Instead of erecting a posh new headquarters, Chinese fashion retailer JNBY founder Li Lin’s ambition led her to create a micro city in Hangzhou, a city an hour’s train ride from Shanghai.
Oōeli, the 2.5 million square foot, 17-low-rise-building campus conceived by star architect Renzo Piano, bankrolled by JNBY and architecture firm Group of Architects, or GOA, was completed in 2021 after eight years of construction.
Located within an urban sprawl known for its wetland landscape parks and the nearby Alibaba headquarters, the ambitious project also offers art, retail and hospitality in one setting. A mirror water fountain, sunken Japanese gardens, and rooftop tea gardens helped create a communal space and effectively cool the cement cluster on hot summer days.
“The project was engineered like a race car,” explains Zhou Qing, director of GOA. “The genius of Oōeli lies in the fact that the design got very granular: the style guide was very exacting, from architecture all the way down to product design. Every detail was thoroughly studied, including merchant signage systems, the landscaping system, the color of the cement,” says Zhou.
The Japanese garden at Oōeli.
An outdoor parking space at Oōeli.
“It quickly became obvious that the local government agreed with us on what makes a city look good,” she adds.
Zhou, who oversaw the project from start to finish, remembers how very early on, local officials came in swiftly and cleared up the messy streets nearby. Somewhat unexpectedly, the officials also mobilized neighboring buildings to create similar facades to fit into the Oōeli aesthetic. A better facade also sent rental rates soaring.
At Oōeli, over 10 percent of the space is dedicated to a mix of retail and art. Apart from the famous Tsutaya Bookstore, Oōeli’s experiment with fashion retail primarily exists within B1ock, a 10-story emporium that blends everything from fashion, art, vintage furniture, outdoors gear, design goods and dining to plant workshops.
B1ock is also one of the first multibrand retail projects launched by Li, but other than the deadstock JNBY fabrics carried in the shop’s basement and Theaster Gates artworks that came from Li’s art collection, B1ock’s association with JNBY stops there. As the store’s cofounder Alessio Liu explains, B1ock is focused on introducing international emerging labels to the local audience.
A Walter Van Beirendonck corner is accented by the Doodly Long Table designed by Chinese artist Zhou Yilun, which is also for sale.
With a Dover Street Market-like immersive retail experience, B1ock broke even in its second year. Its sell-through rate hovers around 85 percent.
“Our clientele are very particular about what they want: it has to be quality design but also niche enough,” says Liu. At B1ock, Piet Hein Eek-designed furniture, priced from 30,000 renminbi, or $4,129, to 100,000 renminbi, or $13,766, will sell as quickly as a pair of Lanvin sneakers.
To inject retail magic into the shopfloor, Liu’s team works with an Italian merchandising expert to rearrange the furniture, relocate brand corners, and update floral arrangements every month.
“The pandemic made it easy to target that specific audience, but this year, the customer profile has become more complicated,” Liu says of its brand list, noting a dichotomy between two consumer groups: the ultrarich and the aspirational shopper.
To reflect divergent consumer tastes, Miista and Diesel have been added to the mix, along with The Row and Brunello Cucinelli. The building’s ninth floor, initially a design workshop, will be upgraded into a VIP room and retail corners for the quiet luxury brands.
Aesop, another brand that tightly controls distribution in China, will create its first wholesale corner at B1ock in the coming months.
Rick Owens’ first furniture show in China will soon land at B1ock Gallery, which takes up the eighth floor.
Liu’s team of four buyers is also responsible for filling up shelf space across the street. Lifestyle offerings at Tsutaya, which was created as a joint venture with JNBY, and By Art Matters, the campus contemporary art museum, are handled by the B1ock buyers.
As the fashion retailer continues to evolve, it will open its second shop next May at Aranya Beidaihe, a Hampton-esque lifestyle resort in Northern China, with a second shop.
Back at Oōeli, which is a phonetic translation of “open house” in the local dialect, a new subway stop will unleash more than 50,000 square feet of underground space, making Oōeli more accessible to the public.
Oōeli Hotel, located in an 11-story building on the west corner of the complex, will soon launch after years of fine-tuning, continuing to open up the microcosm that has come to define Hangzhou’s creative future.
Oōeli not only created a lively “third space” and a hard-to-define neighborhood, the soft power of the project can be manifold. For Oōeli’s retail management team, the ambition is to to play a larger role in China’s ever-changing scene, explains Qing.