The end of the beauty-retail “starchitect” era is upon us. And nudging it out the door is Christopher Skinner, a buzzy young brand-builder who cut his teeth at LVMH before opening his own agency 18 months ago. Dubbed School House, the fledgling entity has already worked on a slew of high-profile projects, including a dramatic re-imagining of L’Occitane’s Flatiron flagship.
Born in itty-bitty Katy, Texas, Skinner spent his formative years in the bigger ponds of Houston, San Antonio and Dallas before attending Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) Atlanta as an Interior Design major. But college was almost a side-hustle; Skinner had been immersed in theater since he was knee-high to a Coke bottle, and he dove right into the local drama scene after relocating to Georgia.
“The theater is where I fell in love with storytelling through design,” he says. “I started out acting, but I immediately fell in love with theatrical design. And I think that’s why I fell in love with retail design versus residential, or another form of commercial. Retail design is about transporting people, it’s telling stories through materials and consumer paths.”
Food for thought: In discussing our careers, how many of us use the term “fell in love” three times in three consecutive sentences? Not many…
To support himself while at SCAD, Skinner started working retail. “I was a hungry student,” he recalls. “But I didn’t want to wait tables because I knew I needed to be up all night, working on projects.”
A part-time gig in the back room of Sephora led to a move to New York in 2006, and a stint in the chain’s 76th and Broadway store. “This was when Sephora was all red carpet, and kind of a mess inside,” Skinner notes. “And unfortunately, it was a time when they weren’t really investing in merchandising. So I jumped over to Space NK Apothecary, which had just launched in the U.S. and was trying to get a foothold in the market.”
Deriving Discipline from Ever-Bigger Corporate Gigs
As often happens with positions at smaller enterprises, Skinner was able to wear a million hats at Space NK. “That’s when the fire in my career really took off,” he says. “I was handling everything from creative direction for windows and interiors to the retail concepts we were launching in Bloomingdale’s. I was traveling back and forth between New York and London, taking a lot of learnings from the U.S. and transplanting them to the UK.”
After Space NK, Skinner landed at Fresh as Global Director of Visual Merchandising and Store Design, working his way up to VP. And there were other gigs along the way, including a pit-stop at Victoria’s Secret as Multi-Store Visual Manager of Beauty and Creative Concepts.
But despite the lengthy resumé, there’s one aspect of the beauty business Skinner never gravitated toward: An outside creative agency or retail design firm, the type of business that typically swoops in and out, working on a specific project and moving on.
Essentially, Skinner’s own agency is the only one he’s ever worked for. And even on the most stressful day – and there have been plenty of those since School House debuted in June 2015 – Skinner sees that as a huge advantage.
By not being locked into any preconceived notions about what an agency or design firm should be, or the level of fame it should shoot for, Skinner says he and his tiny team are better able to shine the spotlight in the right spot – on the client.
“When you think about beauty retailing, there are amazing architecture firms that have really led the way, and for that I’m extremely grateful,” Skinner says. “But the challenge for the brands is that they’ve been pushed to the back of the experience. It’s become more about the architecture firm you’re working with and then the brand, versus the brand first.”
Job One: Putting Your Team In the Client’s Shoes
Having logged years on the other side, Skinner is hyper-sensitive to client needs. And one way he’s able to generate great work is to ensure that no School House employee or project hire works in a vacuum. “We’re up to six people full time with a growing roster of contractors, strategists and designers,” he says. “And we all work together. By allowing architects to look at social media strategy, and to have art directors commenting on fixture design, it allows for our work to be more authentic. It’s based on the truth of that brand versus creating a School House esthetic, which is definitely not what we’re out to do.”
It’s that “holistic” attention to detail that helped School House beat out four other agency contenders vying for the opportunity to give L’Occitane’s Flatiron flagship a major facelift. After surviving two elimination rounds, Skinner and his crew had just six months to execute the futuristic “neo-Provençal” vibe they’d conjured, complete with a digitally tricked-out Smart Beauty Fitting Room. A stunning mix of heritage and modernity, it’s considered a prototype for L’Occitane stores to come.
And somehow, while servicing one of the industry’s big fishes (the family-run Groupe L’Occitane comprises five organic-leaning brands, clocking in at nearly $1.4 billion in annual turnover), School House was able to knock-out numerous other projects for AmorePacific, Caudalie, CoverFX and Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare.
The key to winning briefs? “We’re a very empathetic group,” says Skinner. “I have no agency experience, so everything we’re building is based on what makes it easier for the client and what makes it easier for a brand to be successful. Because that’s really all I know. I think the fact that we can be empathetic to the challenges of what it means to be a brand, and to be able to design and create solutions for that – and to be agile and fast-paced, and to be able to work within tight budgets – is important. We’re really just here to make everyone successful that we partner with. I think brands feel that from us.”