Bangkok Report | Will the newly-opened Iconsiam be a white elephant or will it steer the City of Angels towards being the shopping paradise of Southeast Asia?
Bangkok’s latest waterfront retail sensation
Exactly a month ago, Iconsiam, Bangkok’s latest temple of swank and cynosure of ardent shoppers, opened. On paper and on the map, this should not have worked. Iconsiam, the city’s latest mega-mall in a city of mega-malls, sits somewhat aloof and away from the major shopping belt of Ratchaprasong intersection, the belly button of a retail stretch that starts from Mahboonkrong (or MBK, as tourists prefer to call it) at one end to EmQuartier on the other, all 4.7 km of it.
The monstrosity that is Iconsiam rests on the west bank, Thonburi side of the Chao Praya River, in the Khlong San district (khet), about three kilometres away from Siam Paragon Mall that, in 2013, was the “world’s most Instagrammed place”. Iconsiam is destined to enjoy Paragon’s success. Sited on the newly rejuvenated Charoen Nakhon Road, on the river bank that warehouses used to squat, and is surrounded, even now, by an unspectacular and, frankly, unattractive suburban mash-up, the glass-fronted tubbiness is a composition that both the front and rear cameras of smartphones are attracted to. At present, with no similar developments in the area, Iconsiam is the proverbial sore—but striking—thumb. Siam Paragon should be ready to be dethroned.
The view behind Iconsiam contrasts dramatically with what one gets to see in front
In many ways, Iconsiam is typical of Bangkok malls or, perhaps, specifically the malls of Siam Piwat, one part of a triumvirate that built Iconsiam. Siam Piwat is the owner of Siam Discovery and Siam Center, and, in a joint venture with The Mall Group—Thailand’s second largest retail conglomerate after Central Group’s Central Retail Corporation— has established Siam Paragon. Collectively, the three malls are known and cross-marketed as OneSiam although no one refers to them as such. Like most other retail developers, Siam Piwat is partial to big, banausic buildings that does little to the cityscape of the capital.
Chugging towards Iconsiam on the free ferry service (the best way, for now, to get there) across the Chao Praya is, in some ways, no different from going close to Siam Paragon on the BTS train: both buildings, unaffected by crippling traffic from these approaches, loom large, but do not inspire awe. Iconsiam, like Siam Paragon, is massive. It comprises 525,000 square metres of retail space (as opposed to Siam Paragon’s 400,000 or just 74,000 of Singapore’s The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands) that their marketing department is keen to say is “90 times as large as a football field”, qualifying it as Thailand’s largest. Or, as the local press calls it, “the Mother of all Malls”.
The not-quite-Petronas-Twin-Towers double edifices that augment Iconsiam’s monumental stature
Size may stagger the imagination, but size alone would not excite the editors of Architectural Digest. Whether you look at it from across the river or the 400-metre promenade at its front door, Iconsiam seems like it was plonked there: a squat, terraced block that looks like a yet-to-be-sliced, haphazardly layered kueh lapis, with a jagged upper half that is unconnected to the rest of the building (as well as the two adjacent towers that stand to its right). In sum, a composition that seems unable to shake off the elephantine inelegance that typifies Siam Piwat’s other malls.
But work it does, and beckon too. Only a month in business (they opened on 10 November), the waterfront property is attracting visitors and shoppers like the proverbial ants to the sugar cube. The remarkable thing about Thai mall developers is that they know something about creating audacious retail attractions that few in other cities have successfully emulated. Their malls are themselves tourist destinations, often included in the must-visit lists in Bangkok guides, alongside venerated complexes such as the Grand Palace.
The much-talked-about Apple store seems weighed down by a terraced upper-half of the mall
The city of Bangkok has not had a major tourist attraction in the last 20-odd years (30, some say, not counting a museum or two in the city centre and outside). Even the only zoo, the Dusit Zoo, closed for good at the end of August, 80 years after it opened. One hospitality professional told SOTD that “unlike Singapore, Thailand has not added any new attraction for as long as even Thais can remember, but it has added malls, many malls. It is left to the private sector to create and they are in the business of making money, not promote culture.”
Hence, monumental malls. But to be fair to Iconsiam, they have set themselves apart from the others by embracing Thainess that straddles commercial and exotic values, which we will explore later. As a tourist attraction, the 54-billion baht (S$2.28 billion or US$1.65 billion) Iconsiam is replete with ornamentation, sights, and wonders that are all parts of today’s Bangkok visitor experience. The rear view of the building may presently be at odds with the high-end positioning of Iconsiam, but upfront, looking beyond the Chao Praya, the city—old and new—opens up, with the “iconic”, Ole Scheeren-design-led Mahanakhon skyscraper in the distance, punctuating the vista like an exclamation mark.
