By the time Rem Koolhaas’s hyper-designed Prada flagship store opened in the reeling, blighted SoHo of December 2001, its moment had already passed. With its state-of-the-art technology malfunctioning within weeks, the building served as a Greek chorus warning us anew to beware the hubris inherent in bricks and mortar.

That most intuitive of designers, Rei Kawakubo, may have had its chagrin in mind when she launched her first Guerilla Store in a nondescript Berlin storefront in 2004. The poetical Kawakubo was perhaps also inspired by cult classicist Anne Carson’s plaintive ruminations on Eros — “Who ever desires what is not gone?” — when she vowed to close up shop in exactly a year.

Kawakubo cannily bet that mixing low-cost real estate with a no-cost ad budget and a tick-tick-ticking shelf life would result in major buzz and massive business — indeed, one outlet met 300 percent of its monthly goal in the first week. New “occupations” from Reykjavik to Glasgow are scheduled through 2006. “Pop-ups” as diverse as Illy Coffee and Song Airlines have extended the trend, sometimes eschewing sales altogether for a goal of giving customers the “experience” of the product.

For all its tactility, fashion is essentially content-free — it’s the perishability that pushes the merch. Pop-up shops, then, would seem a perfect fit of form to function, but let the buyer beware. The genuinely unknown designer teetering at risk’s edge on a dodgy block is exciting: will she still be there next season? What about next week? The provisional nature of her enterprise is real, not manufactured. Yet when mega-corporates appropriate the mien, they just can’t capture the thrill.

Which is why the news that a “Levi’s Style Search” pop-up will appear at a Brown University site, 294 Thayer Street, Providence, from October 3 to 5, is hardly inspiring.

Students will be able to shop for jeans, enter a contest to appear in spring ads, or “just hang out at this high energy venue,” says the press release. “High energy”? I’d call it high ersatz.

For real energy, students might instead walk down the hill to the “Wunderground” show at the RISD Museum, highlighting the charged, wild world of Providence’s own creative community from 1995 to the present. It’s a huge, beautiful, dynamic object lesson in what can happen in off-map storefronts when the only resource available is resourcefulness itself.

  Topics: This Just In , Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Anne Carson
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