In April 2020, the redeveloped David Jones Elizabeth Street flagship store in Sydney, Australia, opened to the public. Here, Terence Seah, Head of Benoy’s Singapore Studio, considers the history and significance of this iconic building, and explains how Benoy has brought “the grand old dame of luxury retail” into the twenty-first century.
In 1838, just 50 years after the founding of Australia, a Welsh-born immigrant named David Jones established a drapery business on the corner of George and Barrack Street in Sydney.
So began the story of David Jones Ltd., Australia’s leading premium retailer, whose mission to sell “the best and most exclusive goods,” and provide “stock that embraces the everyday wants of mankind at large,” gave rise to a 180-year retail legacy.
As the company grew, David Jones and his sons established a chain of iconic department stores, as well as various manufacturing facilities. But one building in particular came to truly define the David Jones portfolio and brand. In the 1920s, David Jones Ltd, under the chairmanship of Charles Lloyd Jones Junior, established a flagship store on Elizabeth Street in Sydney’s Hyde Park district. At the time, many people considered the project madness – mainly due to the site being far removed from the city’s retail centre.
But Jones Junior pressed ahead, and in 1927 the Elizabeth Street store opened for business.
Designed by HE Budden & Mackellar, the grand, multi-story building featured marble staircases, beauty salons, a palatial restaurant and, later, an art gallery. An early prototype for immersive and experiential luxury retail, the new store soon disproved the doubters, delighting customers and drawing in the crowds. It not only reaffirmed David Jones’s reputation for quality and splendour, but led to the relocation of Sydney’s retail hub to the Hyde Park area.
To this day, David Jones Elizabeth Street remains the company’s flagship store; a landmark heritage building, and one of Australia’s leading and most iconic retail spaces.
A Twenty-First Century Revamp
In 2018, David Jones Pty Ltd approached Benoy, requesting assistance in the redevelopment of the Elizabeth Street store. Benoy’s challenge was to enhance this heritage building and provide a more contemporary and inspiring retail environment, while at the same time celebrating the store’s opulent past.
In particular, the client wanted to optimise and consolidate the interior space, making use of all available floors and enabling a natural circulation of people through the building. Facing competition from online retail, David Jones Pty Ltd also wanted to embrace the twenty-first century department store model, shifting away from large in-store inventory towards an enhanced consumer experience.
Engaged as architectural and interior design consultants to realize the client’s vision, Benoy worked alongside lighting designers, Point of View, and local architects, Crone. The global design firm also collaborated with stakeholder engagement specialists, Pollinate, to ensure the designs reflected the needs and wishes of a new generation of consumers. Benoy’s sister company, Holmes Wood, provided all signage and wayfinding, while heritage consultants, Weir Philips, helped address key conservation elements.
Terence Seah, Director and Head of the Singapore Studio at Benoy, shares, “Rejuvenating the interior and exterior, we blended the existing building fabric with a redesigned layout. This enabled us to utilise the store’s 12 levels, providing space for a more diverse retail offer. We also drew on the building’s rich design history, with its gradations of grandeur and beauty. In particular, we considered how its original shading and dimensions were used to reflect certain moods and celebrate special occasions.”
Seah, who served as Design Lead for the project, added that, “In this way, we looked back in order to go forward, thinking in terms of ‘conceptual layering’ rather than ‘floors’ to create different experiential zones. This layering was achieved through new escalator atriums and forecourts which also enabled smooth, circulatory movement throughout.”
Seah highlights other notable design features such as the repositioned 3.3-metre brass doors in the store’s Market Street façade, which create a grand street entrance and access never before achieved.
“We also opened up a double-volume space inside the entrance, which acts as a decompression zone for customers as they move from busy street intersection to luxury retail environment. And on the penultimate level, we used the lofty ballroom proportions to create a stunning shoe gallery, enhanced by spectacular views of the park and harbour,” he continues.
Merging Old and New for a World-Class Experiential Destination
The redeveloped Elizabeth Street store was opened to the public in a series of staggered reveals over a two-year period, before opening fully in April 2020. The historic building has been given a new lease of life, and is now home to the world’s most sought-after luxury brands. In a first for Australia, customers can experience Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci outside their eponymous boutique stores, with ‘store-in-store’ concept spaces for these and other international fashion labels.
Speaking at the opening of the department store’s dazzling new ground floor, David Jones Ltd CEO, Ian Moir, spoke of “an exciting milestone in the redevelopment of the Elizabeth Street flagship”. He described how “beautiful products and an amazing experience [lie] at the heart” of the redesigned store, singling out the new luxury beauty floor as “an exceptional example [of experiential retail] at a scale previously unseen in Australia.”
Seamlessly merging old and new, the Elizabeth Street flagship recaptures the historic grandeur, romance and magic of this remarkable building, while offering the very best in contemporary retail design. Its completion reconfirms Benoy’s unique expertise in developing experiential, world-class destinations, and underscores the value of the firm’s user-led, people-centric approach.
In keeping with the ethos of the founder, David Jones, the redeveloped store will continue to engage, delight and inspire. Its opening marks a new chapter in the 180-year story of an Australian retail giant.