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- 10 Nov 2015
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In Conversation With Iain Watson, Managing Director, David Collins Studio

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Fresh from the firm’s 30th anniversary celebrations last month, the head of David Collins Studio takes us into the world of opulent interior design and reveals what it’s like to create for some of luxury’s largest names, including Kering.

If the “devil is in the details”, then the crew at David Collins have mastered the art to a wicked degree.

So devilishly divine are their designs, that even luxury behemoths such as Kering and Bergdorf Goodman, Harrods, and Graff, have acquiesced, and signed them on for extensive projects – including the most recent rollout of the Alexander McQueen flagship Paris store, on the prestigious Rue Saint-Honoré.


 The charge to oversee a business which inspires luxury consumers to buy falls largely on Watson’s shoulders  


As Managing Director, the hefty charge to oversee a business which inspires luxury consumers to enter, experience and purchase a brand’s products, falls largely on Iain Watson’s shoulders – though it doesn’t seem to have weighed on him one bit.

Speaking exclusively to Luxury Society about his responsibilities, the challenges involved in orchestrating strings of global projects and the minutiae involved in working and negotiating with both the Davids and Goliaths in the luxury game, he enthuses a passion and preciseness intrinsic of those creative maestros that envision grand artistic scenes in their sleep.

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges – “aggressive timelines”, coupled with international sourcing webs and cultural considerations to grapple with, make every project an undertaking – but as Watson reveals, they haven’t made a dent in the firm’s growth.


 There’s been a shift, probably in the last 18 months, where most of our projects are overseas 


“Now we are also doing larger scale projects, and there’s been a shift, probably in the last 18 months, where most of our projects are overseas. Primarily in the US, which is about 40%, then about 40% in the Far East – so, mainly Thailand and Hong Kong – and then the Middle East. So we are growing and changing, both in in terms of projects and clientele,” he says.

Furthermore, he concedes that the very environment for interior design is evolving and becoming ever more interesting, fuelled by a rise in sustainability targets for both material and sourcing routes, and increased retail competition – all of which is pushing the bar higher for brands across the board – making his job both parts considerably more challenging and intriguing.

Here, fresh from the firm’s 30th anniversary celebrations last month, Watson takes us into the world of luxury interior design, as we’ve never seen it before.


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The David Collins Studio team: Iain Watson, third from left


Tell me a bit about the David Collins Studio business, your role and how the company has evolved since inception.

I joined the company in 1988 to assist David Collins, and up until then, I had studied business and economics, but I had a great passion for design. At the time it was still quite a small with some private architectural work, business projects, and then some hospitality work in restaurants – so the mix is almost the same in terms of categories, but the breadth of skill we are working with and geography is quite different in terms of where the jobs are coming from.

The business then evolved though through a client which became a main client of ours, and she came to us with a concept for a client who wanted to expand nationwide, so this was a big brief and this client had big plans to change the face of the UK high street.

So through this job, and because we had to comply to a pretty aggressive timeline for this job, what had originally been an office of three or four, then became six, and then we relocated and became 12, and then within a year it became 30 people. So what was a very small company, then became much larger and my role was really just to manage the transition and the business development and client services.


 We are growing and changing, both in terms of projects and clientele 


From there we started expanding into other markets as well – the US for example. We had done some private residential work in America before, but our first big commercial project with some noise around it was a hair salon in the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman.

So that kind of pushed us into our next international arena, and soon after we started some other work in Thailand and other areas in that region – and now, Asia is a substantial part of our business – along with the Middle East.

Then we relocated again, as we grew organically, to where we are now – with approximately 55-60 staff as we are now.

Now we are also doing larger scale projects, and there’s been a shift, probably in the last 18 months, where most of our projects are overseas. Primarily in the US, which is about 40%, then about 40% in the Far East – so, mainly Thailand and Hong Kong – and then the Middle East. So we are growing and changing, both in terms of projects and clientele.


 We are quite selective about our projects and we choose our partners carefully 


To what do you attribute this growth and what has given your business the ability to stand out from the rest?

