Robin Kramer's multidisciplinary firm keeps the goods flying off the shelves
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 4/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Chances are you've been in a store by the Kramer Design Group. John Varvatos or Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry in New York? Club Monaco in Hong Kong? DKNY in Athens or Istanbul? Waterworks in Chicago or Seattle?
Robin Kramer has fashion in her genes. A New Yorker born and bred, she's the daughter of a father who manufactured women's sportswear and a mother who designed children's wear. During visits to her grandparents' Boston boutique, Mae Lasky's, young Robin would while away hours in the stockroom, gazing at gowns, gloves, and hats by Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. When it came time for college at the Fashion Institute of Technology, however, she majored in communications, marketing, and merchandising.
Countless fashion-retail jobs later, she landed at Calvin Klein and eventually rose to vice president of creative services and store design before going out on her own. Her firm now employs a 25-person staff of interior and industrial designers, architects, brand strategists, market researchers, and account managers. Here, she explains how her group creates successful shopping experiences—without the average person even noticing how she does it.
What was an influential first job in fashion retail?
During college, I worked at Lina Lee, a multi-brand shop that no longer exists. Lina had an incredible philosophy regarding her sales staff—that we be impeccably informed on entire clothing lines, fabrics, construction. No one does that anymore. She also taught us selling techniques. When a customer comes in for a sweater, build her an entire outfit around it. That experience ignited my merchandising sensibilities.
What gave you the impetus to start your own firm?
My experience at Calvin Klein. As the company grew, the need for brand management and aesthetic consistency became crucial. My department worked with outside architecture and marketing firms, and it became a huge challenge to harness their creativity yet ensure that everything still looked like Calvin. I saw the niche for a firm whose primary concern was interpreting a client's vision consistently through a multitude of disciplines.
Who was your first independent client?
Isaac Mizrahi. He was launching his Saks Fifth Avenue in-store Isaac shops, and we helped him with all aspects of the brand's aesthetics. We're actually working with him again on his line for Liz Claiborne.
What are the services that you provide?
Positioning, store design, graphics, labeling, packaging, business cards—you name it. Some clients who are new to the market, like Ivanka Trump, sign up for everything, soup to nuts. Others, like Ralph Lauren, who has an established identity, may pick just one or two services.
Does every project begin with branding?
No matter what it is—a store, a design for packaging—we believe that brand communication must be consistent and clear to resonate with the consumer.
How do you achieve that?
We get started by doing an audit of the marketplace to find out who's making a similar product, what's the high end, what's the low end. It's a process that educates both ourselves and our client on the competitive landscape. Then we develop a one-sentence brand definition, an extremely distilled statement along the lines of "It's all about. . . ." We'll carry that mantra through every aspect of the project.
John Varvatos is all about the rock-and-roll side of classic, modern menswear. Ivanka Trump is all about the youthful reinvention of traditional "important" jewelry.
How did you translate the Trump mantra?
Although pieces there range from $5,000 to $100,000, it needed to feel approachable and youthful. We envisioned the Park Avenue living room of a feminine-but-not-frilly woman, like Ivanka herself, and we outfitted the store with custom furniture in classic patterns and bold, fun colors—canary yellow, black, white. We did the same for the logo. It's a traditional feminine shape, the oval, in a happy coral tone. We even helped her design oval-themed jewelry.
You walk by. You see the color. You see the furniture. Less intimidating.
How do you make chain stores unique yet stay on-brand?
Brand-appropriate locations are important. Club Monaco is all about modernity with a sense of heritage and texture, so we'll look for a site with classic architecture, maximize those details, then mix in furnishings that look mid-century or contemporary. Cultural differences have to be considered, too.
How is that?
In Arab countries, where women can't be seen trying on clothing, the dressing rooms' placement is always discreet, and we use solid doors instead of curtains. In Japan, where the young consumer usually shops with a parent or a grandparent, we always have seating in our stores. In India, you need even more seating. Weddings involve multiple celebrations that require extensive wardrobing, and the entire family goes shopping, repeatedly, even for the groom.
Tell us about your projects in India.
A company called Madura has hired us to handle branding and design for three 20,000-square-foot locations in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi, opening in September and October. They're lifestyle stores targeted at the male consumer who's part of an emerging educated and moneyed class. Ground floors are contemporary interpretations of the Indian stalls of yesteryear, with an arcade of shops one after the other—watches, fragrances, leather goods, shirts and ties, electronic gadgets. Upper floors will have a spa, a juice bar, denim, made-to-measure. Service is paramount in India, so tailoring, personal shopping, and concierge will be available, all of the highest quality.
Is online shopping affecting store design?
Yes, it's raising the bar for bricks-and-mortar. It isn't enough to put product in a space anymore. If consumers can purchase anything they need at the click of a mouse, then the only reason to go to a store is to experience the brand. Take what's happened to restaurants. People aren't just looking for good food—it's the total experience.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Every fashion show I can. Also trade shows—ICFF, GlobalShop. And I walk into every store, everywhere. Not just clothing. It's amazing what ideas you can pick up from, say, a hardware store. The wall display of screws and nails, it's like a candy shop.