Champion Moves: Reigning Champ, Los Angeles and Vancouver
As I approach Reigning Champ’s Los Angeles store, the warm June day is nine hours old and the sun that governs Los Angeles is in session. The grid of asphalt patches near the South La Brea Avenue store reads as a geometrically modern evocation of the neighbourhood’s prehistoric tar pits: a fitting context for the Canadian-based streetwear brand. It’s the fourth of five Reigning Champ stores designed by Peter Cardew Architects, and the first in United States, where it serves as the brand’s flagship presence in that country.
Like Cardew’s other Reigning Champ designs—two in Vancouver, two in Toronto—the 6,000-sq.-ft. L.A. store is composed of grey steel, white tile and straight-grained hemlock sourced from British Columbia. Where the walls are untiled, they are painted white and, depending on one’s position in relation to the lighting above, are reflected in the polished concrete floor. Rather than glue-and-paper catalogues gumming up the tiled seating areas, a yawn of wall space provides a surface onto which the company projects its upcoming season.
Yet as much as these stores are outlets for premium athletic wear (ballcaps, hoodies, t-shirts and sweat pants), they function equally as a celebration of uncommodified space. If this was a bookstore, one might think it was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In the case of Reigning Champ, it is the opposite: the stores are doing fine, and the vision of availability is the desired effect.
Known for his minimalist aesthetic, Vancouver-based Cardew has led a range of projects over his fifty-plus-year career—a list that includes the Lignum Forest Products offices in Williams Lake (1978), the Crown Life Plaza in Vancouver (1978), Belkin Art Gallery (1995), Stone School in B.C.’s Chilcotin region (1996), and numerous private homes and rental apartments. Cardew has also participated in fashion and furniture retail, beginning in the early 1990s with the s.Oliver apparel shop on Robson Street, followed by home decor’s 18 Karat in the 2000s. But Reigning Champ presented a different set of circumstances.
Reigning Champ founder and owner Craig Atkinson, who spent a number of years living and working in Japan, had already achieved success with Wings & Horns, a menswear brand created in Vancouver, inspired by Japanese minimalism fused with West Coast weatherproofing. “Like Craig’s Wings + Horns, Reigning Champ is coming out of online sales,” Cardew tells me during a recent studio visit. “At a certain point there was interest in a street presence.” Although aware that online sales have wreaked havoc on bricks-and-mortar retailers, Cardew sees Atkinson and his kind as having a different agenda. “They’re interested in the theatre of it, and it’s that theatrical aspect, you see, that compels the drop-ins to order the product online, after they drop into the bricks-and-mortar store. In the modern digital world, it is no longer enough for bricks and mortar stores to simply display their wares; they must also attract customers through entertaining them.”
Their initial meeting launched a series of conversations on how a Reigning Champ store might perform. “Craig was familiar with 18 Karat, whose operation was mindful of historic English shops like Heels and more affordable versions such as Terence Conran,” says Cardew. “A more recent example is Dover Street Market, which demolishes the store every six months and rebuilds it.”
Atkinson had leased a partially renovated mid-century building and recognized its intrinsic flexibility. “Rather than trash everything, throw it out and start anew, we decided on a more sustainable, mutable approach,” says Cardew. The result is not a store whose display props come and go, but one that, like the gym concept which informs the stores, is based on movement, flexibility and fluidity.
With their spare steel-and-wood design, these six shelves, suspended from concrete beams, are the L.A. store’s most prominent feature, lending a desired lightness to its sleek clothing line, with allusions to speed, efficiency and adaptability. If the store wants to make space for an event, staff simply rearrange the shelves within the space.
As to why the hanging shelves were not used on the Robson Street store, Cardew gives an expectant nod. “The Robson location was an older wood frame with very little structural adaptability. Rather than base a design on the ceiling, we chose to use the floor.” For this, he called on long-time associate Toby Schillinger, a steel craftsman whose Toby Cycle Works began as a maker of bike frames and has since become a sought-after fabricator. What Cardew decided on was a series of wheeled shelving units anchored by vertical poles. If staff need to open the space, they adjust each unit by rotating them, which changes the character of the space in numerous ways.
As Cardew elaborates on the Robson Street millwork, a distant cheer rings out. I ask if he is following the World Cup. “Funny you should mention that,” he says, grinning, “because in celebration, Reigning Champ is hosting a foosball tournament in its stores. You know what foosball is, don’t you?” I do. A frenetically played 11-sq.-ft. table game for two or more paddlers—usually accompanied by an equally theatrical crowd. “Exactly!” says Cardew.
Michael Turner’s latest book, 9×11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven, will be published this fall by New Star Press.