When A4 Architecture began the design process for the first flagship store for Gill Marine North America, our challenge was to try to capture both the innovation of the company’s technologic approach to apparel but also the longstanding tradition of yachting which underlies its history.

Sailing is one of the oldest activities in the world predating written history. As President John F. Kennedy famously noted at an America’s Cup dinner held in Newport in 1962, “ it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.” To touch on that visceral excitement that a sailor has when they see a vessel under sail, heeling from the wind, we wanted to create a video wall at the back of the store to draw people back the full depth of the space. The building was once a ship chandlery and the floor is more than one hundred years-old, nailed with square hand cut nails. For us this represented the tradition of both Gill and Newport with sailing over their respective histories.

To reflect the modern and sophisticated technology used to make the fabrics both breathable and waterproof at the same time, we updated the store to mimic the bright white fiberglass hulls and brushed aluminum masts of modern sailing yachts. The heavy wood ceiling beams where painted white and the metal components were allowed maintain their natural material’s authentic color and texture. This has the added benefit that the brightly colored Gill clothing takes a prominent visual place against the white and metal backdrop. The freestanding fixtures were made from a matte black laminate, looking like modern carbon fiber sails. These therefore take prominence over the light neutrality of the wall displays but still play a role of letting the bright colors of the Gill product take precedence visually.

Any store today in order to be successful needs to do more than just display merchandise. The store needs to be a place where the brand comes alive for the customer and where the staff can help explain and show the particular qualities of the merchandise that make it special and different from other products they can purchase online. To facilitate this education, we compartmentalized the store into bays, each of which can be dedicated to a specific family of products dedicated to certain activity like Offshore racing, Fishing or Day sailing. This makes the full product line easier for the customer to understand and help upselling as a customer might decide that each of their marine activities requires different clothing rather than just one set.

As Gill sells the vast majority of it product through other retailers, we wanted to incorporate all the standard fixturing as they use in their “Shop in shop” stores. This helps keep the new flagship store “on brand” for Gill but also cues the customers’ eyes to look for those same fixturing when they are shopping for marine clothing in their home communities. In summary the goals of the store design were aspirational, to make people as excited about Gill clothing as they are passionate about sailing. But we also want the store to be very pragmatic in giving Gill a straightforward, functional shop with plenty of capacity in order to be profitable. Lastly, because of the large boat shows that is hosted in Newport each year and the numerous national and world championships sailed in its waters, the “back of house” of the store was designed to work both as conference area for group meetings around wholesale purchases and product demonstrations but also to function as storage for goods when conference facilities are not needed.

Ross Sinclair Cann, AIA is an historian, educator and practicing architect living and working in Newport for A4 Architecture He holds architectural degrees from Yale, Cambridge and Columbia Universities and is a member of a numerous committees, commissions, and boards.