Pop-ups are booming – whether in the form of the temporary usage of empty spaces or the sale of extremely limited goods in an existing shop that has been transformed into an eye-catcher. Pop-up stores create a buzz, and it’s not only large fashion companies that have begun making use of the idea – small, local firms are exploiting its potential too.
2009: A long-established American boot manufacturer completely transformed a London commercial space in a matter of six days, producing a stark industrial aesthetic with bright yellow plastic curtains, low-hanging spotlights and heavy wooden pallets. And then, after just a short while, the store vanished again.
Summer 2011: On a Dutch beach not far from The Hague, an international giant in the world of fashion erects a wooden box several metres high with the simple word “Beach” written on its side. The new summer collection is hanging inside; customers enter through the one side of the giant container that is open. The entire spectacle is over after two days, but the brand left an indelible impression.
January 2014: A huge shoebox is placed on a square in North East London. One of the largest sportswear manufacturers in the world is celebrating the sale of its latest trainer. In addition to a limited edition, visitors can scan their faces and have them printed on the shoes themselves. After three days this white and green shoebox has also vanished from the face of the earth.
It doesn’t matter what industry is involved, the “pop-up” concept has gone international, put to use everywhere from the US to Europe to Japan in order to stimulate interest and draw attention. The idea is simple: The most attention-grabbing retail space is created in the shortest possible amount of time in order to sell a company’s newest products or limited edition products, such as the latest fashion collection. The shop could stay open for several weeks or disappear after a matter of days. The Japanese fashion label “Comme des Garçons” was distinguishing itself ten years ago by using the concept; others like the American company “Vacant” have used the concept to similar effect. Vacant is generally considered one of the pioneers in using pop-up stores. Already experienced in using the idea to help fashion labels and car manufacturers, the firm’s latest effort is a pop-up store dedicated to the release of Bob Dylan’s new album.
But what’s the point of it all? Why not just build classic flagship stores that present a more centralised advertisement for the company’s newest collections and trends?
For one simple reason: what attracts the customer is this promise of being allowed to be part of something completely unique, something that has never existed before. The designer and author Sofia Borges explains the phenomenon in her book Brand Spaces – Branded Architecture and the Future of Retail Design with reference to the development of classic, tradition-rich features of urban life. The city centre, the butcher’s shop, the tailor, the local market – all of these are integral aspects of a city’s image. Over time, though, these small independent shops with their own particular character were replaced by the department store, which lacked the more individualised aspects that characterised the classic small shops. Finally, cities succumbed to encroachment by shopping centres, international chain stores and the increasingly monotonous look of streets everywhere that come with them. As Borges writes, “Soon, everywhere began to look like and be interchangeable with everywhere else.” Borges furthermore declares that the time of flagship stores and a standardised “customer experience” is over. But new technologies and social media are unable to replace tangible, experiential contact between customer and brand. Borges provides an answer by means of individual and bold concepts for how to organise “increasingly ambitious, engaging, and inspiring retail places.” A wooden box installed on a beach in Scheveningen by H&M, only to be dismantled several days later, is a perfect example of how this can be put into practice. The effort behind the undertaking was more than sufficiently offset by the lasting impression that the company managed to create, firstly amongst the curious passers-by and the company’s fans who wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and secondly in the media, which was quickly full of reports on the stunt.
One could call it a new paradigm for marketing. But this is precisely what others criticise. The temporary use of store and restaurant spaces or public squares need not be a tactic restricted to an international fashion label’s elaborate marketing concept. There are increasing numbers of small, urban initiatives that are applying the concept of time-limited use in completely new ways, especially interpreting it in political terms. One example is the Viennese initiative called “Betonküche” (Concrete Kitchen). They rent empty restaurants and other spaces in Vienna to temporarily transform them into pop-up restaurants. But they are not the chefs; the invited cooks are friends, artists and, lately, even top chefs. “We gave a lot of thought to how we could play with these vacant properties in a way that would be totally new for Vienna,” Martin Fetz, one of the founders of Betonküche explains. He and his colleague Phillipp Haufler, both 34 years old, make up half of the core team. Haufler explains: “The topic of vacant properties was of course crucial, but equally important were our interest in and our love of cooking.” The two are seated at a long table in the offices of Fetz’s project incubator “friendship.is”, which develops tourism projects as well as advising on branding and marketing strategies.
