Mirror, Mirror


Volume 1, Issue 08
October 2, 2015


Screens large and small, overflowing with moving digital images, are ubiquitous in our built environment. From airport terminals to smartphones, they are integral to our everyday physical and social infrastructures. Cultural theorists have developed various nomenclatures for these omnipresent interfaces, including MediaSpace, everyware, and the ambient.

Over the past decade, screens have rapidly infiltrated another spatial domain – retail. These retail screens – central to “phygital” consumer environments that blend online and brick-and-mortar shopping – are architectural elements built for personalized consumer interaction. Unlike other avatars, retail screens are explicitly tied to desire, ownership, and identity. When we shop, we incorporate external objects into our self-concept. Thus, this subject-screen relationship is characterized by reciprocity between the retailer’s use of the screen to manipulate desire, and the consumer’s engagement with the screen to create and affirm identity.

An early deployment of moving digital imagery on retail mirrors was in Rem Koolhaas’ Prada “epicenter” stores (2000-2004). The “Media Stage,” where “all of Prada [could] be browsed – real and virtual” was one concept that unified various locations. Fourteen projectors created a panorama of images whose content ranged from videos of larger-than-life runway models to simulated interiors of global epicenter stores.

The Media Stage was more than a portal to objects of desire; it was simultaneously the architecture and the object of desire. As Koolhaas proclaimed, “the projection acts as an architectural material,” constituting both structure and experience-as-commodity. [1]  Enclosed onstage shoppers with constructed images, the screens functioned to position consumer-subjects as voyeurs, who were seemingly granted exclusive access to footage from Prada productions, fashion shows and even store security videos. Yet ultimately, these highly-curated quasi-cinematic experiences trapped the body within Prada’s brandscape. Self-image and identity had meaning only relationally to the brand’s scale-less, decontextualized, and ephemeral images, and the human body was at once implicated and dematerialized. As Koolhaas claimed, one could (must) “commune with the Prada aura in an intimate and immersive manner.” [2]

If the Media Stage conceptually conflated shopper-voyeur and brand, Koolhaas’ Mirror Wall (San Francisco) did so literally and physically. The wall displayed “semitransparent daylight projections” where “mirror images blurred with projections.”[3] These projections included content shared with the Los Angeles Media Stage, but also consisted of various representations of bodies: line drawings, naked forms, and translucent “ghost” images. Within a soup of networked images removed from their geographic references, consumers encountered anonymized objects, while also being forced to continually confront themselves. The subject’s body was externalized as the object, intimately familiar, yet alienated through the screen’s manipulation.

The Prada dressing rooms continued this trope, where “magic mirrors” were created through a camera, linked to an embedded plasma screen (Fig 3). The mirrors were “governed by the movement of the person” such that small movements prompted “real-time display” while larger movements (like turning around) caused “a time delay that allowed the person to see the movement being replayed.”[4] The temporally separated transformation of the subject’s image into video further accentuated the objectification of the subject, inviting upon oneself the gaze that would be cast on the other.

The Prada mirror-screen prototype, dormant for nearly a decade, has recently resurfaced, even more technologically virile. One example is Rebecca Minkoff’s New York “connected” store (in partnership with eBay, 2014), where consumers virtually browse store inventory on large mirror-screens before trying on merchandise in screen-equipped “smart” fitting rooms. While Prada’s mirrors objectified the subject through cinematic juxtaposition, Rebecca Minkoff’s mirrors gaze back. They feature “Kinect sensors that record the customer’s motions…and a sophisticated tracking system which identifies the customer and remembers what they bring into the dressing room and don’t purchase.”[5]  Shoppers are positioned beside runway models (embodiments of the brand) while being seen in the most intimate of spaces.  The physical juxtaposition highlights the imperfect reality of one’s own body, simultaneously immersing shoppers into, and separating them from, the brand.

The retailer-designer capitalizes on this malleable self-image:

When the Minkoffs did testing on the first version of their interactive mirror… they brought in a few employees to try it out in the context… “They walked out screaming, ‘I’d never ever use this!’” says Uri [Minkoff]. “I was like, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Those are fat mirrors—they make us look fat!’… The Minkoffs took the eBay team… to track down the most figure-friendly mirrors they could find…and incorporated the technology into them. ‘Now [customers will] sit in front of those mirrors all day because they look skinny.[6]

The rather alarming implication here, that body image can be replaced and re-incorporated just as easily as a mirror and its circuitry, is a powerful demonstration of the extent to which these screens are endowed with personal meaning beyond their optical qualities.

The retail screen transcends both traditional metaphors for screens as windows/portals/frames/filters and traditional modes of spectatorship. The screen becomes a coveted architectural and representational object in itself, while the consumer-subject becomes an object of display, gazing at oneself while being literally gazed back at by the screen. The new rituals of shopping tied to these screen technologies, not inherently sinister and perhaps inevitable, nonetheless construct new identities. Designers must critically engage with, not simply exploit, the knowledge that the shaping of the screen is, in fact, the refashioning of the body itself.

[1] Rem Koolhaas and Bertili Patrizio, “Media Stage: Concept,” “Media Stage: Content,” in Projects for Prada Part 1(Fondazione Prada, 2001) n. pag.

[2] Koolhaas, “Triptych: Concept,” Projects for Prada, n. pag.

[3] Koolhaas, “Mirror Wall,” Projects for Prada, n. pag.

[4] Koolhaas, “Introduction,” Projects for Prada, n. pag.

[5] Neal Ungerlieder, “Why Rebecca Minkoff and Ebay Are Betting on Smart Dressing Rooms,” FastCompany, November 12, 2014, http://www.fastcompany.com/3035229/the-smart-dressing-room-experiment-how-irl-shopping-is-getting-less-private-but-more-persona

[6] Danielle Sacks, “How Rebecca and Uri Minkoff are Shaking up Retail,” FastCompany Create, February 9, 2015,  http://www.fastcocreate.com/3041516/master-class/mirror-mirror

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Volume 1, Issue 08
October 2, 2015

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