Row upon row of iconic paper shopping bags adorned the interior of 96 Passeig de Gràcia from February 3rd to June 27th this year. These items, depicting over 40 years of design, were set up as a tribute to the iconic Barcelona design and furniture store, Vinçon, which on June 30th, announced its closure after seventy-four years of business.
Whilst the company telephone-line remains active, in a sweet gesture to unaware and confused customers, the shop itself is out of bounds to the general public. Vinçon’s decision to close came after several years of struggle and prolonged contemplation over whether or not to down-scale. The official statement released about the shop’s closure directly cites “the crisis” as a significant factor. Indeed, Vinçon had been unable to withstand the fallout of the ‘Great Spanish Depression’, suffering an average 10% fall in annual sales since the start of the recession in 2008. The final blow to the store was a devastating 50% drop in sales in 2015.
The apologetic statement also speaks of the pressures to fit with the mass-production methods of contemporary retail. But what else does the closure of Vinçon signal? changes in consumer taste, a departure from Barcelona’s design tradition, inadequate market positioning or even pressures from e-commerce?
Founded in 1941 by Hugo Vinçon and Enrique Levi, Vinçon was during its early years somewhat inconspicuous, blending in with the surrounding shops. Sixteen years later, in 1957, the shop was sold to Jacinto Amat who had been working there as a sales assistant. It was only ten years later, in 1967, following a drastic re-branding by the Amat family, that Vinçon came to be known as a trend-setter and fundamental element of the Barcelona design scene. Following the Amat’s creative renovation, the store resembled more a design museum than a furniture shop, boasting large windows, sophisticated flooring and displays, appearing almost as a small-scale version of famous department stores such as Selfridges (London) or Macy’s (New York).
The radical concept that drove Vinçon’s re-invention was the idea of offering an alternative product, different from the public’s demand. To achieve this, the Amats opted to think outside of the box (or shop) by inviting artists and graphic designers to contribute towards what subsequently became part of Vinçon´s defining character. The store collaborated with renowned artists and designers including Barcelona packaging designer, Pati Núñez, Catalan architect Juli Capella and Argentinian illustrator America Sanchez, who designed the Vinçon logo in 1972.
In 1973, La Sala Vinçon, the store’s gallery was opened on the ground floor, which hosted an average of five exhibitions annually up until the very end. The Amat family moulded Vinçon into a playground for the middle-class who could both entertain their shopping habits and nurture their cultural curiosity. It was a place which contributed to launching the careers of numerous Spanish and international designers. Vinçon was known for its great flair and originality, becoming an impeccable showcase of quality items.
Positioned just below the higher range of the retail scale, Vinçon’s main clientele was not the wealthy, but the middle-class, arguably the most heavily afflicted by the financial crisis. Tourists replaced the local middle-class and provided Vinçon with most of its income in its later years. The shop’s website stated in its final days that: “sales from tourists accounts for much of our business because the crisis has staggered sales from local customers. In order to orientate our business toward tourists, a major change to our collection of products would have to be made. Overseas visitors, rarely shop much of our selected and displayed objects such as furniture, lamps, knives, etc.”
Many comparisons could be made with Habitat, the celebrated British design brand founded by Terence Conran in 1964, which suffered a similar fate to Vinçon. In 2009, less than half a century later, Habitat was unable to continue operating independently. The furniture company, which had been a key player in the modernisation of the British middle-class through the introduction of flat-pack furniture and distinctive homeware was sold to the the IKANO Group (which also owns Ikea). Shifting the production of the designs from private warehouses to large-scale factories, the new management of the historic design shop only went against Habitat’s identity, by lowering production standards. This change in direction was ultimately an unsuccessful venture and only 3 out of 33 U.K. stores still remain open today. Rather than following an uncertain path and risking tainting its reputation, Vinçon remained true to its founding principals by resisting the temptation to lower the quality of its products, although this ultimately resulted in the closure of the store.
Following the announcement of the shop’s closure, Vinçon’s blog became a sort of memorial page for local and international shoppers to express their dismay at the loss of one of Spain´s most iconic shops. The loyalty of Vinçon’s customers and its global recognition is a testament to its uniqueness; a bittersweet reward. One contributor, Tony Gallard, summed up the general sentiment of the public: “Barcelona will never be the same without Vinçon”. However, Barcelona had begun to change long before, Vinçon’s closure could rather be seen as symptomatic of the city’s much larger problems.
The Catalonian capital, a city of 1.6 million inhabitants, has been receiving soaring numbers of visitors for more than the last 20 years, transforming its identity. The weak euro attracted a record nine million tourists in the region in 2015, who contributed to driving prices up and making accommodation more scarce. The local authorities and residents fear that the city could become an overpriced tourist ‘theme park’ and as such, a number of measures have been taken in recent years. For example, Gaudi’s renowned Park Güell now charges entry to limit its capacity, with free access only available to local residents; and to reduce the influx of tourists, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau resolved against granting new licenses for tourist accommodation for a year.
The city’s famous market, La Boqueria, is currently facing a similar dilemma to Vinçon. Its increasing numbers of tourists pushes away the locals, who ultimately prefer to shop in alternative places. The tourists themselves have different needs and despite being eager to purchase the odd souvenir, they do not have the scope to buy on a regular basis large quantities of fruits and vegetables as the local residents might. Changes in the demand ultimately change the offer, which is why the local authorities are discussing limiting access to the market to preserve the livelihood of the numerous market stall holders. This is sadly the price of success but also a cautionary tale. Many shops strive to become famous, but once the crowds arrive to take snapshots of the buildings and products, the spirit of the shop fizzles away and sales dwindle.
Despite Vinçon’s bags and various other items becoming cult objects, emblematic of Catalan design, the vast store was ultimately unable to keep up with the far vaster world of mass-produced goods sold in big box stores or online.
What has become obvious, is that respect from peers and wide-spread affection amongst the public does not suffice in keeping a business alive. Evidently, what is needed is an acute understanding of current consumer habits and e-commerce in particular, and the ability either to produce cheap objects en masse or to ensure that the brand is situated firmly within the category of luxury goods as it seems that only the very low and high end of the market managed to overcome the troubles spawned from the European economic collapse.
The closure of Vinçon therefore begs the question: is there still a market in the middle ground, between luxury and mass-production or is this reserved for the past? In either case, the hole that Vinçon has left on the Passeig de Gràcia will be a difficult one to fill, and the daunting reality is that if the economy and the retail industry continue to move in this direction, many more other empty spaces will appear on high streets all over the world. But such is the retail world, another cruel fight for survival.
Contemplating upon Vinçon and its legacy is like browsing through the pages of a family album, the three-generations of the Amat family who through their store attempted to offer an alternative, adding a glimpse of personality and uniqueness in the high street. To the end, the Amats stayed true to their philosophy, and despite it all, Vinçon will remain immortalised within Spanish retail history and beyond.
Written by Juliette Wallace and Rosamund Pearson