with Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde—a favorite of Kate Spade herself. A boudoir-curvy bench, a found piece reupholstered in lipstick-red wool, now comfortably seats four shoppers trying on mules or sling-backs.

The shoe salon's floor-to-ceiling mirror helped Rogers Marvel compensate for an uncharacteristically small space of 1,340 square feet, 350 of which are storage. In fact, the team managed to turn the modest footprint into an opportunity to try out new materials and applications. Six rectangular ceiling coves are illuminated by fluorescent fixtures in Kate Spade's spring palette. For flooring, which has evolved from wood to limestone in past stores, the architects chose carbonized bamboo for ecological reasons as well as for its fresh and distinctive coloration and striations.

Bamboo will be replaced by sturdier terrazzo in Kate Spade stores that Rogers Marvel is currently designing in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, and several other U.S. cities. At each, the evolution continues: The firm pushes design elements forward while maintaining the flirty Kate Spade imprimatur. "Each store is a new layer to the process," says Colberg. In moving from space-oriented freestanding stores to urban or mall-type settings, adds Marvel, "Georgetown was pivotal."


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