NEW YORK — "This isn't just about friends, is it?" the Tarot reader asks me as she flips over a card with two lovers on it. The reading started with a discussion of how I wanted to make more friends, but now she's giving me a look as if to say, "you've been holding out on me."
I admit I've gone on a few dates recently and my fortune teller smiles and continues her reading. The good news? I am apparently ready for a mature and healthy relationship. The bad news? I still have some healing to do.
My horoscope, which one of the Life Coach employees proudly tells me was written by the Astro Twins (presumably elite members of the horoscope community), also has faith in my love life, assuring me that I could soon be starting a relationship that will get official fast.
For someone who doesn't put much store in fortune telling, and hasn't interacted with Coach more than once or twice, I've been intimately involved with both for the past hour.
This walk-through tour of the brand's week-long SoHo pop-up, Life Coach, has taken me through static TV's and ringing phones, empty subway cars with graffiti-covered walls, carnival-esque fairgrounds and finally to the tent of my fortune teller, where I'm left to ponder the questions she's posed and the advice she's given.
If, like me, you're wondering what any of this has to do with Coach, you're not alone. In fact, that's the point.
"If they leave with more questions than they came in with, that's good," Nicholas Ingate, partner at the projects*, which designed the Life Coach experience, said to me halfway through the tour, smiling.
Re-writing the luxury storyline
Visitors to the Coach pop-up are greeted with a bag of coins and a phone that won't stop ringing. Once I've been standing in the room for several seconds, my guides nod for me to pick it up. A cool female voice says I'll need the coins for my journey, and ends by hinting mysteriously that, "what you seek is already seeking you."
This room feels more like a precursor than anything else — a note to customers that what's to come is not your traditional retail experience, nor a traditional experience of any kind.
What follows is a white-walled room meant to resemble a train station and a subway car. While the walls started off clean, they're now a sea of color, with signatures, drawings and stickers to mark the path of customers who have already come through.
"We're really handing this room over to the guests," Jack Bedwani, founding partner and global business director at the projects* said, noting that the brand called in popular New York street artists to make the first marks on the room the night before it opened. "This is the heartbeat of what New York is thinking right now."
And one of the things New York is thinking about, according to these walls, is itself. Life Coach customers have written down their Instagram handles, their personal websites and classic epitaphs like "Fight the power" and "Nat was here."
While some of these customer phrases might seem frivolous and even self-centered, Bedwani said this is all part of the plan. The emerging selfie culture, which is part of what has made Gen Z increasingly interested in interacting with the brands they love, was key to producing this experience.
"We wanted to build an experience that doesn't feel like a transaction."
Founding Partner and Global Business Director at the projects*
"We wanted to show different dimensions of the Coach brand," Bedwani said, explaining that they thought of the room as a "listening device" for the brand to hear what was on customers' minds. "Brands are multifaceted. We wanted to build an experience that doesn't feel like a transaction."
More than that, though, the elaborate set of rooms was designed to redefine how customers think of the luxury brand. Luxury as a category has experienced somewhat of a resurgence in recent months, in no small part thanks to the surge of sneaker culture, and younger generations in particular are responding well to those retailers. However, many of those brands still suffer from a "stiff" brand image.
That's what the next room is built to fight.
Brand love for sale: no purchase necessary
As I walk through the streamers blocking the next room from sight, I'm surprised to feel my feet hit wood (and, as I'll find out later, not just any wood, but old pieces of timber from Coney Island). The first thing I notice is a clown's face. The second is that I don't know where to look next.
The boardwalk I'm walking on fades into a cushy turf-like mat of grass as I walk further into the room, admiring the skeeball machines, the hammer arcade game, and many wheels waiting to be spun. There's also a bona fide Zoltar machine, which prints me out a fortune telling me my aura is "ashy" and that, "It's time to focus on you, boo-boo. Your body wants some self-care."
"The whole point of this room is that it's okay to have a lot of fun," Bedwani said, "for a luxury brand to give permission for customers to not be so stiff."
And indeed, it's hard to think that this brand experience was built by a retailer of luxury handbags while I stand at a small stall off to the side, writing a postcard to myself under glimmering neon signs — the only hint that this is a Coach-related event being the classic "C" emblazoned on several surfaces, and the occasional recurrence of unicorn and T-Rex imagery.
These middle rooms, especially, were built to be uniquely New York, to capture the culture of the city in an authentic way and also allowed for customers to interact with it and leave their own mark. At the same time, the pop-up was inspired by the popularity of self-care and self-awareness, not unlike the underlying focus of Lululemon's meditation studio.
"A lot of brands just stick their logos on culture and try to claim it," Ingate said. "We see this as a platform for what could come next."
There's a hush over the last room, caused by more than just the dark lighting. My guides wave me goodbye at a fortune teller's tent and whisper that they'll see me at the end. After a friendly yet sober chat about my future, a young man tells me to drop my postcard in a mailbox and assures me that I'll find it headed my way come August.
This thoughtful exit is purposeful — and the fortune tellers aren't just there for a flashy finale.
"It could have easily ended in a gift shop," Ingate said of the last room, noting that there's nothing to purchase in the whole experience, and no entry cost either. "We like to think of it as the gift that Coach is giving. Creating a sense of awareness and consciousness — if Coach can give you that, that's what we want."