If you want to see examples of beautiful art and design, you go to the Museum of Modern Art. If you want to take beautiful art and design home, you go to the MoMA Design Store.
That’s been Chay Costello’s ethos since she started working at MoMA as a fashion accessories buyer for the Design Store 24 years ago. Now, as the store’s associate director of merchandising, she’s been instrumental in elevating it above a simple museum gift shop. It’s now a strong and growing retail business with three physical locations, a robust online presence and cultural cachet of its own.
The Design Store has introduced brands to the U.S. that are now household names in the market, like Muji. It’s also widely collaborated with designers like George Sowden on product collections. Currently, Costello and the rest of the Design Store team are preparing for an October launch of a collaboration with both Japanese footwear brand Subu Slippers and British artist and designer Yinka Ilori. The store’s growth is an example of how something as simple as museum merchandise can grow to be a significant source of revenue with the right merchandising and marketing behind it.
“We are a design store, not just a museum gift shop,” Costello said. “We review everything we carry in the store with the curators of the museum. They are an amazing resource we have access to. We always try to tie the merchandising of the store to the exhibitions happening in the museum at the same time. It’s a way for people to bring a little bit of the art and design they love from MoMA home with them.”
In addition to working with artists and securing licensing deals with brands including Uniqlo, the Design Store has begun to develop as a brand of its own. Costello said she first became aware that the Design Store had a strong brand potential in 2017. That was when MoMA ran a four-month exhibition titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” As part of the collection, the Design Store team designed a fashion collection that included a hoodie and a baseball cap emblazoned with the Design Store logo.
The pieces were a hit, and the Design Store is still making and selling them, long after the MoMA exhibit that birthed them has moved out.
For all its unique characteristics, the Design Store in many ways functions like a typical retailer, especially when it comes to marketing. MoMA is the most followed museum in the world on social media with more than 13 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and X. While it sells across a number of categories like home goods and technology, Costello said fashion is closest to her heart. Some of the best-selling products in the store’s history are fashion accessories, like a MoMA-branded New York Yankees cap.
“We have key marketing moments throughout the year,” Costello said. “Like a lot of retailers, we’re gearing up for the holiday season right now, which is when we shift focus from exclusive product launches and toward gifting. It gets so hectic during the holidays that it’s hard to do those big storytelling moments, so we usually position those earlier in the year. We market around moments like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, and we always try to time things at the store with the museum’s exhibition schedule.”
And, like other successful retailers, the Design Store has translated its increased sales into physical expansion. It now has three stores in New York City, plus two locations in Tokyo and Hong Kong. The New York stores and Tokyo store launched in the early 2000s, while the Hong Kong store opened in 2019.
The Design Store has been successful enough to become a significant source of revenue for the whole museum.
“Our digital business is on a strong growth trajectory,” Costello said. “The reach of the Design Store can bring attention to the museum itself. We have people who shop with us who have never even been to the museum. One hundred percent of our proceeds go to the museum. The opportunity for us is that there’s excitement for both the store and the museum.”