This article is part of our special report on global shopping.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Bogotá’s burgeoning Colombia-only “concept stores” offer shoppers an adventurous twist on the retail experience and a chance for aspiring designers to publicize their wares.
These variety stores give newer brands an upscale environment to showcase new clothing, footwear, home accessories, beauty products and more. It’s a brick-and-mortar marketing opportunity that they couldn’t easily build on their own. The largest of these concept stores works with up to 200 local labels arranged on shelves and racks to showcase them to their best advantage.
The inventory shuffles quickly and new designers can be featured as often as every month. When shoppers can keep up, they have an efficient way to keep up with the country’s latest trends while also snagging deals on new brands before they catch on.
“We update here every 15 days,” said Catalina Huertas, co-owner of Ba hué. “We’re changing the whole store. We just mix everything together.”
Ba hué opened four years ago in Bogotá’s Quinta Camacho neighborhood, known for its orderly streets of red-brick Tudor-style houses, a remnant of the country’s fascination with European design a century ago. The bustling shop’s success – it’s been open for about four years – shows how much Colombian tastes have turned inwards.
The store occupies both levels of a mansion on a Grade I listed street, and shoppers wander through a maze of small rooms and up a creaking staircase to examine the wares. It’s a fashion house of sorts, with murals on the walls and ceilings and mismatched woods and tiles on the floors.
Ms. Huertas and her business partner Juan Baquero have known each other since childhood; Her parents were best friends, and they are. The store has a family-owned feel, but one that’s been jazzed up by in-demand brands like New Anchor, Della Terra, and Pluvo. Ba hué, which sells infused ice cubes on the doorstep, caters more to younger shoppers and is the city’s only retailer for the established Urban Rock brand.
Almost all of the clothing is unisex – still a strange concept in Colombia, according to Mr. Baquero – and what stands out are casual blouses, pants, boots and sportswear, the kind of attire that would work at an art gallery opening or later, at dinner on the patio one of the many restaurants of Quinta Camacho. There are numerous jewelry boxes, sunglass racks, candle racks, and a whole room of skincare products.
Like other concept store owners, Ba hué owners talk about having more than a transactional relationship with customers. “We want them to fully enjoy the shopping experience,” said Ms. Huertas. To that end, they’ve opened a full-service coffee shop in the backyard where people can hang out, work on laptops, share a latte or glass of wine, and have regular chats with designers, brand launches, or tastings from local breweries.
Ba hué aims to leave customers in the dark by pairing well-known brands with merchandise from total strangers. The shop advertises itself as an incubator for new talent and even carries the work of local fashion students, which shows promise, although that’s also a business strategy.
“We believe that if we identify them at a very early stage, we can grow with them,” Ms. Huertas said. “And the people who come here will see different things than what they will see in other stores.”
At the other end of the concept store spectrum, St. Dom is located on Bogotá’s famous Calle 79B, traditionally known as Antique Street but has transformed into an entire neighborhood of restaurants and international retail outlets catering to the upscale consumer.
St. Dom boasts of inventing the concept just for Colombia eight years ago when it opened its first store in Cartagena. It quickly grew into a place where tourists from around the world could purchase locally designed items to take home. Befitting the port city, the place has a beach vibe, as described by its co-founder Maya Memovic.
When the business decided to set up a second location in Bogotá, things went in a completely different direction. St. Dom Bogotá is elegant like an upscale department store, with glass doors that open automatically, oversized picture windows framing the merchandise for street views, and mannequins in chic evening wear positioned throughout the exhibition spaces. He wears a variety of clothing, but it’s the elegant handbags, necklaces and ankle-high leather boots that define his personality.
Ms. Memovic, who grew up in New York, built the store with her Colombian husband, Alexander Srour. St. Dom has three levels that visitors access via a winding, glass-enclosed staircase surrounded by tropical plants and trees.
Compared to the Cartagena store, St. Dom Bogotá’s curation is “much more urban,” Ms. Memovic said. “Most of the clothes are urban or evening wear appropriate to the climate and the city.”
St. Dom’s carries both established and emerging lines, a mix of Ballen, Cala de la Cruz, Camilo Franco and Polite, as well as their in-house brand Azulu. On the top floor there is a large – and playful – children’s clothing department called St. Dom Mini.
Like its location in Cartagena, St. Dom Bogotá aims to attract locals and tourists alike. Ms Memovic said her New York upbringing combined with her time in Colombia gave her an eye for what’s being played internationally. She avoids what she describes as clichés associated with traditional Colombian design — “big sleeves, lots of ruffles and prints, and big earrings” — by offering sophisticated jackets from Cubel and unexpected pieces like snakeskin-print shoes from footwear brand Kaanas or a in stock light green motorcycle jacket from Otros Inc.
Ms Memovic described the typical St. Dom garb as something different that is “unique to the country but also works anywhere in the world”.
“It’s a great pair of shoes or a great dress to wear in New York,” she continued, “and people are going to be like, ‘That’s cool. I’d like to know where it came from.’”