The view is, to be expected, unmissable photo-op
Increasingly, Bangkok malls are conceived as the one-stop for all your shopping, entertainment, gourmet, and self-improvement needs, plus the odd Thai street food and One Tambon (sub-district) One Product (OTOP) fairs set in rustic surroundings to lure exotica-seeking tourists. So fun-giving are the shopping centres that the malls operated by Central Retail Corporation in holiday hot spots of Thailand are called Central Festival—the name is unambiguous about the shopping centres’ potential jovial and celebratory position, whether true or imagined.
Although malls as inspirational hubs of urban life and pursuits have been very much a part of Bangkok since the appearance of Emporium in the upper middle class area of lower Sukhumvit Road in 1997, it is Iconsiam that is the icing on an expanding, richly-filled cake. With an over-the-top, three-day celebration to mark its opening (headlined by Alicia Keys performing) and, possibly, the largest single private sector investment the city has ever seen, Iconsiam is positioning itself as a retail attraction like no other in the world.
Unsurprisingly, Louis Vuitton is star store and a crowd-puller
Inside, Iconsiam is self-contained and is conceived to heighten the shopping experience to the point that one is absorbed enough to spend almost an entire day there. Happy shoppers call it ensconced, critics of commercialism call it trapped. However you look at it, there’s no denying that the visual composition delights and the tenant mix, at least at first glance, appeals. It is no doubt that, down the road, Iconsiam will continue to keep visitors visually engaged, but whether the shops will encourage repeat visits is quite another matter. As much as Iconsiam takes pride in housing more than 500 stores and a reported 7,000+plus labels, it is also true that it is not possible to assemble a brand selection that is less than 90-percent repeat of what can be found elsewhere.
Iconsiam’s massive mall proper is fronted by a sub-mall known as Iconluxe, but you would not guess or sense the zonal difference as the entire complex is seamlessly laid-out, drawing you further into its gut or, given that this is the “Mother of all Malls”, womb, from the minute you walk in. The perception of luxury, of glamour, of excess immediately sets in. It’s impossible to have a cursory experience. The gleaming opulence, decorative sumptuousness, and unimaginable costliness hits you like the river water when you’re speeding on a long boat. It makes Hong Kong’s The Landmark look dated and Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills average.
The Iconluxe zone of the mall comprises the usual brands seen in other malls in Bangkok
For those who are tired by the same-sameness of luxury brands that now appear in Asian malls with the expected regularity of Zara, Iconsiam is not different. Once the physical magnificence wears out and the crowd becomes patience-testing, it’s hard to be excited about the brands here because most, if not all, you would have already encountered in easier-to-access, close-to-the-BTS centres, such as Siam Paragon. You don’t need a directory to know what is available here; you will be guided by your interest/preference/desire.
Iconluxe, the front portion of the mall that is conceived to lure and delight LVMH brands and the like with little coaxing, is tony grounds on which luxury names build their boutiques as if this is Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré: each maison with their own store and statement storefront. One former leasing executive told SOTD that the Siam Piwat malls have some of the most accommodating tenancy agreements, allowing brands to have a lot of leeway. “They know how to court brands,” he said. “Also, brands fall for the Thai charm.” It is also commonly known that Thai mall operators are generous to luxury brands when it comes to tenant improvement (or TI, also know as leasehold improvement) arrangements in which, simply put, the owners bear a part of the brands’ customised renovation expenses as part of the leasing deal.
Even H&M gets to enjoy Iconsiam’s inherent swankiness
While luxury brands may beckon with their prime location—front, river-facing part of the mall, it is the rest that most visitors come for: the accessible labels with their no-less massive and magnetic stores. Past Iconluxe, two stunning glass podiums stand to welcome. This is flagship haven. Brands such as H&M and the quickly-spreading Chinese fast fashion brand Urban Revivo have unmistakable in-your-face presence. In fact, what we have here on our island, they have them too, and, unfortunately for us perhaps, much larger.
That is a discernible point of differentiation: build them big. Iconsiam has the space if brands are keen on size to impress. JD Sports, similarly operated by Kuala Lumpur-based JD Sports Fashion Sdn Bhd as in SG, debuted in Bangkok with an eye-catching two-level store. Adidas has sited its largest Adidas Originals in Asia in this side of Bangkok, while Nike launched their first Southeast Asian Kicks Lounge—no less impressive in terms of size,—with what is known as “style-led” mix of merchandise that includes “garment tailoring” and T-shirt customisation.
