BY Anne Feldkamp in Opinion | 04 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 12

All that Glitters

How central Vienna is being fitted out for international luxury shopping

BY Anne Feldkamp in Opinion | 04 NOV 13

The corner of Bognergasse and Tuchlauben, Vienna, showing the Louis Vuitton store, 2013 (photograph: © SIGNA)

A Saturday afternoon in late summer. As usual, the centre of Vienna is buzzing. On the corner of Bognergasse and Tuchlauben, the dark mirrored façade of the new Louis Vuitton store shines. Outside, a couple take pictures: he snaps her posing with the requisite carrier bag. Behind her, the large door with the company name. The security man, in white shirt and black trousers, looks on unimpressed. He’s seen it all before. The new Vuitton store, opened late last year, has become a treasured motif for holiday photographs – like St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the ‘Schönbrunn yellow’ of Vienna’s buildings.

The sight of this tourist ritual would have René Benko rubbing his hands in glee. The 36-year-old Tyrolean real estate tycoon is the brains behind Signa Holding and a shooting star on Europe’s property development scene. He’s the one responsible for dedicating this area to international luxury shopping: the ‘Golden U’ – a long-established shopping area in the city’s First District bounded by Kärtner Strasse, Graben and Kohlmarkt – currently being extended by Signa Holding to become the Goldenes Quartier (‘Golden Quarter’). When it is finished, the 11,500-square-metre complex will sell nothing but luxury goods. This high-flying project is a €500 million investment by Signa Holding, including a five star hotel, exclusive apartments and office space. The company is even sponsoring a pedestrian section of the precinct. As early as 2010, Benko told the newspaper Die Presse that he imagined the upscale neighbourhood as the Place Vendôme of Vienna.

Such brazen courting of a well-heeled clientele is viewed critically by some in the city. In the weekly magazine Falter, the journalist Barbara Toth recently wrote that ‘the Golden Quarter should really be called Benko City’. But the systematic grooming of central Vienna for the wealthy is already well underway. They come as tourists, mainly from China or Russia, or they already live here. Many shops reassure potential customers in Cyrillic script: ‘we speak Russian’.

Façade of the Valentino store, 2013 (photograph: Anne Feldkamp)

The Golden Quarter actually makes a comparatively low-key impression, cozying down behind historical façades. In 2001, the city centre was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, and many of its buildings are protected – including the Hochholzerhof (built in 1719) whose frontage is currently obscured by posters proclaiming: ‘Valentino! Coming soon!’ Appropriating the lustre of centrally located buildings rich in tradition fits only too well with the PR strategies of luxury brands like Vuitton: with the current vogue for vaunting long company histories – ‘heritage’ – an absolute must.

Benko bought the Tuchlauben and Am Hof complexes in 2008. The former is already home to the glittering shop windows of Armani, Cavalli, Mulberry, Brioni, Miu Miu and many others. Construction work at Am Hof 2, the future Park Hyatt Hotel, is in full swing, fronted by a mountain of containers. The reinforced concrete structure with its classicist exterior (built 1913–15) was formerly the head office of Länderbank. Next year, Saint Laurent and Prada plan to open stores on the premises, but for the moment passers-by can still see the rubble inside, and some of the stores that have already moved into the complex can only be reached via a labyrinth of red carpets stapled to the ground. For now the security man outside Louis Vuitton still leans against a temporary fence.

Construction work outside the Louis Vuitton store earlier this year (photograph: Anne Feldkamp)

A century ago, this building, then the best address on the square, was home to a well-known art and books dealer. The first three storeys of the building already had a dark cladding, bearing the name ‘Gilhofer & Ranschburg’ in thick letters where the Vuitton logo now sits. In recent years, the frontage looked more like a collage. To the left was the Graz-based shoe shop chain Stiefelkönig; on the corner the bright green of the Austrian hosier Palmers. This has all been swept away, replaced by sanitized tidiness. Borough Mayor Ursula Stenzel, member of the conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) and something like the Iron Lady of the First District, is happy. In her eyes, the Golden Quarter is nothing but an ‘embellishment of the district as a whole’.

Louis Vuitton is already familiar with the Austrian market. Before moving into the Golden Quarter, its previous store had been doing business on Kohlmarkt since 1985. But the new ‘Global Store’ in the office block by Ernst Spielmann and Alfred Teller (built in 1909) has three times the floor space at 1200 square metres. Nonetheless, the Austrian capital is not getting a ‘Maison Vuitton’, the most prestigious class of store featuring high entertainment value. Such ‘Maisons’ are Vuitton’s true flagship stores: the one on London’s Bond Street set high standards in 2010 with art works like Michael Landy’s sculpture Credit Card Destroying Machine. And at the Étoile in Rome (a movie theatre built in 1907), there is even an in-house cinema with 18 seats. The Global Store in Vienna is trying a stripped down approach to all this – what Roberto Eggs, the company’s North Europe President, referred to in an interview with the newspaper Der Standard in 2011 as ‘cultural links’ to the location.

View of the Goldenes Quartier, 2013 (photograph: © Gregor Titze)

The picture that is worth a thousand words here is quickly found: it hangs in the entrance to the store’s teak- and Makassar ebony-panelled interior: using photo-montage, the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana has used tiny scanned details and pixelated images to make a wall-filling image that emerges as the Vienna State Opera. This supposedly local touch appears rather shallow if one knows that a similarly pixelated motif of the Place Vendôme is on display at the Maison Vuitton in Paris. But the motif of the State Opera does make a wonderful match for the planned interiors of the ‘superlative penthouse apartments’ being built on the upper storeys, where Gustav Klimt motifs – blown up to cover entire walls – will remind future owners in which city they are spending the night.

Writing in Falter in 2007, Austrian architecture critic Jan Tabor ascribed a form of ‘globalized monotony’ to these international flagship stores that were opening around Kohlmarkt at the time, and which have now, like Vuitton, moved to the Golden Quarter: ‘The more numerous the new shop windows become, the smaller the diversity of mostly tiny Austrian stores and their displays. And the bigger the displays of luxury become, the less there is to see.’

This still applies. Having crossed the threshold of such a luxury store – be it Miu Miu or Armani or Vuitton – one’s first task is to work one’s way through endless bags, bags and more bags. Above all else, globalized exclusivity is one thing: awfully predictable.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Anne Feldkamp is a freelance writer based in Vienna. She runs the fashion blog Blica ( and writes for Der Standard and its magazine Rondo.