Firstly, I think we are quite selective about our projects and we choose our partners carefully, to make sure that the timescale and the project is right. Because if anyone cuts corners in any of those areas, then the whole project suffers, so we make sure that the people that we work with have the same commitment to quality that we do.

The other thing that I think helps with growth is the dedication we have to detail quality. So, for example, the quality of the initial drawing – in terms of having those guidelines and really following those through meticulously – that has enhanced our profile and credibility in the industry and so, has attracted a certain level of clientele.

High levels of client service are also quite important, because the follow-up and follow-through build a connection with the customers who then talk about us and endorse us for other clients.


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Jimmy Choo store: Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills


Also, in terms of the quality of materials, we are very stringent about that too and that also helps with having a great reputation and having that commitment to quality known.

Commercial clients, such as Kering, also help in terms of promotion and growing the business, because often with some residential projects – as opulent as they might be, they are private so they often don’t get any coverage at all and are mainly kept under wraps.

Projects such as the global Alexander McQueen stores and Louis Leeman which we did in New York, are much talked about in social media and publications, and that also helps with visibility I suppose.


 Retail design does affect sales on some level, especially because the luxury consumer these days is so well-travelled 


There is clearly a rising demand for your firm’s services – do you believe that part of that uptake is linked to increasing competitiveness in the luxury industry?

I think yes. I think people in retail are focused on all aspects of the store, which means that they want to add context to each store, but with a design that fits and has continuity, and of course, they want it to portray their product and ethos correctly, and so, I think we add value in that way to their overall mission.

I think retail design does affect sales on some level, especially because the luxury consumer these days is so well-travelled. So, if you’re travelling around and if it looks like an identical store, you might think: “Oh, ok, I’ll just see it in the next city, and you might not go in”.


 Each project is different and has to be matched to the architecture, the city, the ambience of the place 


Brands are very sophisticated now, so when they have a retail rollout – it’s not the same as it used to be – it is retail rollout, but it’s not all the same stores or the same buildings and so the design that goes with that has evolved and it often takes some time.

Each project in that way is different and has to be matched to the architecture, the city, the ambience of the place – that has all become very evolved.

Operations are also key to any project, so each project starts with an operational plan, and then of course – you get to the fun stuff, which is layering, details, materials, shop fittings, creative lighting. But obviously it has to work as a store number one, something that is shoppable, but in terms of architectural elements, some brands might have more space – a double staircase for example, and different budgets.

But it’s a balance, and both sides have to adapt to achieve the desired result.


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The Blue Bar at the Berkeley in Knightsbridge, London


What kind of materials do you work with and which trends have you seen if any in what luxury brands are looking for?

We use lots of natural materials – wood, marble, stone – there has been a lot of use of marble in luxury stores for some time, but I think that’s really evolving if we are talking about the future ad trends which are emerging. Because I think brands are increasingly wanting to have individual finishes in their stores, which they then ‘own’ in a sense.

If you look at the Valentino store, for example, they have a very strong architectural approach – so they kind of ‘own’ that space visually – you go there and you know it’s a Valentino store as soon as you see it, because they’ve incorporated a similar approach with all of their stores.

Similarly, the Jimmy Choo store that we did – we used a special woven metal mesh material in gold and silver, in a pattern, so that has become a very Jimmy Choo signature element.


 For McQueen, we’ve got these carved panels, originally created in wax, to get the fine detailing that we needed for the feathers 


Then for McQueen, we’ve got these carved panels – which were originally created in wax – to get the fine detailing that we needed for the feathers/wings the gold, etc and that has then been created into these panels which have then been replicated across the stores.

There’s nothing like that anywhere else – whereas if you stick to marble, of course it can still be beautiful, but can end up all looking the same. The brand has to own its design, because that’s what makes it stand out.

Marble has to be carefully used, because it can be very cold to be honest. So for Jimmy Choo, we took care and used pastel colours and offset it with brushed gold fittings to give it that feeling of softness and warmth and glamour.

