Atelier1, one of the most interesting concept stores in Ukraine, is located in a Kyiv bunker built when the Soviet Union was expecting World War III. The shop has neither windows, nor a street entrance. But when you enter this hidden place, you discover a world of surprises and delight.
The design of the space, its history, and the brands it represents all give Atelier1 a special atmosphere. Fashion writer Aliona Nagornaya spoke with the store’s co-founder, Helen Khilkova, about retail design and creating a unique shopping experience for customers.
Atelier1 was founded in 2005 as the first retailer of Ukrainian designers alongside the most prestigious niche fashion brands like Comme de Garcons (an Atelier1’s anchor brand) and other avant-garde designers from Europe and Japan.
From the very beginning, it’s mission was not only to provide a commercial platform for Ukrainian designers, but also to educate Ukrainian customers. That is to teach and inform them about excellent Ukrainian brands and the need to support developing industries by buying local Ukrainian fashion and “niche” luxury brands. And, of course it goes without saying that Atelier1 aimed to provide clients with a special shopping experience.
The concept of a completely underground store was first conceived by Atelier1’s creative director, David Foley. He and co-founder Helen Khilkova were always interested in pushing the boundaries of imagination and the customer expectations.
“We like to challenge the customers’ minds, and we find it very interesting and rewarding”, says Khilkova during our meeting in Kyiv. “We are living at a time of fast fashion, but we do not offer fast fashion brands. We are doing the exact opposite: all the clothes we sell are timeless pieces that you can wear without thinking about the season and year of the collection”.
Today, in addition to Comme des Garcons, the Atelier1 brand list includes Gosha Rubchinskiy, Junya Watanabe, Julien David, Nude, Julius, PASKAL, Yulia Yefimtchuk, AREA di Barbara Bologna, etc. “That is why the selection and choice of the location for our store was not random”, Khilkova explains. “We wanted to break stereotypes in fashion regarding location and positioning”.
The underground bunker is the third Atelier1 location. It was featured in a number of international magazines and in books published in the United Kingdom and Germany about visual communication, fashion merchandising and marketing.
You enter the shop through a ground floor door and head down a long staircase into the bunker. The shop is divided into different zones. There are the Collection Rooms, the Perfume Vault, the Strong Room, and the Boiler Room — a space dominated by the original boilers and pipework. And there’s a special meeting place: the Canteen Room.
Khilkova and her team preserved the bunker’s original features and applied the sort of restoration techniques and methods that are typically used to preserve old paintings and icons. They cleaned the walls and pipes and returned the space’s original, authentic colors.
“We approach the design of our space like in the theatre, which means we attached only a very few things to the walls: permanent rails for clothes and cabinets for accessories. Otherwise, we tend to use different types of free standing constructions, displays or special fixtures to ensure that the space can be fully remodelled and changed. This is exactly the same approach and principle which is used at Dover Street Market. This way the shop is living the life of its collections and events, and it reflects the mood of the season”.
For Khilkova, keeping the store’s narrative interesting for the clients is extremely important. One can come to Atelier1 several times in a short period, and encounter a completely different shop. “It has to be interesting and exciting for people of different professions and backgrounds to feel welcome at Atelier1 — from pop stars and football players to politicians, diplomats, top lawyers and students”, Khilkova says. “We are proud to have a diverse clientele”.
Khilkova and her team often experiment with using the store’s space for special projects and presentations. For example, for the Atelier1 Barbers project, they were one of the first in Ukraine to set up a true barbershop. If featured an original hairdressing chair from the 1960’s, a medical-surgical cabinet and a specially designed free-standing mirror combined with modern bright lights.
When Khilkova and Foley were putting together the Atelier1 Collectif — the selection of Ukrainian designers to launch at Atelier1 — they requested that each designer create his or her own space within Atelier1. The designers were LUVI, Artem Klimhcuk, Anna October, Lilia Poustovit, Lilia Litkovskaya, Podolyan and Masha Reva. They had to present their vision of the space, demonstrate the concept, and show drawings and materials. Only then did the creative director and his team support them in creating their “space” in Atelier1.
For Comme des Garcons’ The Beatles Collection Launch event, Atelier1 was fully re-organized to celebrate the works of the iconic British rock band. Large posters printed on silk covered the walls and the store was decked out in Beatles memorabilia, rare collectable magazines and LPs specially brought from Britain for the event.
“Everything has to be in harmony and work well within the concept”, Khilkova summarizes. “The environment must reflect the values of the brands in store — quirky originality, purity of design, quality of finish, integrity and honesty”.
Aliona Nagornaya is a fashion journalist, former editor-in-chief of fashion magazine “Dress Code” and online platform “Buro 24/7 Ukraine”.