The moment you enter into a Gentle Monster store, you'll be forgiven for thinking that their products are a byproduct. Which seems silly — seeing as the Korean brand's calling card is their oversized, low-bridge fit eyewear that has attracted both the Asian and international markets. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid are fans, as are Korean celebrities Jun Ji Hyun (My Sassy Girl, My Love from the Star) and Lee Dong-wook (Goblin); the latter a guest at Gentle Monster's official store opening party in Singapore early this week. But as you journey through ION Orchard's new baby, you'll understand why this retail disruptor of sorts has shaken up the scene and captured the attention of both fashion and design enthusiasts alike.
Since its beginnings in 2011, Gentle Monster's DNA also boasts a strength in space design. Founder and CEO Hankook Kim intends for products to look as if they are being exhibited in a gallery-like space. Their first flagship store in Gangnam, Seoul, featured a real ship, while other stores stand out with distinct concepts. In Hongdae, a Quantum Project is themed throughout the three-storey space, while a Secret Apartment colours the flagship in Beijing. First conceptualised two years ago, the Singapore flagship bears the same design-centric touch as the other 14 flagship stores worldwide, but with its own identity: Samsara, meaning "reincarnation" in Sanskrit.
Gentle Monster's first flagship store in Singapore and its first in Southeast Asia provides a multi-sensorial experience. Bathed in bright, fluorescent light, the sound of yarn being spun first guides the eye through camel humps continuously in motion, as a specially formulated scent hits your nose. Welcome to the un-escapable cycle of life, visualised in abstract art installations throughout the store. Ron Fricke's visually stunning, non-narrative documentary Samsara (2011) and Friedrich Nietzsche's three metamorphoses inform the space, split into three sections. Adapted from Nietzsche's book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the obedient camel invites you into its workshop, the proud and dominant lion sits on a throne of flowing mane, while the child is interpreted through baby dolls moving in a hypnotic-like sequence; symbolising freedom. A giant infinity symbol concludes this journey, which has neither a beginning nor an end.
Wonho Moon and Somi Shim are the key designers for the Singapore space. While Shim, an architectural design graduate from Parsons, had prior experience in designing Gentle Monster's flagship, pop-up and department stores, this is a first for Moon; who previously headed two design studios, 100 Metres Cheetah and Lineworks Workshop. In town for the opening, we caught up to find out about Gentle Monster's strange, unsettling space.
Lets talk about 'weird beauty', a concept that's infused throughout everything that Gentle Monster does. What would you fill in your moodboard of 'weird beauty'?
Moon: The atmosphere of the Samsara documentary is an example of weird beauty for me. Stanley Kubrick's films give me this feeling in a unique way.
Shim: I would define the term 'weird beauty' as something different. I get inspired by fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen and his past runway shows.
What is Gentle Monster's relationship with kinetic art and why is this medium often used the stores?
Shim: Hankook Kim has interests in both space and kinetic art. He believes that kinetic art would give the space a specialty. I agree that the motion of the kinetic art in a limited space reflects the concept of making the showroom more energetic.
How did you settle on Singapore's concept to be a combination of Samsara meets Nietzsche?
Moon: This store design was initially inspired by Samsara. But when we developed the design, we felt that the mood was too serious for a retail store. We needed to add another concept to make it less serious. Nietzsche's philosophy is also serious but his three symbols — camel, lion, child — could be developed.
What were the challenges in interpreting these historical texts in a fresh, contemporary way?
Shim: We felt some difficulties while we were designing the space using the concept of the "un-escapable wheel of life". It was also too broad. We wanted more symbolic ideas to express the concept visually. We were worried that Nietzsche's three symbols could be unsophisticated when we express them visually in a too direct manner. It was the most challenging part to make them visually modern. The people in my team are very sensitive to colours, lines and shapes, so we critiqued each other's design to improve.
The film Samsara feels like a sort of non-verbal, guided meditation. Is this a similar sentiment you'd like visitors to experience as they walk through the store?
Moon: The space is not enough to describe the film. So, we try to develop it in different ways. We chose two key phrases, which are "non-linear reincarnation" and "unescapable cycle".
Shim: The film Samsara gave my team an inspiration, but visitors will only see Nietzsche's three symbols in the showroom. I think visitors cannot feel what they could feel through the film inside the showroom. But I hope, at least, visitors who experience the store realise and understand the store's concept — the un-escapable wheel of life — that we tried to express.
What sort of visual design cues have you employed to ensure that visitors are attracted to the products as well as the installations?
Moon and Shim: We design shelving only to make our products look more beautiful. When we make our space, we focus on the theme first and make unique kinetic art installations. Then we can put the beautiful products in the right place.
How do you think Singapore's store design is pushing your own boundaries when it comes to designing retail spaces?
Moon: Every project should be showing newness. So we tried to use materials that have not been used in our stores before. For instance, the acoustic pulp material is a first for us.
Gentle Monster is located at 2 Orchard Turn, ION #01-13.