There are a few iconic local retailers in Charlottesville, and Amy Gardner’s store, Scarpa, is one of them. The women’s boutique—which started out selling shoes nearly 23 years ago and recently expanded into clothing—has been a mainstay in the north wing of Barracks Road Shopping Center, and in the Charlottesville imagination, as a bastion of luxury fashion. When Gardner asked architect Jim Rounsevell last year to help her change up the look of the store, he knew it was a key moment in the store’s long history.
“With all things like this, there’s a degree of uncertainty,” says Rounsevell. For one thing, the construction would have to be fast-tracked so that Scarpa wouldn’t have to be closed for long (ultimately, customers only missed about three weeks of shopping). For another, the project wasn’t just a renovation but an expansion into a vacant space next door.
“They were busting at the seams,” says Rounsevell. Not only was the inventory packed in, but so were the people. “The office was this gloomy dark box up in the corner.” Gardner needed more dressing rooms: “People were trying on nice pants in the bathroom,” she remembers. “A lot of the consideration was to give a customer a really positive experience.”
The look and feel of the store was due for a refresh. “I felt like it needed to be happy and bright,” says Gardner. “The old store was more subdued.” Yet, for Rounsevell, the heart of the project was about staying in the background. “We wanted the inventory to be paramount,” he says. From the beginning, he and Gardner agreed that the store should essentially be a “white box.”
Within the larger space, Rounsevell was able to design a new office volume (he calls it a “shoebox”) that seems to hover above the checkout counter. It’s clad in translucent Acrylite and makes a striking modern statement from a customer point of view. Just as importantly, the material allows some daylight to enter the shared office space. “It’s such a step up” from the previous windowless office, says Gardner.
The staircase, too, becomes an architectural focal point that drastically improves functionality. A partial wall separates the staircase from the customer areas in the rear of the store; the whole form is clad in dark-stained plywood with thin strips of brass (an echo of the brass hanging system that stylishly supports clothes on hangers). Stockroom, dressing rooms and circulation areas are clearly defined.
Gardner’s own design sensibility—she earned an architecture degree before opening Scarpa—brings the touches of color and comfort that customers will notice. A tall, green velvet curtain keeps the rear wall from feeling oppressive; a 13′ custom couch, upholstered in pink, offers a place to revel in the experience. Display tables and seating—much of it scored at Circa and in some cases refinished by Christy Baker at Pigment—bring the right vibe and a degree of flexibility that Gardner and her team require. “We’ve already arranged the furniture three times in three months,” she says.
Rounsevell’s work, and that of lighting designer Mark Schuyler, may fly lower under the radar, but it’s no less important to making the space work. For example, shelving for shoes and accessories is surrounded by a white “frame”—vertical sides and a soffit across the top—that Rounsevell says “keeps your eye down” and focused on shoes, bags and jewelry. It serves the other important function of providing a place for Schuyler to mount uplighting.
After 23 years, Scarpa has a substantial customer base, and the response has been positive. “They cannot believe the transformation,” Rounsevell says.