Taking on the luxury world in a new way, Sam Alston, has reinvented the way women across the country have started to explore the retail market, finding rare pieces and curated products in a whole new atmosphere. It’s a shopping experience for those who want to stay in the know, ahead of the trend and support meaningful brands. We had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Alston about her inspiration and vision of the future.
What was your first inspiration to create the Big Lives conceptual shopping experience?
I’ve dreamed of having a business since I was a kid. As a five-year-old vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my family, I used to sculpt perfect sand balls and walk up and down the beach trying to sell them to strangers (my first failed business!). In high school, I started getting into fashion as a way to explore and express identity, and after college, took a job in a maternity store in Seattle where I fell in love with retail. The experience of servicing customers at such a special moment in a woman’s life deeply inspired me. A few years later I moved to NYC to get an MBA, which propelled me into the corporate fashion world, starting with the buying department at Urban Outfitters. From there, I spent six years at Louis Vuitton where, most recently, I headed up client experience for the luxury house’s Americas flagship. My experience at LV taught me what it takes to inspire, excite and build lasting relationships with clients. In 2017 while still working, I completed a start-up accelerator and created a plan to launch Big Lives, applying years of industry learnings to support up-and-coming designers through a new retail model.
Although my desire to open a store had been growing for decades, the specific idea for Big Lives came from a rejection of this idea that retail is dead. The “retail apocalypse” media thread had been amplifying for a few years, yet from where I was sitting (at LV), retail was stronger than ever, organically driven by customer relationships and improved service despite severe drops in foot traffic. I became obsessed with the “why”: which elements of retail were contributing to client relationships, and which were detracting? I started examining each piece methodically, from the customer’s perspective: service, space, technology, merchandising, narrative, design. Big Lives is a manifestation of my curiosity about the future of retail. If we didn’t have the constraints of traditional retail: a lease, a white box on the street, store hours, inventory, etc., how would we design a shopping experience that brings delight and discovery to customers?
Since launching Big Lives in November 2017 and executing our eight experiences last month for International Women’s Day, the concept has evolved and tightened: Our mission is to foster the growth of exceptional up-and-coming designers through ephemeral retail moments. Our method is designing experiences rooted in layers of discovery: we showcase the best of emerging design in remarkable spaces with elevated lifestyle partners, lasting anywhere from two hours to two days.
We believe shopping is a ritual beyond buying; it’s about creating connection. Retail in-real-life is still our most powerful lever for transmitting brand meaning to an audience that will become not only become our customers, but our advocates. Our gallery-like events are anchored in a theme or common set of values, hinge on discovery, and build community.
This event is hosted on International Women’s Day, why was it important for you to choose this day for the event?
Big Lives Women’s Day was inspired by both personal and political experiences. On a personal level, I’ve been incredibly lucky in the extraordinary female mentors I’ve had in my professional journey thus far. The common thread between these leaders has been their understanding of the power of inclusivity. Three mentors who have been particularly critical for me are: Brigid Andrews (President of Thomas Pink Americas), who inspired my absolute love of retail and the entrepreneurial mindset it takes to be successful. Yvonne Lynam (President, Piaget America) is the embodiment of what it means to put your team and people development first, and trust that results will follow. Lanessa Elrod (President of Louis Vuitton Americas) inspired me to be myself no matter what, and lead from a place of authenticity. There have been many more amazing women who’ve supported and inspired me throughout my career. From one angle, Big Lives Women’s Day was a tribute to those leaders and the retail community I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, and a lever for supporting my women colleagues and creatives by exposing their work to an interested audience and ultimately cultivating their businesses.
From a political standpoint, when we look at the retail industry, it continues to puzzle me how many fashion houses and brands have non-female creative leads when women are their primary customers. I believe in diversity and inclusivity, and simultaneously in the power of empathy and alignment between leadership and client.
One of our best-selling brands at Big Lives Women’s Day was House Dress, a size-less line designed by Katie MacDonald, “is made by women, for women who dress for women.” I think it’s important to support this type of alignment and question what impact it can have on design, business prosperity, and customer experience.
What are some of your personal favorite picks from this event’s products and brands?
I love all the brans we worked with for this event. It was remarkable to me how each resonated with different members of our audience.
One highlight: Odio Mimonet from Lagos Nigeria. The brand is led by Creative Director Odion Oseni, who has been leading Nigerian couture design for over 20 years. As a young designer, Odion sought to express her love for art through fashion design, reflected in the texture, structure, and fabrics of her pieces. Her style and designs inspire and liberate, as women across generations can express their own individuality and flair through her collection. Her recent collection features sheer silk crop tops that can be layered over dresses, saturated green wide leg chinos. I met Odion last year at Lagos Fashion Week and fell in love with her work.
Who is the audience of Big Lives, and have you seen a difference from those who attend on the east coast to the west coast?
Our audience represents a community of influential, forward-thinking, and creative professionals who are upwardly mobile and well-connected, both in NYC and internationally. We think about her in four personas: the “industry insider” who is an executive at contemporary or luxury fashion brand, and constantly looking to be inspired or in the know in her industry and comes to Big Lives for interesting pieces she can mix in her wardrobe for work and play. The “professional,” who works in an industry such as Law, Finance, or the Arts. Her style stands out among her peers, and she takes pride in representing what she predicts will be the “next big thing” (which she discovers at Big Lives). The “independent,” whose life is about discovery and hustle. She’s constantly on the move, running her own company, consultancy, or freelance practice. She splurges on pieces for speaking engagements, international travel, or special events and love to share her Big Lives experience with her greater network through social media. And lastly, the “aspirer” who works in a creative industry like media, fashion, the arts, or hospitality. She loves the Big Lives experience for the social element, and discovers new aspirational brands of which she becomes a vocal advocate. Regardless of coast, our clients tend to identify with one of these women.
Where do you see Big Lives in the future?
Let me start with where I see the future of the industry: Big Lives’ vision is that the future of retail is service. Stores won’t disappear, they will evolve into ephemeral moments that require imaginative experience design to cultivate and inspire customers. Stores won’t live in a permanent space, but will travel to meet their clients in new physical environments. Small brands will invest time and energy in what they are good at–creating products that tell a story. They will outsource retail execution to companies like Big Lives, who express their narrative through special events, and showcase products through them.
Big Lives “big ambition” is to propel this change, and through it, take advantage of the opportunity to promote smaller, emerging lines with meaningful narratives. Practically, the dream is to create quarterly flagship experiences in major cities like NY and LA, and scale through activations in smaller metros where access to our designer portfolio is more limited, and highly interesting to the fashion community.
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Photo Credits: Big Lives
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