Takashimaya’s first store in Bangkok opened in Iconsiam
One of the major draws of Iconsiam is supposed to be the seven-story anchor/department store run by Takashimaya. It is interesting that without The Mall Group in the picture, Siam Piwat chose not to operate an own-name department store, such as Paragon in Siam Paragon. Instead, they and their partners have gone into a joint venture with Takashimaya Singapore to open Siam Takashimaya, which is the Japanese department store’s third in SEA, after the first in our Ngee Ann City and the second in Ho Chi Minh City.
With an impressive, open storefront on each level and a total retail space of 36,000 square metres (Singapore’s occupies 38,000 square metres), Takashimaya should have been extremely appealing, but it is, in fact, not the crowd-puller it was projected to be. Similar on many levels to most Japanese department stores operating outside of their native land, it is, as Shigeru Kimoto, President of Takashimaya Group, said through a media release, “the mixture of Thai department store and Japan’s Takashimaya”. If you are familiar with both, you’ll see that the Bangkok model is more Thai than Japanese. To enhance its Nippon-ness that savvy Thai customers and Asian tourists would expect, and possibly to set itself apart from local stores such as Central, Takashimaya has a section, Japan Select, dedicated to Japanese design. It is early to know if this small difference will make a big impact.
The Disneyland of Thai food, Sooksiam, is an attraction in itself
As mentioned earlier, Iconsiam has set itself apart by embracing their tourist-pleasing Thainess. The most compelling, and hence, most visited is Sooksiam, a themed floor (park?) mostly dedicated to food. It gets so packed as soon as the mall opens that you would find it extremely hard to find a place to sit to have your meal, assuming you can survive the queues at practically every stall. The main attraction here would be the indoor floating market—an enclosed Damnoen Saduak for the air-conditioning-loving, smartphone-totting Millennials.
Sooksiam has truly taken the food court that we have invented to another level. This is all multi-sensory and is hard to leave this basement level without satiating the aroused appetite. The market vibe makes this level the most relaxed and inviting area of the entire mall. And the food, foodstuff, and souvenirs are reportedly sourced from 77 Thai provinces in an effort to support “local heroes”. Their effort has paid off as Sooksiam is the most compelling, not to mention senses-awakening, part of the entire complex, making Central Embassy’s once-lauded Eathai look pedestrian and turning even Bangrak Bazaar, the nearest cluster of street stalls across the river, in the vicinity of Sapan Thaksin BTS station, bland.
The entire Iconsiam is filled with selfie-encouraging installations
As a tourist destination, Iconsiam is not short of spots and installations to delight camera-equipped tourists and selfie buffs. At every corner one turns to, one would come face to face with a sculpture or a painting or an entire visual in the form of a decorated pillar or dramatic hanging that cascades from the ceiling, all that point to support for the local artistic community. This is another selling point for Iconsiam: They may market themselves to an international audience and consider themselves a “global” player, but they wear their cultural identity on their sleeves.
The result is evident. People can’t stop taking photos in the mall, to the point that they can be hindrance to the traffic flow. It isn’t clear if Iconsiam as a giant photo op is good business, but surely drawing this number of visitors (it is reported that they aim to attract 22 million visitors in its first year of operation) to the mall would generate business even if not everyone has passion for more of the same, the typical, the space fillers. Interestingly, while much weight is given to the image of a mall that celebrates its Thai aesthetical leaning, Thai fashion is not represented here to the same degree as that at Siam Centre and EmQuartier. With the exception of Cazh, a multi-label store dedicated to local streetwear labels, there is no Thai equivalent to Siam Takashimaya’s Japan Select.
Mythical creatures flanking escalators enhance the themed park atmosphere of the food floor
That Siam Piwat and their partners (and, indeed, other mall developers) are able and willing to erect and pull off such magnetic centres of consumption and, to some, hedonism, attests to their understanding of retail-as-theatre and the reality that consumers these days need to be constantly entertained. Shoppers, trapped by the endless cycles of digital attractions and distractions on their smartphones, no longer content with going shopping the way their grandparents once did. The malls of today must break the mono-culture of the past; they need to cut through the digital noise to appeal to desensitised shoppers, those who are happy with the solitary pursuit of online pleasures.
To be sure, Iconsiam is not the first waterfront retail poised to be a hit. There is Asiatique diagonally across from Iconsiam that was once thought to bring life to the river that offered little more than old-style luxury hotels and bland dining by the water. Asiatique now pales in comparison to the complex across the Chao Praya. Who would have guessed that this part of Bangkok may lead the whole city into what this mammoth’s executives called “the future of shopping”. For certainty, managing director Supoj Chaiwatsirikul underscored to the media that Iconsiam “is not a mall. It is not a mixed-use project. It is a destination.” To the question in the standfirst, another is perhaps more pertinent: should our malls on Orchard Road—indeed, the entire length of “A Great Street”—be worried, very worried?
Additional research: Nah Kwamsook. Photos: Jagkrit Suwanmethanon