So we are evolving and very much about finding those materials, details and design in a way where a brand can actually ‘own’ it.


 Certain rollouts can be quite aggressive, so finding a timeline that works for both is crucial 


How do you decide on the concept and ultimately bring it to life – what is the process between firm and client?

It’s very much a mutual process. We obviously start with research, then working with the client and the team or maybe just the CEO and creative director. Then we break the concept down into a couple of stages, so an outline concept first – a big picture of initial ideas, including the the mood and direction – and then the idea for the planning of the store and the layout.

Then we have more input from the client and collaborate to reach an idea we both like, and then we get into a very, very detailed concept, which we produce and then revert back to the client again for final sign-off.

So it might be two or three versions of that concept before we get final sign-off, because it has to work on so many levels – visually, operationally, brand-wise – and it has to be beautiful and original, of course.


 Sometimes you have to incorporate some local art or artisans into the projects for different stores and that all adds to the level of complication 


The time frame is what is often hard to assess, because we have to make sure the client has the time for what we have designed, in terms of rollout and actually bringing to fruition what we have mocked up.

Because once the retail rollout momentum has begun, it will be further tested and refined and perfected – and sometimes certain rollouts can be quite aggressive, so finding a timeline that works for both is crucial.


What are the key challenges when working with luxury and how do you face these?

Challenges other than timelines, are that you have to make the concept very strong globally, but in terms of individual regions, sometimes you have to adapt.

So, sometimes, you have to incorporate local art or artisans into the projects for different stores and that all adds to the level of complication when you are working with a big rollout in different parts of the globe – and you also have to take certain cultural considerations into account. So that can all be a challenge – even at the high end.


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Delaire Graff Estate Lodges, Stellenbosch, South Africa


Having worked with luxury group giants such as Kering, what is it like creating for them – what are the special considerations to keep in mind?

Well, with fashion brands, the biggest thing is selling season, so what we have found is that as clients they’re development times are often very focused around February and September, in terms of having the stores open, so those timelines are often some of the most aggressive.

Other clients can also have very aggressive development times, however. One example is some high street cafes, where we were opening one restaurant every 10 days for about 18 months all around Britain, which was very fast-paced.

So you’ve got to have a great deal of discipline in terms of how you manage that.


 In luxury, technology is important, but it has to be subtle, it can’t be gimmicky 


How has technology impacted on luxury interior design?

I think, in luxury, technology is important, because it does also add to client service, but it has to be discreet. Because it’s not like it is in some of the bigger chains and high street, where they can have it out there and in your face – but for the luxury sector it has to be subtle, it can’t be gimmicky.

So it hasn’t really made too much of an impact, it’s remained fairly minimal and discreet.


Has there been a shift, in terms of both your retail and private clients, towards wanting more sustainable materials and interior designs?

Kering has put a big focus on its sustainability targets, but that’s actually focused more on their products.


 I think sustainability is increasing. Sometimes it’s more formal, and other times, it may come up further down the line 


But one of our clients who is building a large flagship hotel in the Middle East, also had sustainability targets so that had an impact on sourcing –where we were sourcing from – and lighting, in terms of energy efficiency.

As to whether it has increased – I think it is increasing, sometimes it’s more formal as part of the original briefing, and other times, it may come up further down the line where the client says that they prefer a particular sourcing structure – so it depends on how it happens, but it is increasing as a focus for businesses now, yes.





For more in our series of conversations with Luxury Leaders, please see our most recent editions as follows:

- In Conversation with Laurence Graff, Chairman, Graff
- In Conversation With Massimiliano Pogliani, CEO, Vertu
- In Conversation With Edie Rodriguez, CEO, Crystal Cruises



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David Collins Studio combines imagination and creativity to bring to fruition luxury interior design and architectural projects across the globe. Established in 1985 by the late David Collins and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, The Studio has redefined how people live through a series of bespoke and innovative works, each of which has a definitive sense of place.

www.davidcollins.com