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Jappy Gonzalez: ‘Our job is to make digital tangible’

For this game-changer, retail is a personal experience that goes beyond perception. Univers’ growing clientele proves he’s right

Dries Van Noten

Minimalism, lines, curves define Ed Calma’s interior design of Univers at Greenbelt 3.

James Clar’s Ball & Chain at entrance of Univers helps turn brick-and-mortar retail into a personal experience.

Mark ‘Jappy’ Gonzalez at Univers: ‘There’s commerce. But the life to it is the story telling’

“Our job is to make digital tangible here, to make it the truth.”

That’s how retail game-changer Mark “Jappy” Gonzalez nails down the relevance of the brick-and-mortar store in pandemic retail, even as the world opens up steadily. “…not just perceived. You can’t possibly believe everything in digital,” Gonzalez tells on our visit to Univers at Greenbelt 3.

Gonzalez is putting in context the successful opening of Univers, the flagship store of H&F Retail Concepts, which Gonzalez heads as CEO. Univers had a successful opening last December at Greenbelt 3, the recently launched luxury retail hub of the Ayala Malls in Makati. Univers Greenbelt 3 follows the enviable record of Univers at One Rockwell in Makati, which has become a destination for a local and foreign clientele that’s after special, not only luxury, niche brands not found elsewhere in the Philippines. The opening of the Greenbelt 3 store marked significantly the celebration of the 10th year of Univers—its first store opened at One Rockwell in 2011, which expanded its merchandise range to home and lifestyle lines, followed in 2019 by the opening of Univers at The Shoppes at Solaire.

Thom Browne


Univers at Greenbelt 3, designed by foremost architect  Ed Calma, who has also done Univers’ previous locations, bears its signature look of clean, minimalist interiors with high, vast ceilings. The 425-sqm space becomes a bare canvas where the niche, specially curated merchandise is seen in unimpeded display. The Greenbelt 3 store now has the Thom Browne shop-in-shop, a brand brought to the Philippines by Univers, and a first in the country. Univers Greenbelt 3 has also dedicated space for luxury publication house, Assouline. “Now you don’t have to lug or pack these books on your flight,” Gonzalez says.

A new point of interest in the Greenbelt store are the installations of Luis Antonio Santos’  Where does the body end?, fabricated from fiberglass, resin, accumulated dust, and rust particles, and Ball & Chain of artist James Clar, a sculptural piece of car headlights, a chain, and LED lighting.

The new store capitalizes on Univers’ strength—the strong mix of diligently curated niche and iconic brands, but this time, given its strategic mall location, the store has considerable walk-in clientele; it has gone beyond being a destination store. “People who didn’t know us now do because we’re now in a general marketplace,” says Gonzalez.

Officine Universelle Buly’s introduction in Manila is indicative of Gonzalez’ role in Philippine luxury retail—he walks where others fear to tread

Univers at Greenbelt 3 continues to carry brands popular with its clientele, such as Sacai, Jil Sander, Fiorucci, and accessories such as Acne Studio, whose collections move quite fast. Beside Univers, H&F Retail Concepts opened the popular OffWhite and for the first time in the country, the iconic 19th century French skincare and perfume brand, Officine Universelle Buly. Its introduction in Manila is so indicative of Gonzalez’s role in Philippine luxury retail—he walks where others fear to tread. By introducing non-traditional brands in the Philippine market (i.e., Comme des Garçons) and building a market for them, Gonzalez earned the reputation of being a “disrupter” in retail who doesn’t stay away from challenges.

“Buly is driven by product knowledge,” Gonzalez explains his decision to bring in Buly. “It’s about getting the people to know the product and getting them to smell it—that’s the challenge. Our core clientele has always known that our unique proposition involves a brand that you get to know, and which has come to occupy a space in their lives.”

Conceived in Paris, formulated in a French laboratory, the skincare products and perfumes designed by Buly make for a bespoke personal experience because the client can design the composition of ingredients and choose the container. Buly combines natural ingredients, teachings from ancient recipes, and innovative technologies of contemporary cosmetics. Its approach to scent and beauty is thus made personal.

In 1803, 218 years ago, the first boutique of perfumer Jean-Vincent Bully  (name had the double consonant) opened in Paris. Bully made his fortune with his famous Vinegar de Toilette and inspired César Birotteau’s character in Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. The Paris of the 19th century was the golden age of Bully, which became Buly in the contemporary era.

Victoire de Taillac and Ramdane Touhami co-founded Officine Universelle Buly, building on the brand’s heritage of true perfumery, authentic formulas, free of harmful chemicals. Their intense passion for ancestral savoir faire, hygiene, and beauty routines from the world over was made concrete with the opening of Officine Universelle Buly at 6 rue Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement in 2014.

Gonzalez explains why he chose Buly for the Metro Manila market: “We’ve always offered a very balanced view of retail—there’s commerce, but the life to it is the story telling, the romance of the tale, the history, and its faithfulness to its tradition.”

In short, Gonzalez was drawn to the history and romance of Buly, and also to its relevance to contemporary life. “Like, it has scent stickers for face masks,” he says. “Even its technology on how to test fragrance is different—not using colognes, but using compounds. So a client can come to the store and test the compounds.”

At Buly, staff guides the client in testing and combining compounds—an immersive experience that is a respite during this anxiety-ridden pandemic

A visit to Buly shows that customers have indeed been walking in. They must like the coziness of the old world wood interior, and the personal interaction with the staff who guides the client in testing and combining the compounds for the desired scents. This immersive experience comes as a respite during this anxiety-ridden pandemic.

The newly opened OffWhite is a store whose time has come—“It’s sheer accessibility in this pandemic,” Gonzalez says, “when everyone’s life has been casual.”

Jappy Gonzalez beside Virgil Abloh’s Manila collection, done shortly before Abloh’s death, at OffWhite at Greenbelt 3

Memorably, the OffWhite Manila collection designed by Virgil Abloh was due to launch the day after the trailblazing American fashion designer died on Nov. 28, 2021. The collection moved fast. (Abloh finished designing the 2022 Spring/Fall/Winter OffWhite collections.)


Cire Trudon

Asked to describe today’s market segment of Univers and its other stores, Gonzalez says, “Perhaps the same segment we were in 10 years ago, the continuance of it, and we just evolved further. We evolved with the rest of the world.”

Informed luxury, we say. “That’s a nice way of putting it. What’s relevant at the moment.”

How does retail stay relevant?

“By keeping an ear to the ground,” says Gonzalez. “It takes an army to stay in the market. There are different ways to approach it—focused or broader? It’s a matter of matching the brand with its clientele.”

The pandemic slowed down the retail market—to put it mildly. However, the case of Gonzalez’s Univers was not typical of that. Its clientele didn’t stay away, except during total lockdowns, of course. The opening up of the world has been in fits and starts, a slow start for the clientele—“until it dawned on them, on us,” Gonzalez says, “that life isn’t actually over.”

Fitting room at OffWhite

Gonzalez had an interesting observation about the normalizing of retail—“Men started shopping earlier than women.”

Another insight from Gonzalez: “This generation has a different way of doing it—social media, digital platform. They have a much faster way of finding things. There are so many things going on.”

He stresses his point: “My job is to make digital tangible here, not just perceived.”

Being able to see, touch, try on, and test the merchandise—the immersive, personal experience—is what Gonzalez is after in his stores. It is when luxury retail goes beyond perception.

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