Fetz, sporting a beard and a red flat cap, leans back in his chair and tells us about the initiative. He and his colleagues initially sought to redesign the spaces they found into venues that were as attractive as possible, and they wanted to do this with as few resources as possible. “No money changed hands. We built and converted everything ourselves or did it with friends,” Fetz says. After the first event in early 2012, to which the team members’ friends were invited, word spread so quickly that a completely new group of people were sitting around the table at the second event. Since then, Betonküche has populated the vacant spaces for a month at a time with a rotating selection of chefs. “We book chefs like you’d book DJs. A chef will create a menu, be there for a day or two, and then the whole thing changes again,” Haufler explains. Whenever they put on a new “Concrete Kitchen”, Fetz sends an message to an email list that has grown rapidly, and guests can book their spots on a first-come-first-serve basis. And to many people’s disappointment, those spots disappear quickly. “There are nights when we could do five seatings,” Fetz says.
It is not just the chef who has his hands full on the evenings in question. The space needs to be set up, all of the kitchen equipment must be delivered and the event’s trademark, the massive concrete tables, don’t make the process any easier. Fetz and Haufler can often be found at the space until late in the night. “Many times after taking everything down and moving it out, we find ourselves saying ‘Never again’,” says Haufler. But they haven’t stopped yet. Ultimately there is a distinctly political aspect behind the initiative. Fetz explains: “There is a huge problem with vacant properties. Lively premises on street level give cities their particular characteristic. Something’s going on!” And the “Concrete Kitchen” project is certainly a good example of how that can be done. But all the same, there is hardly any profit from the initiative in spite of the enormous effort. This is the result of not having any cooperative agreements with large companies and in their purposefully keeping prices low. Nevertheless, there is still a certain “multiplier effect” by which the attendees profit indirectly thanks to the network associated with the Betonküche, Fetz claims. For example, Fabienne Feltus provides the core team with support in the decorating of the spaces. Feltus has a similar project herself. For about three years now, the Luxembourg native has organised the “Favourite Flea Market” (Lieblingsflohmarkt) in Vienna. She puts on one-day, curated flea markets throughout Vienna in a different location each time and a decent-sized community has formed around it. The flea market has taken place 14 times so far in locations ranging from a shopping centre to a listed cinema building. It is important to Feltus that the flea market be curated from the outset. People should not be selling commonplace goods, but items like vintage clothing and unique pieces. Even though her market disappears again after a single day, Feltus is not enthusiastic about the term “pop-up”. She explains: “It is too trendy a word for me, to be honest, and it doesn’t really match what we do. A pop-up is normally around for more than just six hours in one place.” The fundamental idea from the Luxembourg native’s perspective is “Sharing is Caring”. She describes how she turned a personal interest into the Favourite Flea Market: “I organised my first flea market because I love going to flea markets myself and selling my old clothes.”
The “Guerilla Bakery” is another idea that has its origins in a personal passion. For three years now, the three sisters behind the project have sold their homemade scones, biscuits and cupcakes on select Sundays – first in their own homes and now in bars and cafes throughout Vienna. Sarah, the youngest of the sisters, has her hair pulled back and is sitting on a bench outside “People on Caffeine”, a tiny Viennese coffeehouse in which the Guerilla Bakery has sold its goods under the name “Sisters” since late 2013. During the discussion, the alarm on her mobile goes off and she rushes to take the scones out of the oven, and she comes back holding her hand in front of her mouth. “Sorry, but otherwise I don’t get a chance to eat anything,” she explains. Sarah says that she and her sisters have always got together for the traditional Sunday afternoon coffee with cakes and biscuits. It actually began with a cookbook dedicated to biscuits that she had brought back with her from Sweden. After a few more or less successful attempts at baking, Sarah – who is an actress in her other life – took a plate of biscuits with her to a theatre rehearsal. Her colleagues told her, “These are so delicious you could sell them.” Not convinced at first, she finally decided after a bit of hesitation to use Facebook to publicise a sale of her baked treats at her own home. She was flabbergasted when she realised that she only personally knew a handful of the 20 people who turned up that Sunday in her flat.
They soon had to relocate the events to her sister’s larger flat and ultimately started getting expressions of interest from cafes, bars and restaurants throughout Vienna. They would live up to their name, turning up at these venues for a short while and then moving on again after just a few hours. They have found a more permanent home since December of last year in “People on Caffeine”. This is also a test run for Sarah, since the three sisters have been thinking about opening their own coffeehouse for some time now. “The thought of having our own cafe is pretty cool, but we still need to consider how we will manage when we really have to bake every single day and it’s no longer just a hobby,” Sarah says. Time will tell whether they’ll decide to take that step, but they have already established a reputation via their pop-ups that will provide a sound foundation they can build upon in the future.
Everyone is utilizing pop-ups and the temporary use of vacant space these days, from international fashion companies to local and regional initiatives. And they all share one thing: A creative reinterpretation of abandoned and public spaces allows them to garner attention, whether simply for their products or even for the ideas informing them.