I had the honor to attend the grand opening of the new Super-Sized LEICA store located at 8783 Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood last Friday night. It’s the only one of it’s kind in the world, for now.
If you want to make an international destination and push a global brand, you have to think big. Leica made sure they did just that and spared no expense. They opened with a big splash – and apropo to this town, Hollywood style. All the managing directors around the world and key players in their company flew in to help get the new store and the party up and running. Of course, Leica’s very own celebrity entourage was on hand to help bring attention to their new space.
You knew the party was super-sized when you drove up, and 30-40 valets stood in line ready to take your car. Then a throng of greeters tapping iPads to “log you in” descended upon you, not to mention the countless security personnel. But the best part was, Eberhard Kuehne, Leica’s West coast regional manager who invited me (Thanks Ebbi!), was standing to give me a big hug. I couldn’t wish a warmer welcome. How I wanted O to be with me but when you’re married, one has to work and, well…O was in Budapest….So I had to endure the event all by my lonesome…sort of.
Ebehard Kuehne (center)
There were no name tags, or rubber stamping on the back of the hand here. No- I had to wear the ubiquitous chic black rubber wristband with the Leica dot. Then I had to run down the red carpet and be confronted by a battery of press photographers and papparrazzi. But, as a kind greeter told me, if I’m not comfortable, I could walk behind the cameras. Ahem, is that a subtle hint that I’m not a celebrity? Okay, my street shooting buddy, Rinzi Ruiz, did recognized me at the time. He was working as a second press photographer for Chris Weeks who was shooting for G-Star Raw, the co-host of the event. I turned to the kindly greeter, nodded and walked down the red carpet anyway – you know, to feel the love. I did notice from the corner of my eye, photographers were changing SD cards, chimping through their screens to see if their last shot looked good, comparing notes and cameras, anything but snapping a picture of me. Then I realized, I had survived the red carpet horror.
The building is great. The new General Manager of the Leica store, James Agnew, told me it was a last minute convergence of all the elements of the universe. Leica had been looking and looking for a place to call home but found nothing that fit their criteria. A leaser of the space dropped out and Leica nabbed it right away – just a few months before they opened. It was meant to be.
They did a nice job of converting a furniture store into something very special. Thanks to Roland Wolff, Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Steffen Keil and Kathy Goldman, it has its own brand identity in the well known design center of West Hollywood near Robertson Boulevard. Taking cues from the images its cameras make, the black part of the facade frame the activities inside like a big picture frame. The modern, clean and sleek store reassures you that design and aesthetics are mantras and a way of life for Leica. Nearly 8,000 sqft/900 sqm of open space. There is a VIP lounge in the back. But frankly, being in an, albeit cushy room without windows, may sound cool and exclusive, but you’ll miss out on everything. If you want the Leica experience, the real view is looking through the store and out to the front of the street. There is an outdoor lounge upstairs that also overlooks the street and entrance, making it a very L.A. kind of place. And it goes without saying, they have an espresso machine. Hanging out has never been made more enjoyable. They even have their own valet parking lot in an area where parking doesn’t come cheap. So there’s no excuse not to check it out .
One of the first people I met was Dr. Andreas Kaufmann. Like a good host, he was out by the front door greeting guests. You could see he was proud of the realization of one of his long time dream.
Dr. Andreas Kaufmann
When you walk into the store you immediately come upon Liao Yibai’s giant FAKE LEICA sculpture. It’s a a fun piece of glossy objet d’art and appropriately named. It reminds me of Claes Oldenberg’s classic giant sized replicas of every day objects such as binoculars, rubber stamp, bowling pins. But this one is made of stainless steel and is imbued with lots of detail from the Leica MP #253. I love the story behind Liao’s inspiration for the name. He grew up in a military factory in China. The cameraman in the factory used a ‘fake Leica’ to record the factory’s missile tests – the successful ones. As a child, he was allowed to press the shutter and was fascinated with cameras ever since. He can’t remember which Chinese make of camera it was- could have been the Seagull or Hua Ying, but he remembered the reference to Leica. China also made the Shanghai, another ‘fake Leica’. This is like Russia’s Fed, Zorki. Japan’s Cannon III, Minolta 35, Nicca, Yashica YE, Tanaka IIC. England’s Periflex and America’s Kardon. All Leica copies of their time. But the Chinese don’t mince words. It’s called a fake Leica because even then, the camera was exclusive and legendary and those who couldn’t afford it, bought the look-alikes. As you can see here, the Leica camera in any form, is still sexy and seductive.
Beyond the sculpture is the main floor split into two by the glass staircase. On the left is a library of books curated by Martin Parr. What a treat. Lots of interesting and unusual photography books. Finally, books that are worth discovering. They also sell accessories and gifts like specially designed Leica T-shirts. On the right side are glass cabinets filled with Leica cameras and Leica optics. It’s like opening one treasure chest after another.
The party drew all kinds of people from the movie, fashion, music and photography world. In front of the camera like actors, and singers and rockers.
