Over the next 10 months, Aje plans to open 11 stand-alone Aje Athletica stores in Westfield and AMP-owned shopping centres across Australia and New Zealand. The first store is set to open in Westfield Sydney in late September, pending the easing of New South Wales’ Covid-19 restrictions, followed by a store in Karrinyup in Perth in October.
Designed by Pro Space, the stores are intended to be a physical manifestation of Aje Athletica’s mantra: performance through well-being. They will feature natural materials, such as metal and rock, and organic curves inspired by the sculptures of Richard Serra.
“We’re calling them sanctuaries rather than stores. When you walk in, it won’t have the feeling of a normal retail store,” Norris told Inside Retail.
Products will be displayed according to a strict visual merchandising plan, with only three sizes — 8, 12 and 16 — on the rack and other sizes kept in an open storage solution on the shop floor, which customers will be able to access if they want to try something on.
“For me, it was about elevating the product and treating it in the same way that we treat the products in an Aje store,” Norris said about the design of the Aje Athletica stores.
“So, really highlighting that [the product is] beautifully made with 70 per cent sustainable fabrics, and making it an object of desire, rather than just another mass-produced thing slapped on a rack, which I think a lot of brands in the athletic space are doing at the moment.”
Aje Athletica products are currently available in sizes 4 to 18, but the brand plans to go up to size 22 in the near future.
Not afraid to open bricks-and-mortar stores
The rollout will take the fashion brand’s physical footprint to 33 stand-alone stores by the end of FY22. Aje currently has 20 stand-alone stores under its main banner and plans to open three more over the next four months.
“I’m not afraid to open stores,” Norris said. “When you do it well, it’s a really incredible business.”
The key to doing it well — according to Norris — is choosing the right locations, listening to what customers actually want and providing great customer service.
“When you listen to your customers, you can understand where they want a store and what they want in those stores,” he said.
For instance, Aje tends to make dresses that have a lot of volume — read, high fabric costs — out of cotton or linen, rather than silk, so the price isn’t completely out of reach for its customers.
“It’s just being smart about things — designing and selling what the customer wants and giving them the full experience,” he said. “I think people can sometimes get into the trap of designing for their own egos.”
When it comes to the cost of operating bricks-and-mortar stores, Norris chooses to view it as part of the brand’s marketing budget.
“I always say that bricks-and-mortar is a funnel. When people walk past the store and they [come in and] purchase and have a great experience, they’re more likely to become an online customer and vice versa,” he said.
“That’s probably what [other] people don’t get. They treat them as stand-alone entities within their business. But for us, it’s all about an omnichannel experience and bringing those customers on the journey whether it’s in-store or online.”
But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for good customer service.
“You could open stores everywhere in the best locations with the best products, and if you don’t offer the best customer service, people aren’t going to keep coming back,” he said. “That’s the key to success in bricks-and-mortar.”
Growing global presence
This approach appears to be working. Between FY17 and FY20, Aje’s revenue increased over 600 per cent, and in FY21, despite the impact of store closures and the decline in discretionary spending, revenue grew 47 per cent.
The brand is also gaining traction overseas. After its Resort 2022 show in May, Aje picked up 16 new international stockists, including Browns, Harrods and Galeries Lafayette. They are in addition to its existing international stockists, which include Nordstrom, Saks, Matches Fashion and Moda Operandi.
Norris’s next move will be to open stand-alone Aje stores overseas.
“As soon as I’m allowed to travel again, I will definitely be going over to America to see where we can open the first one,” he said.