August 1, 2006
Jack’s Mixed Bag
Andy Spade’s new Soho store—a case study in subversive branding and calculated undesign—unseats all the conventional wisdom surrounding upscale retailing.
On the walls and shelves of the Jack Spade store on Greene Street in Soho, the branded men’s bags and accessories are interspersed with more improbable merchandise: three stuffed white rats, an old Kodak camera, a seemingly huge early Sony Watchman, a collection of miniature Christmas trees sprinkled with fake snow, an Arizona travel sticker, a hunk of coal. Parked outside the store are two heavy vintage Schwinn bicycles, also for sale. It’s an inventory that might end up sounding like lyrics from the Tom Waits song “Soldier’s Things”: “Cuff links and hubcaps/Trophies and paperbacks/It’s good transportation/But the brakes aren’t so hot.”
The 500-square-foot store—recently renovated with the help of architect Steven Sclaroff—is the latest aberration in retailing convention, an experiment in the spirit of Murray Moss’s Soho shop or Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia, in San Francisco, a pirate-supply store that doubles as a publishing office and a kids’ workshop center. Almost everything in Jack Spade is for sale, but the point is not so much to sell it as to show it, to help create a brand that unseats the conventional wisdom that luxury goods demand an impeccably up-scale retail setting.
Jack Spade is the brainchild and indulgence of Andy Spade, CEO of the expanding Kate Spade empire. A former creative director at ad agency TBWAChiatDay, Andy has been dubbed a “brand visionary” for the extraordinary success of Kate Spade—the company currently grosses more than $200 million a year, with 24 stores worldwide. He and his then partner (now wife), Kate Brosnahan Spade, a former fashion-magazine editor, dreamed up the Kate Spade brand in 1993, based on a simple functional handbag with a distinctive color and fabric and an urbane cachet. Feeling frustrated by his exclusion from the target demographic, Andy came up with his fictional brother, Jack, in 1997, inspired by two of his idols, Jack Kerouac, the writer, and Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO. The two Jacks represent, as Spade puts it, a complementary balance of art and commerce: “It’s a challenge to run a business and do things you like to do. You can’t be creative without being solvent.”
Selling bags to men is a challenging enterprise, and Spade’s approach has been to promote the brand as if it had been around for years, aligning it with workaday classics like military-issue chinos, Levis jeans, and Lacoste shirts. The first Jack Spade bags were made of Waxwear or canvas and were sold on consignment in a hardware store. That it’s difficult to imagine a hardware-store customer who would plunk down $400 for a shoulder bag suggests that this was less a sales policy than an approach to building a cult following. When the store opened in 1999 in a space formerly occupied by the UFO Clothing Company, the design team went to some lengths to keep the location incognito. Sclaroff had to persuade Spade that the store needed a sign outside. “Eventually we agreed to make a sign that was two by six inches,” Sclaroff says. “It was stolen and never replaced.”
When the recent renovation was complete, staffer Robert Chan recalls, it “felt too new and shiny, too clean and precious.” Amends were made: Sclaroff found a battered red sofa auctioned by a Pennsylvania firehouse—in, he says, “the perfect state of destruction.” It sits center stage patched with duct tape on an oriental rug. Sclaroff adds that Andy Spade’s impulse is to keep removing the bags to make room for more bric-a-brac. “Luckily there are people helping him who won’t let him do that, but it’s a good impulse. There are certainly other retailers who prop heavily—Ralph Lauren comes to mind—but Jack Spade is so not that.”
As a brand Jack Spade plays a sophisticated semiotic game. Shopping depends on wish fulfillment, cultural theorists have suggested, luring consumers with the promise of unattainable worlds or lifestyles—or, in a more optimistic spin on that theory, providing a space for a transaction that enables shoppers to tacitly acknowledge what they “lack.” If the Ralph Lauren world offers vague aspirations of grandeur, the Jack Spade world suggests that “real” grandeur is not so bland. Your new friend, the fictive Jack, is a rambling, shambling character who comes from old money and keeps a tidy home but can’t quite let go of his threadbare rug, favorite sofa, and boyhood hobbies. Asked how Jack Spade would be attired, Andy Spade responds, “Like Woody Allen,” or in an outfit you might put on a Ben Katchor character: “good-quality tweeds, crappy Rockports, a little hat. Not Peter Beard.” It’s a world where shabby is chic and $500 gets you a duffel bag that subtly signifies your membership in an exclusive club.
The recent renovation is an exercise in the kind of undesign that Restaurant Florent (see “Restaurant Florent,” April 2006) achieved a few blocks north two decades ago: Sclaroff increased the amount of sales space by 200 square feet, updated the air-conditioning, built fixtures, and improved the lighting with the help of Johnson Schwinghammer, a consultancy better known for illuminating the MoMA Design Store, the W Hotel, and Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. But the aim was to make it appear that nothing had changed, as if time had stood still. “It’s got a library feel, but also a clubhouse or office,” Sclaroff says. “You wouldn’t want it to look too retaily, but there are functional things like lighting that were improved in the renovation.”
The guiding principles for stocking the store and furnishing the walls are studiously ad hoc. An assortment of taxidermy includes a moose and a laughing (or snarling?) fox. The addition of selected paintings and sculptures from Kate and Andy’s personal collection sounds like an impressive idea, but while many of the artists’ names are familiar, the work is not: there is only half of a John Baldessari diptych and a rather shabby sculpture of toy guns forming a kind of funeral pyre, by Chris Burden, the shock artist famous for hijacking a TV show and taking a bullet in the arm in the 1970s. Andy calls the collection “unimportant art.” He describes the curatorial strategy as “taking all the things I like and putting them in one store. I sometimes call it a ‘hobbydashery’ because it’s a mix of hobby stores I love and things I grew up with as a kid, and then things I discovered after moving to New York.”
Shopping has been cast as a poor form of self-expression; selling at this level, however, becomes an art form. Andy admits that to turn Jack Spade into a chain and roll it out would “ruin” it. Although there is talk of opening stores in Tokyo and London, he is more interested in a side project to build the brand through what he calls “commercial readymades”—finding an existing retail establishment that fits the profile and then paying the owner a fee to put a Jack Spade sign outside for a month. This was tried out on a barbershop in Little Italy named Sal’s, and Andy hopes to find a topless club and a restaurant that hasn’t changed in years to carry a Jack Spade sign. “There’s a certain aesthetic that Jack is trying to achieve,” he says, “and it’s a bad one.”
In the art world, of course, unrealized but well-publicized plans can be as valuable as those that see the light of day. Commercial readymades need only happen once to provide the required documentation. In Jack Spade, Andy has turned branding and advertising into a high-concept game. He has executive-produced short films, is at work on the TV series Jack Spade Presents, and his advertising campaigns are more like performance art: in June 2000 a hundred Jack Spade billfolds were dropped on the streets of New York, each filled with some dollars, a few items to characterize a fictional owner, and an “If found, please call” note. As a testament to New Yorkers’ honesty, 60 of them came back. Outside of the women’s handbag world Spade has clearly found his bliss. “All my friends had to leave their jobs to find out who they were. I’m finding out who I am in my job.”