Behind the camera like journalists, photographers, cinematographers and supplier/vendors of cameras, movie cameras and equipment. There were gallery owners, collectors and photography enthusiasts.
Photography was at the heart of this opening with the whole upper floor dedicated to the display of images. The opening exhibit featured amazing and prolific images from Mary Ellen Mark, graceful ones by Yariv Milchan, and even Seal’s capture of an intimate moment. You have to see the images up front and personal. They are truly inspirational.
In Hollywood fashion, loud music pounded while beautiful people adorned modern furniture next to the suits.
I had the chance to feel the 50mm Summicron-C cine lens. Wow, what a hefty piece of glass. It’s the same elements as the regular Summicron but the gears to support flawless and silent follow focus is more demanding than the ones still photography requires. It’s incredibly smooth. Also the housing needs to withstand the weather elements in a more robust way. I can’t wait to be able to spend some time with it and the Summilux-C lenses. I was talking to Leica’s CW Sonderoptic’s Managing Director, Gerhard Baier and he’s extremely proud of the work they accomplished with the entire prime lens series of both the Summilux C and the Summicron C. They had one mounted on an M240 and another on Arri’s Alexa (movie camera) and both were sweet.
Leica M240 with 50mm 2.0 Summicron-C
I also met several Leica store managers whom I talked about the pros and cons of Leica cameras. What I especially noticed is that they still have very strong opinions about Leica products good and bad which give them the independence I feel help Leica in a positive way. What I mean is, they aren’t just ‘yes’ people. Thank goodness.
Then came the Leica X Vario, which David Farkas (Red Dot Forum), let me play with. Some of you may know, I poo poo-ed the X Vario when it first came out as it wasn’t meeting my expectation of a mini camera with an M- mount. But when I laid my hands on it, my opinion started to change. Contrary to textbook opinion of slow aperture equals difficult to use in low light, the camera surprised me on how it captured details in just such a situation. And in a cinematic way, when the zoom lens follows focus, the bokeh transitions soft and smooth, unlike many zoom lenses where the transition is clunkier. I have yet to render my full judgement until I really review it, but my mind is open for more surprises.
As I mentioned, G-Star Raw co-sponsored the opening. They worked together with Leica to create the Leica D Lux 6- Edition G-Star Raw. It has a cool rough and tumble look about it. I like the muted grey tones mixed with the dark brown leather case. It also has a military feel to it.
Tom Smith and Justin Stailey of Leica Akademie USA told me the idea behind the opening of this store is to create a ‘center’ for Leica and photography. Of course they will sell, but they want a cultural center. A place where local and international photographers can come together and share their work with others. They want to emphasize the final product of the print. Leica Akademie will play a bigger role in our Leica future. They don’t just want to educate us on how their camera works but on the whole process of photography and resulting ideas. So there will be lectures, workshops, as well plain and simple hangouts for amateurs to learn from professionals. It’s what Leica should be about. A true corporate sponsoring of the arts. I love it. The camera will sell if the images inspire. I only wish they did this sooner.
David Farkas (Red Dot Forum and Leica Miami) & Chris Moore (Leica marketing)
I also had the chance to meet one of my Twitter followers, Chris Moore. He’s a Leica marketing specialist focusing on social media and all things media from analogue books to anything digital. His first advice to me was to get my photography business card straightened out. I was walking around with my day job business card, writing on the back my Leica Liker info. Was I a doofus or what?
The neat thing about the opening party is the mixture of all kinds of people. It’s like going to the candy store and meeting Willy Wonka and his entire crew and all their customers from different walks of life.
Street photographers Chris Weeks, Rinzi Ruiz, Frank Jackson
People had fun at the party.
What’s a grand opening without a ribbon cutting?
Out came the giant scissors.
Annie Seaton, the Gallery director told me the next day that nobody wanted to leave the party. They had to kick people out. The ‘stammplatz’ (the usual hangout place) is already happening.
Leica has come a long way in a relatively short period. When you think about it, they were about to go bankrupt in 2006 because they didn’t know how to survive in the digital age. Stubborn people within Leica didn’t want to change back then. They could have gone down the same path as Kodak: A distant memory of the past and no one would have new Leica products to play with today. Now, they’re building factories, opening stores and generally implementing a grander, albeit, glitzier vision of Leica. Some die hard Leica fans think it’s too much about bling and not about the good old fashioned Leica camera. But in today’s social media and brand-centric society, they are simply cultivating the same reputation they had before World War II: exclusive, high quality and expensive. They’re just now using what was once more word of mouth as a direct marketing tool to build their brand on. If they need celebrities to help market their products, then they should get all the help they can. Look- they are not just surviving, they are leading and forging their own future, thank you very much. We’ll always gripe about whether one Leica camera or lens is better or not than another. But I for one am glad Leica is doing what they are doing so we can have something to talk about and most importantly, cameras that inspire our creative selves.
I want to thank Tom Smith for introducing me to everyone.
I wish the new Leica Store LA and Leica Gallery all the best of luck.
Here are all their links.