User Experience: Prada Aoyama Tokyo

This Store is Alive!
And I’m Living For It

  • Text: Romany Williams

I was under constant surveillance. The only customer on the first floor of Prada Aoyama, Prada’s Herzog & de Meuron designed flagship store in Tokyo. The familiar black-and-white Prada checkered carpet under my feet and the “S” shaped couches covered in classic Prada-green velvet mesmerized me. “Strangers” by Portishead was playing on the speakers. There were no pictures allowed. I had no choice but to disobey this rule. I knew if I was going to make this work I’d have to pull it together and summon some confidence.

I came to Prada Aoyama to investigate one of the most distinguished and enigmatic luxury flagships in Tokyo. Conceived of in 2000 and completed in 2003 as part of the Prada “Epicenter Store” program, Prada Aoyama is a six-story stand-alone glass building that sits on the corner of a lot surrounded by an architectural courtyard in the Aoyama district. I walked there from Shibuya on a Friday afternoon in 45 degree heat, through the labyrinth of luxury retail stores on the Omotesandō strip.

When built 15 years ago, the space was genuinely ahead of its time, and it remains a relic of the late 90s and early 2000s. In the early millennia, we were interacting with technology with a sense of humor, and—with the exception of Y2K preppers— we seemed mostly naive to the extent of its ominous undertones. I was excited about my phone because I could have a 50 Cent ringtone, or a Baby Phat Motorola. Technology as an aesthetic was really exciting. Outdoor apparel designers were busy trying to find ways to integrate a Discman into the pocket of a snowboard jacket. From Tamagotchi to the JVC Kaboom, I thought it was all fun and games. This specific relationship to technology is what Prada Aoyama embodies. I’m being nostalgic, but in 2018, this store demands nostalgia in the most beautiful of ways. I cherish Prada collections from those days, the famous Dieter Rams quote, “Less, but better,” comes to mind. Thus, I consider Prada Aoyama and Miuccia Prada—the mastermind of it all—to be absolutely vital.

The year the store opened, the Prada Spring 2003 ready-to-wear show included models with goggles on their heads, a brilliantly mellow collection laced with bathing suits and neoprene. I wonder if Miuccia transferred this aquatic inspiration to one of the most unique features of the store, known as “snorkels.” I first encounter them on the second floor. White pedestals embellished with women’s shoes are arranged around the room, and from above, long sperm-shaped objects with small screens dangle from the ceiling. They used to be interactive, touch screen computers—think custom Prada iPad’s—but are now used to view slideshows of the most recent collections. The screens on the snorkels stop and start without reason, most likely a glitch due to their age, but at the time I convince myself that they’re sensor-activated. There’s a custom Prada pump station next to one screen with a binder of golden letters to monogram the sole of each shoe. I imagine using the screen to design my dream Prada heel. My heart immediately palpitates. In a space like this, I’m finding it easy to oscillate between my imagination and reality.

The building has many of the characteristics of a living organism—like a surreal creature from a Salvador Dali painting—and by the time I reach the “fitting tube” I’m convinced this is true. The fitting tube is a narrow mezzanine with change rooms, located between the second and third floor. At first glance it doesn’t seem to contain any anthropomorphic modifications, which turns out to be a premature assessment. I walk to the end of the tube to discover another snorkel device hanging above a white leather bench, but this one’s different, instead of a screen it has a speaker. It’s called the “sun shower.” I sit on the bench and lean in closer. I can hear the voices of a man and a woman, whispering a nonsensical fable over serene background music. I feel like I’m inside the stores’ central nervous system. No matter how hard I listen I can’t understand the story they’re telling, it’s like trying to decipher a dream, and after a few minutes their voices have me under some type of ASMR hypnosis. I could stay there all day but I realize there are still three more floors for me to explore.

On the third floor I have my epiphany. I realize that I feel like I’m in Area X—Jeff Vandermeer’s psychedelic and sinister jungle from his best-selling series of novels The Southern Reach Trilogy. The store is the mysterious living maze, and I’m the scientist, drawn deeper inside by an insatiable curiosity. The custom fire escape and first aid safety kits displayed in plain sight only accelerated this narrative in my head. The checkout counters are long white rectangles, suspended from the ceiling by three skinny arms on each end, reaching down from above like stalactites in a cave. The windows that make up the entire exterior of the building are comprised of hundreds of convex, concave, and flat panels of glass, cells joined together by a white grid, like a DNA double helix. Some of the window panes are clear glass, some are distorted glass, and some are mirrors. “These differing geometries generate facetted reflections, which enable viewers, both inside and outside the building, to see constantly changing pictures and almost cinematographic perspectives of Prada products, the city, and themselves,” says a description of the external shell on the Herzog & de Meuron website. The infinite pods are confusing to the eye and I can’t tell if the objects I’m seeing through the glass are distorted or not. It’s a material manifestation of the illusory truth effect and even though it makes me feel a little woozy, I appreciate this feature—it’s hyper-modern. Today what we see is more manufactured than ever, I welcome the reminder to keep questioning things.

Joyfully disoriented, I continued my climb to the clearance department on the fourth floor. When I step onto the plush, bone white carpet, my feet sink in leaving a trail of footprints tracking my path. I can trace the remnants of past shoppers steps. It’s a luxurious, if incredibly high-maintenance touch. I look up from the ground and realize that the clothing racks are covered in what looks like horse hair, conjuring more Dali hallucinations. I glance outside and late afternoon is starting to fade into night. Then I realize, I’ve missed the basement.

I use the staircase to descend all the way back down to the home of the men’s department. It’s the only level with hardwood floors. There’s a huge projection playing on one wall of a Matrix green, checkered sphere bouncing around while submerged in water. It looks like an old Windows PC screensaver. On another wall there are plaques detailing each of the four special collaborations from the Fall/Winter 2018 Prada nylon themed show. I had read about Rem Koolhaas’ (a frequent collaborator of the house) “frontpack” and was finally able to see it in person. The idea is a backpack in reverse, to be worn on the front to maximize accessibility. Face to face with it, I still couldn’t help but think it was slightly absurd as opposed to revolutionary, but placed within the inimitable context of Prada Aoyama, it felt like homeostasis.

At Prada Aoyama, you exit through a tunnel. An astute punctuation to the experiential nature of the store. Herzog & de Meuron designed a space that was wholly unafraid of oddity, and Prada has honored this by leaving the store free from intervention or renovation for 15 years and counting. Where other brands rely heavily on our penchant for irony, Prada remains unaffected by this often superficial tactic. The late 90s and early 2000s aesthetic has already reached peak trendiness, but Prada Aoyama gives me the feeling that Miuccia knows she played an integral role in the development of that aesthetic and she’s not the least bit insecure about coming off as dated. Here, outmoded technology coalesces with the modern shopper in a way that only Prada can craft. Experiencing this space was like a very good trip, a personal cerebral playground. I hiked through the silver aluminum lined tunnel and emerged back onto the busy street. Before I walked away I turned around and looked back in, the words from that Portishead song playing in my head: “Did you realize, no one can see inside your view. Did you realize, for why this sight belongs to you.”

Romany Williams is a stylist and editor at SSENSE.

  • Text: Romany Williams