Profile: Brian Bolke
Talk About It
Profile: Brian Bolke
If Stanley Marcus has a cultural successor in Dallas merchandising, it’s arguably Brian Bolke. The co-founder and former president of nationally acclaimed Forty Five Ten, the meticulously curated fashion locale, who unveiled their flagship store on Dallas’ Main Street last winter. Notably, it’s located steps away from Neiman Marcus’ century-old flagship store and is directly connected to the private park that hosts artist Tony Tasset’s “Eye” sculpture. The building is the work of a design team led by Droese Rainey Architecture, yet the project was heavily influenced by Bolke and joint partner, Headington Companies, where Bolke now serves as a full-time consultant. The four-story retail shop and restaurant is the latest development by Headington, who has been steadily rebuilding Main Street over the past decade.
In the elegant Copper Bar located off the lobby of his new store, Brian sat down with Columns to talk about fashion, architecture and how they meet in Dallas.
Having personally worked on this new store, I recall it was a dream project for everyone on the design team. How does it feel from your perspective?
We have moments after being situated in this building for almost a year where it all seems completely normal. I will look outside and remember that I cannot believe that we are now in downtown Dallas.
There was much consternation on this project from the city’s regulatory perspective, but whether you like this project or not, no one can argue that it’s transformative for downtown. I don’t mean in regards to selling an expensive purse, for example; but about how we think of this city and how we interact with it. The hardest part was anticipating how people would enter the building and experience it.
The number of people that come into this building that do not realize that it is new construction amazes me. Accomplishing that in an urban environment with a sensitivity to preservation makes it a home run. In the very beginning of the conceptual design phase, we certainly had the ability to build something ultra-contemporary. I think that was the smartest decision we made: not going overtly traditional or contemporary. From a design perspective, I would not place this store anywhere else in the world.
The gutsiest move was the black brick. The building is quite simple by nature, therefore it allows the brick to speak. Headington felt that this had to be a 50-year project. We certainly took the process of design from that perspective.
How does Forty Five Ten reflect Dallas’ own culture?
To offer Dallas something that they could get anywhere is meaningless. If it’s too localized then people feel it’s not enough; but, if you become too much of somewhere else, Dallasites don’t like it either. It creates a very unusual place and synergy for what works here.
You cannot say that downtown was only about Neiman Marcus in the first half of the 20th century. It was a bustling place that people locally, regionally and in some cases, internationally, came to both because of Neiman Marcus and a million other amazing stores, people, and products. Dallas was the centerpiece for how people transferred product. It isn’t here for nothing.
Interestingly, the legacy of Dallas moved from this bustling yet glamourous businesslike metropolis to a very “over the top” false glamour that congealed in the ‘80s after the television show, Dallas. The irony for me was that, when I moved here, I saw none of that.
How do you imagine Forty Five Ten will adapt with time?
You must build that exact question into your daily operations. That is why we went with the Knoll furniture. I wanted things that would last – even if perhaps fabrics need replacing in the long term. We also put a lot of attention on the lighting [designed by Essential Light Design Studio]. The things that we can do with lighting in this building and the exposed fixtures were atypical of what is happening in the world. If you really think about it, it became one of the strongest design elements of the store.
The beauty of retail architecture, which I think is the stepchild of the industry, is it is the most consumer focused. People think fashion is ephemeral, changing and trendy. Fashion reflects our times, and how people relate to the world around them. This is why I love it. It is so exciting. What I love most about this industry is that, when you make a mistake, you never have to relive it.
Stores are emotional touchstones for people. How they relate to shopping with their grandmother or picking a dress for their wedding, or buying a gift for their daughter is very meaningful to them. If you think of all those emotional touchstones for people when they go shopping it is very significant.
After reading about the gloom and doom of this retail apocalypse that we live in, if we offer a little bit of hope or respite to that then I cannot ask for more.
How has the internet impacted retailing and what has changed?
Using the internet for shopping was not a viable concept early on. Now, the idea of going into a store is as foreign as the concept of buying anything but a book online 10 years ago. How you choose all those things are part of the deep psyche of how we live. People now ask, “Why would I leave my house?” This is a huge challenge to overcome. It’s what is hurting our retail society. I think it is such an interesting time to be in this business. This is about people and behavior.
