Bangkok’s new IconSiam is a model for community engagement in modern-day retailing. Here’s how an ambitious development born of passion came to redefine Thai retailing.
The previous owners of the 8.8ha block of land on which the US$1.6 billion IconSiam development now stands were approached to sell many times over the years by investors.
Usually foreigners, they harboured ambitions to build multiple high-rise condominiums overlooking what is an almost entirely private stretch of the Chao Phraya River as it passes through the Thai capital of Bangkok.
But Chadatip Chutrakul, CEO of Siam Piwat, one of the three partners in what is now Thailand’s largest commercial development yet, had a clever plan. She approached the owners promising to build something Thais from “all walks of life” could both contribute to and benefit from. A critical part of the pitch was her promise to open up the 400-metre stretch of the site’s riverfront to everyone – the first time people could access the river by any means other than a ferry wharf or the occasional restaurant or cafe. She also promised to create a destination all Thais could enjoy, not just shoppers.
The land had previously housed rice warehouses where barges would unload their cargoes from the rural hinterland for distribution around the city and beyond. The warehouses were no longer used and the site was owned by a family business which saw no need to liquidate the asset. When they sold, they agreed to a lesser price, so as to allow Chutrakul’s vision to be realised.
With the bulk of the IconSiam project now complete, efforts are afoot to try to convince other landowners to allow walkways or bridges over their frontages. Indications are it will work, with hotels and apartment complexes seeing the benefit of offering residents a convenient and scenic waterside route to IconSiam’s shopping, entertainment and dining options.
The developers have also contributed to the upgrade of many of the 71 ferry piers along the segment of Chao Phraya River a natural barrier between Bangkok and the Nonthaburi province. The company is also developing a short railway line – the Gold Line – in the first public-private partnership in the city’s growing railway network. When it opens later this year, the line will connect two other lines, including the Silom Line, running from the Siam station hub across the river, creating an easy journey from the established downtown shopping centres and the Sukhumvit area to the doors of IconSiam.
More than retail
IconSiam comprises two seamlessly integrated shopping centres, a yet-to-be-completed museum and cineplex and two residential towers – one of apartments, already sold out at record prices for the city, another operated by the Mandarin Oriental as serviced residences.
The project has been six years in the making, funded by a consortium of local investors: Siam Piwat, which operates the successful Siam Paragon, Siam Center and Siam Discovery malls in downtown Bangkok, residential property specialist Magnolia Quality Development Corporation and the giant Charoen Pokphand Group conglomerate which counts hypermarkets, 11,000 7-Eleven stores, True Mobile, agricultural and food processing companies among its interests.
By the time it is fully complete next year, the 750,000sqm IconSiam shopping destination will be home to 580 retail stores, more than 100 restaurants, a giant market featuring traditional Thai foods and crafts, and a 14-screen cinema. Thailand’s first international-grade museum and a 3000-seat concert arena are also under construction on the upper floors, scheduled for opening mid-year.
Some 80 retailers have made their Thai debut in the development. Chutrakul personally went to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters to convince the company to open the country’s first Apple-owned store in IconSiam.
Apple and Japanese department store Takashimaya top the list of debutants which also includes Urban Revivo, the Nike Kicks Lounge concept, UK’s JD Sports, Japan’s @Cosme and Singapore restaurant chain Jumbo Seafood.
Among the examples of community engagement in the project is the ground floor market, SookSiam. Billed as the nation’s first space for people from communities in the country’s 77 provinces to “join their creative capabilities and build a business platform and cultural space,” it comprises a 1.6ha basement area of the mall, designed with traditional Thai architecture and cultural scenes. Carefully selected groups of villagers are displaying foods, homewares, crafts and other goods in an upmarket retail development they could never have previously have aspired to sell from. Results from early days trading showed local Thais were buying food and ingredients to take home and tourists were buying packaged goods or fresh-cooked foods for immediate consumption, while enjoying live cultural performances on small stages throughout the market-like environment. This is no tourist-targeting trinket market; SookSiam sells Thai food and goods for everyone.
Siam Piwat describes the space as “an immersive, emotional and educational” place with an authenticity which makes it a window into every province of Thailand.
“People can see, feel and experience the true heart and soul of each locality because the local makers from each province are real counterparts in SookSiam.”
All walks of life…
Underlining the concept of appealing “to all walks of life,” less than two minutes stroll from SookSiam is a row of luxury retail stores – behind the world’s longest glass-pleated wall – some of them towering duplexes. This is IconLuxe, the smaller of the two integrated retail spaces, home to Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Tiffany & Co, Fendi, Bulgari, Cartier, Saint Laurent, Celine and Christian Louboutin, among others.
As a condition of tenancy, IconSiam management insisted that each luxury store feature an element of Thai design or style in the fitout and offer at least one product that could not be bought in any other Thai store.
“We asked brand owners to present their brand stories and integrate them into their store designs,” explains Supoj Chaiwatsirikul, IconSiam’s MD. “We wanted IconSiam to … have exciting and complete storytelling around the brands.”
The main IconSiam retail space – behind IconLuxe – is anchored by Takashimaya, its fourth overseas location following Singapore, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It comprises 36,000sqm spread over seven floors, the ground floor home to a Taka Mache supermarket selling fresh food, much of its sent directly from Japan, and Rose Food Avenue, featuring eateries serving freshly prepared Japanese dishes. The next two floors are home to more food offers along with Makanai, which sells Japanese cosmetics.
The upper floors house a more traditional department-store offer: a beauty hall, women’s fashion and accessories, menswear and a children’s section, with a fine-dining precinct on top.
“The concept of Siam Takashimaya is the mixture of Thai department store and Japan’s Takashimaya,” said the group’s president Shigeru Kimoto. “We gather products from the land of the rising sun … and our staff are ready to give you a warm Japanese welcome or Omotenashi.”
Other highlights of the main retail space include a three-story H&M flagship store – built so it looks like a standalone store with a street frontage, yet standing in the middle of an enclosed mall structure. Mixed between the fashion stores and eateries are showrooms for Rolls Royce, Maserati, Mini, BMW motorcycles, Porsche and Toyota, several of them offering interactive experiential activities for browsers.
Yet another way IconSiam engages – and gives back to – its community is with its focus on arts. More than 100 artists and sculptors – mostly local with some from abroad – have been commissioned to create items for the development. From paintings to towering installations, 400 photographs and even custom-written and recorded music for the complex, creative arts are evident throughout the building.
“It is the first time in history that Thailand has assembled so many artworks by Thai and international artists and presented them all together.”
The retail area also includes a 2500sqm space for creative Thai brands to demonstrate and sell wares ranging from jewellery, scents and ceramics to specialty foods and designer clothing. The collection has been carefully curated and even includes fashion from a Thai designer who works with a European luxury label.
Defining IconSiam is not straight forward.
“It’s not a mall. It’s not a mixed use project,” explains Chaiwatsirikul. “It’s a destination.”
“IconSiam inaugurates a globally innovative model for destination development that moves the project away from being a mall or a mixed-use complex to being an inspiring destination,” Chutrakul elaborates. “It’s a place to regenerate and refresh, to be inspired and seek new ideas, and a place to discover the best of Thailand and the best on offer from around the world.”
A destination for Thais – and visitors alike – from all walks of life.
This feature originally appeared in the Winter edition of Inside Retail Hong Kong’s magazine edition, available by subscription in digital or print versions.