In recent years, luxury retailers in China have recognised the importance of designing immersive, experiential spaces for shoppers. Despite the growth of online shopping, offline shopping remains a crucial component of the luxury industry. Luxury retailers, like renowned luxury department store chain SKP, are moving towards creating spaces that not only showcase brands but also provide unique experiences, blending elements of art, culture, and of course, digital.
SKP was founded and operated by Beijing Hualian Group, one of the largest Chinese retail enterprises. With flagship stores SKP and SKP-S in Beijing as well as Xi’an, SKP is setting a new standard for shopping malls that is truly unique. SKP-S is not just a shopping mall, but a work of art that showcases the best of design and architecture. The mall is a haven for shoppers looking for luxury brands, and its design is a reflection of the elegance and sophistication that SKP represents.
Just before the end of 2022, SKP opened Asia’s first largest sunken luxury shopping mall in the up-and-coming city of Chengdu. The space, designed to look like a park, includes 33 different landscapes and hosts over 1,300 brands comprising SKP amd SKP-S department stores. On social media, the space has been dubbed a “palace-like underground world”.
The Luxury Conversation had the exclusive opportunity to talk to the creative masters behind SKP, co-founders Simon Mitchell & Torquil McIntosh of the innovative architecture and design studio Sybarite. The two shared with us their vision for the mall and the inspiration behind its design.
Tell us about Sybarite and the approach you take to architecture and design
Simon Mitchell, Co-Founder, Sybarite: Sybarite is an architecture and design studio best known for innovative retail design. Myself and my business partner Torquil McIntosh co-founded the studio 21 years ago with a niche specialism of retail and all that naturally bolts on by way of experience and lifestyle. We have always gravitated toward pioneering clients and their inspiring projects to support our own expansive viewpoint. Our intention was a holistic approach, and, as such, our projects intentionally traverse the boundaries of many of the arts disciplines. Our portfolio supports our belief in engaging in projects of all scales working from the micro to the macro, as minute as a lift button, all the way through to a mega mixed-use masterplan such as the latest 190-acre site of SKP Chengdu recently unveiled.
Let’s talk about the incredible new space, SKP Chengdu — how it is different from other Sybarite projects?
Torquil McIntosh, Co-Founder, Sybarite: The scale is the main point of difference, it was an opportunity to put into practice all that we have developed for SKP retail operators and more. This is an exponential expansion on the other projects in Beijing and Xi’an and a culmination of all that we have developed for the client in terms of both contemporary and next generation retail.
The unique feature of SKP Chengdu is the ingenious combination of urban park and underground building. Its realisation comes from the ingenious conception and close cooperation of the ground landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations, well known for his projects namely The High Line in New York.
The site of 260.000m2 was excavated more than 30 metres below ground to construct the interchange of three new subway lines. An innovative and sustainable blueprint was proposed presenting the largest sunken luxury retail space of its kind covering 190 acres with 99% of the buildings below the horizontal plane.
The project was three years in the making and masterminded to boast a colossal half a million square metres of mixed-use retail and hospitality.
There is a magnificence to it, in that you arrive at a pure park – an uninterrupted vista and only upon closer proximity and once immersed in the environment does the customer get a hint of what lies beneath. The parallel connection of park and corresponding plunging architecture emerges as if quarried into the landscape akin to a canyon as one descends. Although sunken, it is importantly light drenched and airy. Retail, hospitality, experience and art are constantly in motion, evolving and changing, and yet underpinned by a common narrative – a celebration of diversity living under one ‘roof’. From a bird’s-eye view, SKP Park artistically weaves shopping space and vegetation into a beautiful botanical quilt.
“I see SKP Chengdu like a symphony, a lengthy composition with several movements that have rhythm, a pulse and that crescendo every so often”. “Our ambition in designing this immense destination whose sum of parts come together to evolve the dexterous SKP language and retail offer that we conceived some ten years ago on an exponential level”.
– Torquil McIntosh, Sybarite Co-Founder
“SKP Chengdu is a world-class shopping destination immersed in a luxuriant green landscape. The experience of shopping is taken to a new level with the visitors strolling through a beautifully crafted landscape filled with art, culture and nature. SKP Chengdu sets a new paradigm for a contemporary retail development and urban life”.
– James Corner, Field Operations.
You mentioned “storytelling through creating experiences that merge the brand into an environment” – how does Sybarite approach and execute this in physical spaces?
