Lord & Taylor is old. Not passé-old, by any standards, but enduring-old. It’s been in business longer than any department store in North America, surpassing the lifespans of Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and the like. Its founders, Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor, opened their very first store in 1826 in Manhattan. Many years later, in 1914, Lord & Taylor held a splashy opening for its new flagship location on New York City’s famous Fifth Avenue. Architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck designed the building in the highly structured Italian Renaissance Revival style, and that’s the way it remains today. “This building is a landmark,” says Roe Palermo, Lord & Taylor’s DVP of merchandise presentation. She’s not speaking metaphorically, either. In 2007 the City of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission made it official.
Landmark status means the palazzo-style architecture of the department store is carefully protected from change, but it has nothing to do with the window displays, in-store layout, and signage. Along with the merchandise, those elements are constantly evolving, and that’s where Palermo comes in. “That’s where my role is critical, to change the environment.”
Palermo studied interior design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and has worked in retail design ever since. Eight years in at Lord & Taylor, she oversees a “small but powerful” team of six who handle graphic design, communications, merchandise, and special logistics. Their job, as Palermo puts it, is “to adapt to customer demand.” That’s both a macro statement—Lord & Taylor used to focus on homewares like bedding and lamps, though now it’s more about apparel—and a micro one, because the store creates custom displays for its 54 nationwide stores with local tastes in mind. Shoppers on Fifth Avenue have different needs than shoppers in Fairfax, Virginia, or at the newly opened Boca Raton, Florida location.
Palermo says much of this comes down to the sensory environment of the store. “The type of music, mannequins, or the store layout should meet that environment’s need.” Something Palermo calls “adjacency flow” factors in as well. That’s when the merchandise around the store display in question gets selected according to the desired environment. In other words, if Lord & Taylor wants to show you a certain pair of boots, Palermo makes sure the neighboring shoe complements them.
Call it holistic environment design or, as Palermo calls it, a “voice,” but it’s “demonstrated from the windows to when you walk through the store,” and extends to all visual elements, including signage. “From an in-store signage perspective, the consumer should have a complete 360-degree experience,” Palermo says. “Whatever she gets in her email or mailbox should match what she sees in the front of the store. If she walks into the store she should know what the promotion is that week.” Recently, this has meant integrating Lord & Taylor’s updated logo. In December the store’s in-house marketing tweaked the decades-old condensed brushstrokes, a refined but somewhat amorphous logo, into a more defined script that looks as if it were drawn with a marker, not a quill. “We wanted to land there—keeping that heritage of that logo, but with a modern twist,” Palermo says.
There’s a carefully constructed bridge between Lord & Taylor’s heritage and its hipper image today, and it’s present in everything Palermo and her team do. Take a recent pop-up they created to feature emerging designers. “You could do a pop-up in a train station or small shop environment, but what does it look like inside a department store where you already have product?” To answer that, Palermo and her team drew on a bit of Lord & Taylor history. “We used to have a restaurant called The Birdcage. It was the place where the hip, modern women in New York City would come to have lunch.” The new pop-up—a destination within a destination—took the same name. “What do you find inside a birdcage?” Palermo asks. “Something precious, unique. We used that to inform the design.”
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