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Chadstone shopping centre
Image credit: Dieter de Vroomen/Unsplash

The Southdale Shopping Centre of Edina, Minnesota, was the first to open its doors, and its car park, to the lady consumer. This experiment in retail was designed by Victor Gruen, a Jewish and socialist intellectual forced to flee his native Austria in 1938.

Gruen had sought to recreate the Viennese civic experience, notably democratic in the period before annexation, for US suburbanites. US business developers had sought to give the growing population of motoring housewife consumers a place to spend their money. Southdale, which is not yet a dead shopping mall, was the first shopping mall. It opened in 1956.

The first Australian shopping mall opened in 1957. Here, full male employment and ladies newly licensed to drive their new vehicles led to the development of The Chermside Drive-in Shopping Centre in Brisbane. By 1960, Myer had bought up some cattle-grazing land in south-east Melbourne and opened Chadstone, whose opening my late grandmother, then a resident of Clayton, attended.

Grandmother Grace was not much impressed by the televised event, and neither was Lucy, a now deceased neighbour of mine who had happened to arrive from Mildura to the Melbourne suburbs the week before. Lucy remembered a curious parade in the open-air part of the mall that featured one of its former residents, a dairy cow. Per Lucy’s account, the cow was in urgent need of milking, a task she insisted on performing.

I gather from these reports that not all older Australian ladies of the suburbs contiguous to the nation’s new malls were enthusiastic. But we did take to them just as enthusiastically as most in the US, save for Victor Gruen who had denounced the mall as a “bastard” by 1968, and never, ever liked the phrase “the Gruen transfer”.

Chadstone remains in business on the same site and it has expanded many, many times. Even in the unlikely case that any of its original structure is standing, none of it would be recognisable to my grandmother, who softened on the place when it started serving up enormous steamed dim sims and school holiday pantos for the grandkids. I suspect that parts of its so-called “Paris end”, where entry to the Gucci store requires customers to wait for a very buff bouncer to lift a velvet rope, are likely to be the oldest.

The entire thing has changed, and not only structurally. Unlike Westfield malls, which were sold to a French firm last year, Chadstone, still largely locally owned, has adapted every other minute to every potential consumer whim. I know this, as I never bothered to move very far from where I was born, and all the local bus routes lead to Chadstone.

A little more than a decade ago, Chadstone was a useful place to shop. It had a discount fresh goods market, several supermarkets, a haberdashery and even, I think, a Tandy. It once sold practical hard goods. It moved on to sell somewhat less practical hard goods. And now, I don’t even think the place called The Fashion Capital and described, accurately, as The Largest Shopping Mall in The Southern Hemisphere, is selling luxury goods as its core business. It sells an experience.

Chadstone sells Chadstone, the social event, and, frankly, I’m buying. Or, at least, I’m looking at the hordes of young people, often overseas visitors, walk around the place as though it’s the Viennese memory that Gruen intended.

Food halls and movie theatres serve things you don’t take home and stores like Adidas exist more as a branding exercise than a place to shop. There are always a dozen or so absurdly cool Desi kids who might as well be models just lounging about in the shop of the sportswear brand usually preferred by non-Nike kids.

Girls, and even boys, dressed as though they are in Tokyo’s Harajuku district pass by actual shopping centre DJs on Friday night. They may be wearing snow-white puffer jackets, sparkly capri pants, denim sunglasses but they always seem entirely usual in this unusual context. A consumer context so unusual that it now has a hotel standing beside, it — something from the Sofitel chain called M Gallery, a boutique brand that promises refinement to its customers.

I recommend Chadstone to any person who needs an H&M basic brand T-shirt (they’re often just $7.99) or a look at the extraordinarily dressed generation who buys experiences, rather than things.

Peter Fray

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