Fashion is a reflection of the times. The biggest shift happening in our industry right now is that no one says, wants, acts, or consumes the way they used to do so. Even if you are buying an expensive handbag, your reasons for buying it are completely different. People are consuming as much as ever - It is the nature of human beings. How they are consuming and why they are consuming are what has changed. That is the challenge of what we do.
What we are seeing happening in fashion now is that the most cutting-edge brands accomplish this through the design of their products, visual marketing and their stores. Prada is a perfect example. The firm has always been known for high design concepts in the creation of their stores, but now their store designers are creating something that clearly reflects their brand but also reflects the context of each store’s location. If you see Prada in Saint Bart’s it has nothing to do with Prada in Milan or London. I think that is very important in retail today.
I am fortunate to travel to a lot of places, but I am fascinated by stores. I happen to be in a moment where I am traveling a lot to Dubai, South Africa, throughout Europe and New York. Ten years ago, if you went to all those places, you would see the same thing. Now retailers in those markets are doing completely different things. I think the idea of having to look at the plans to know what city it is in has past us.
When Neiman Marcus expanded in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the stores were about beautiful architecture and amazing art that the public had never seen on that scale and quality in a retail environment. For us, it’s about defining codes of fashion. When it comes to marketing, if you took our logo off and you didn’t know it was us, then we didn’t do our job. If we built a store and you didn’t know it was our store, then we didn’t do our job.
You went to University of California, Davis and studied environmental design. What did you focus on and how did that lead you into your career?
I spent my entire childhood wanting to be a car designer, but engineering was not my strong suit so I shifted into environmental design. UC Davis was an amazing school to attend because it was extremely multidisciplinary. You quickly found what did not interest you and that editing process was very important to me.
I became very interested in retailing, and I started working for I Magnin. I loved it because I didn’t have to worry about HVAC or structural design. Store design was much more about expressing conceptually what the fashion designers wanted to convey. My early work was on shop design for Romeo Gigli and Donna Karan. It was the beginning of the designer shop era and I loved that aspect very much.
There is a fine line separating design that works and design that looks good. Neither one alone is truly good design. It is a very fascinating duality. Designers that are only focused on understanding how it functions typically do not think innovatively on how the consumer will respond experientially.
You arrived here from California in the early 90s in a particularly bad economy; why did you come to Dallas?
My parents had moved here in 1986 when I finished high school. This was the year that Stanley Korshak opened at The Crescent, designed by Philip Johnson, FAIA. I remember walking in there and it was the most incredible store that I had ever walked into. It was one of the most glamorous and avant garde stores that I had ever seen, and it was the first time that I truly was affected by retail. I associated this with Dallas after that experience.
I came to Dallas in 1994 after having lived in California my whole life. I was working for Neiman Marcus, and my office was in Renaissance Tower. Because we didn’t have emails or faxes, I would walk by the Praetorian every day on the way to the store. I remember this stretch of Main Street was part of my DNA.
I fell in love with this city, and I could do something here and be successful at something I loved. There was something about being here in Dallas and being supported by the city that spoke so highly of the Dallas culture.
What responsibilities do you feel in return to the Dallas community?
If you have the ability through what you do to help, then you have a responsibility to do so. I cannot expect our customers to support us if we are not supporting them through the city we have all chosen to live in. You cannot just take. I’m not stating that I’m the most charitable person, but I really believe, as much as you take you have to give.
With your background and experience in design, do you have any aspirations for bigger things?
The biggest luxury of my life is making things look easy. You want everything to look effortless, but nothing is effortless. You worked on this store, how effortless was it? This was the most non-effortless project ever, but if, in the end, people see the lumps and bumps in the effort, it’s not beautiful. That is fashion as a reflection of our society. Fashion is about looking beautiful and effortless.
How does the relationship between Forty Five Ten and Headington Companies operate?
Forty Five Ten is an extraordinary retailer, and Headington is extraordinary in operations and hospitality. They lean on each other to be the experts at what we are good at. The intersection of retail and hospitality is huge, especially today. I think it is a great combination. You can’t just be a great retailer anymore and not be in the hospitality business. The two completely dovetail.’
Interview by James Adams, AIA, RIBA, a senior associate with Corgan.