I have a very hard time finding clothing. I’m a short and slight adult male, a market segment most clothing stores accord about as much attention as unicorns. Finding a suit is nearly impossible and generally finding clothing that doesn’t require tailoring takes a special kind of patience and a tolerance for indirect putdowns. In clothing terms, I’m not so much a man or a young man, as much as a child. In order to avoid shopping next to 10-year olds, I’ve been forced to put together a mental list of places with a decent percentage of appropriately cut adult-ish clothing (usually 1–10% of what’s on the racks): H&M, DKNY, Express, The Gap, Old Navy. There are others, but H&M is one of the most consistent for finding decent clothing that I can wear off the rack. The downside is that H&M’s aren’t that common and often they’re women’s-only. Fortunately, I live near the King of Prussia Mall, the largest “naturally grown” mall in the U.S.* So when I need to search for an item of uncertain properties (in this case, some kind of button-down shirt I could wear to a casual wedding in a hot climate) I go to the KoP Mall. I was forced to visit most of the stores on my list. And once I used up all of my usual choices, I was forced to go second-tier. In other words: stores I normally ignore or don’t consider: Aeropostale, Vans, American Eagle, etc. This is how I ended up in the hyper-branded, youth-optimized, teen hipness den Hollister.
*I believe it was our friend Julie who coined that phrase. KoP, unlike the Mall of America, was not built huge. It grew through a series of expansions. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but there you go.
I admit that I’d only ever seen Hollister from the outside. Its storefront is designed in a vaguely California beach house style, with palm trees, tall glass-less windows with storm shutters, and a strong overtone of tousled, blonde, sun-drenched youth a la Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s the pornography of youth, beauty, and freedom; Ralph Lauren without the boat shoes and toe-curling priggery. This store even has a pre-entrance platform featuring cushy seats for mall-weary parents to casually hide from their child’s incomprehensible world. The promenade directly in front of the store often bustles with high schoolers who bring to mind Mercedes SUVs, entitlement, faux weathering, spring break in Cancún, and social Darwinism. Typically, Alisa and I would snicker, cringe, and walk past. Not this time. I would breech the walls alone and hope the low lights adequately hid my pale, post-collegiate countenance.
Entering into Hollister is as close to walking into an actual beach nightclub as I’ve seen in any store at a mall. The implied exclusivity, mystery, inherent hipness, dimly lit bustle of activity; it all says “just by shopping here, you enter a higher, more adult sphere, but without the boring parts”. Unfortunately, this psychic salvo is aimed at the minds of teenagers, so the air is thick with cologne that Hollister seems to judiciously impregnate all of their clothing with (more on that later). Moments after crossing the threshold, I was already annoyed and mildly nauseated. How drearily adult of me. But as a designer who is frequently considering brand identity and experience, I was impressed.
The interior has a Vietnam-era California surfer style to it that implies easygoing hipness, natural worn credibility, a simple life of effortless desirability. It’s a mash-up of plane hangar and beach house that actually works quite well, with enough accouterments to sell the concept without turning into a TGIFriday’s knick-knack box. Oh, and the interior is dark, much darker than any mall store I’ve ever been in. It’s like the set of The West Wing, with its dim halls and strong overhead direct lighting. It’s a club lounge that sells shirts and pants.
I was surprised by this approach, as it seems to fly in the face of retail wisdom: use bright lights show off the product. But in reality, it’s more like shopping in context. The movies, hanging out after dark, going to a show, going to a party; all of these events have similar lighting situations. So why not sell the clothes that way? Additionally, the lights are cleverly placed to emphasize the clothing and cast light on only what’s necessary. On a few occasions I found it aggravating (“What color are these stripes?”), but far less than I anticipated. What I found most interesting was their bold decision to carry this aesthetic right into the dressing rooms. It bothered me that I couldn’t get a fully-lit view of myself, but as I looked in the mirror, I realized the devious brilliance of it all. The lighting looks very dramatic and cool while playing down your skin’s flaws, lighting the shapes of your features and silhouette more than their surfaces. What teen wouldn’t love it? The dressing rooms carry the through-line of looking hip out in the real world all the way through the experience. Very clever.
And much to my mixed chagrin and relief, I discovered that their shirts are cut exactly the way I wear them. The sleeves are long, but I can just roll them up (which is actually how they hang them on the racks) and get them tailored later. I settled on two shirts and quickly made my way to the register, which was staffed by a young woman chatting about how she could hardly believe she “made it into work after last night.” I could feel the force field of popularity on her. She was an alpha-girl: effortlessly hip and attractive, informing school trends simply by existing. Clearly this is a job that socially-connected teens covet. And those tattoos. My, my.
After leaving the store and remembering what air smelled like on the drive home, I threw the shirts in the wash (the smell of adolescent manifest destiny practically roiled and boiled out of the bag). I tried them back on and…what’s that…do I smell…? Yes. After a run through the wash, the smell had merely dampened to a dull roar, changing its character but still insinuating itself into my nose and projecting an olfactory image I didn’t care for. I have to admit, I’ve never run into such pernicious and persistent smell-o-branding in something that wasn’t specifically sold for its scent. Hollister hits as many senses as they can, creating a total experience that can be triggered with a single cue but flood one’s memory from multiple angles. Impressive.
I hope to avoid laying eyes on the innards of Hollister again, but its hidden and subtle promises tickle my ear and flood my nose. I’ve seen the other side and survived, and I know its mark has been left on me. A man in the desert has little choice but to find water where it springs: from dark places.