Simon Mitchell, Co-Founder, Sybarite: Our approach at Sybarite is to begin first and foremost with looking at what constitutes the essential DNA of the brands that we are proposing an architectural and design concept and solution for. This is why our holistic approach is very important because our aim is always to derive a set of subliminal codes that will be realised in the architectural and design form – these will uniquely stand for that brand and that operator. We look at things from a branding perspective firstly and are often involved in rebranding, brand diversification and repositioning projects. The customer should feel that they are in a recognisably branded environment but that should never be overbranded and therefore not reliant on the brand name above the door as the sole signifier.
If a designer has done their job very well the experience will resonate for quite some time and instill a feeling for return and secure brand loyalty.
The design of SKP Chengdu embodies the concept of the parallel world, can you elaborate on this?
Torquil McIntosh, Co-Founder, Sybarite: The idea of parallel worlds as the lynchpin to the design concept starts with the gardens.
In an abstract sense, there are multiple worlds that exist within the individual worlds of SKP-S and SKP and these offer unique experiences. The gardens are more than an expression of nature, they communicate stories, and they act as the foundation for what lies in parallel and elegantly sunken beneath – the word of retail, hospitality and ultimately experiential design.
At SKP Chengdu, the parallel world and our journey through it is a metaphor for a world in motion that evolves and changes. The Parallel World is a place which embodies possibility and betterment – an elevated experience and a symbol for what could be.
SKP Chengdu is a place shaped by familiarity, possibility, and instinct – a place of fierce optimism. It is where destiny is calling us. A story of the journey of humanity, the possibilities and challenges of endless curiosity and captures our instinctive desire to explore.
The journey from SKP to SKP-S is one from elegance to energy and demonstrates an interconnectedness fuelled by momentum. SKP-S has a distinctive story here at Chengdu, this is the next ‘episode’, previous SKP-S destinations have been at Beijing where we imagined moving to Mars and Xi’an where the nostalgia of returning to a devastated Earth for rebirth post pandemic were showcased ad the underlying narrative. SKP-S has always been about seeing things in a different dimension linked to otherworldliness. Hence the robotics and art curation that ties in with this vision and that these department stores are about ‘experience per square metre’ in a laboratory-like immersive environment.
We often talk about a “Phygital” world in China, merging offline and online – how much does this concept impact your China projects?
Torquil McIntosh, Co-Founder, Sybarite: Retail is about experience and enhancing that experience. The experience must always be relevant to the here and now and relate to the future. Retail relies on newness and as designers and architects that is front of mind, but we have to future-proof our work as much as we can – transformability and agility are key considerations and deliverables. The projects must speak of culture and the sentiments of our day and beyond, and intrinsically communicate the globalisation of culture and ideas. Although our projects embrace the physicality of store design there is a natural and continual convergence that we must navigate. For instance, if we look at SKP-S and how a sense of otherworldliness has been achieved this is a place this takes the customer on a journey of discovery well beyond the physicality of a bricks and mortar store.
How do you see the Metaverse affecting architectural design?
Simon Mitchell, Co-Founder, Sybarite: The Metaverse is an interesting conversation. As an architect, the metaverse offers us the opportunity to design devoid of any laws, gravity, permits, construction worker, material shortages and promises limitless possibilities. Naturally architects, through an awareness of the past, are positioned to design for the future.
Although the metaverse offers the chance to take our designs beyond the physical realm and experiment. For the integrity of the rendition to be as sophisticated as we would want it to be it requires faster bandwidth for the live streaming to accurately represent materiality. Like any world or city – the metaverse needs good architects its about realising the design authentically that matters.
A Sybarite is a devotee of luxury and pleasure with an appreciation for the finer things in life.
For architects Torquil McIntosh and Simon Mitchell, the co-founders of Sybarite, the name perfectly described the company culture they wanted to create back in 2002. Now, twenty one years later, the London-based architectural and design studio continues to innovate and inspire in the global world of luxury fashion, retail and hospitality, bringing a creative vision to projects that makes them outstanding. The studio’s projects can be seen in cities all over the world, with international fashion brands among their clients.
Eleven years ago, Sybarite began working in Asia, with the transformation of Shin Kong Place, a shopping mall in Beijing, China, into SKP Beijing, a luxury department store. Following the success of SKP Beijing, Sybarite created a new 20-storey, luxury landmark SKP store in Xi’an, China’s former capital, currently China’s largest luxury department store with over 1000 brands. SKP-S Beijing opened in 2019, located opposite the original SKP store and is regarded as offering a benchmark experiential retail experience, this was followed by SKP-S in Xi’an in 2021. In December 2022, SKP Chengdu was unveiled – the first sunken luxury masterplan of its kind sitting in parallel to a park which was created for the citizens of Chengdu.
Sybarite continues to design and conceptualise department stores, shopping malls, hospitality projects, monobrand and lifestyle projects in both the traditional and experiential worlds for notable clients internationally.