NEW YORK, United States — “Dude, it’s ninety-five percent hard work!” the black leather-clad Peter Marino told BoF on his rise to the position of luxury fashion’s most influential architect. And work hard he has. Since founding his own architecture firm in New York in 1978, Mr. Marino has designed many of the world’s most forward-thinking retail temples, redefined the luxury flagship experience and established a decades-long tenure as the “go-to guy” for powerhouse firms like Chanel and LVMH.
“My first commissions were from Andy Warhol, Yves Saint Laurent and the Agnelli family,” said Mr. Marino. “Then the fashion world took notice. I started doing retail in the 80’s when Fred Pressman hired me to revitalise Barneys, which was then a sleepy men’s store. We introduced a really novel concept — no one had ever seen anything like it before.”
It was while working for Barneys that Mr. Marino met many of the world’s leading fashion designers: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Azzedine Alaïa, Miuccia Prada. “I worked with every single one of those designers to bring their boutiques into Barneys, which was tough, because we wanted a very cool and hip look for Barneys, yet I had to keep the designers happy,” he said. “Somehow, I was able to do that, so I got into it as a career.”
But developing retail concepts that translate the codes of the world’s leading fashion brands into three-dimensional space, while creating novel and engaging consumer experiences, is no easy feat. “My real charge from all of the brands and why they keep coming back, is that each time we do a new store, everybody feels like ’that’s the way the brand should look and it hasn’t always looked that way,’” explained Mr. Marino.
Sometimes this means working closely with the brand’s creative director, which is especially important when a fashion house is undergoing a major revamp, as with Céline, for which Mr. Marino is designing new Paris and New York boutiques. “Phoebe Philo really wants to be involved in the stores, reflecting her direction and interpretation of the brand,” said Mr. Marino.
But unlike many architects, Marino doesn’t start with pen and paper. “I’m a colours and materials kind of guy,” he said, describing his creative process. “I start with colours, paint, fabrics, wools, metal, steel and put them on a table and feel if it’s the brand,” he continued. “This is very different from going ‘Oh, I think I’ll make a two-storey space. Hey dude, you’re given the store! One out of ten, I get to do the whole building, but nine times out of ten you’re given an existing building, so you have a lot of internal architecture and certainly a lot of façade architecture [to contend with].”
Marino must also take into account some fundamental economic realities. “[Unlike a fashion collection] architecture is there for six to seven years,” he explained. “For all of the boutiques that I do, it’s the single largest cash investment these corporations make in anything — it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. They absolutely don’t want something that is going to be out of date three, four, even five years down the line.”
In the face of this challenge, Marino has a rather scientific approach. “We push the branding, let’s say, as a factor between ten and thirty percent, so I’m actually trying new things in every store and keeping the rest [constant] so you feel at home and so there is a continuum,” he said. “This is crucial for these corporations financially, which is why I say a continuum: change the new stores, but by the time you get to the end of the seven year period, which is how most of these stores are financed, then you’re ready to begin again, but none of them ever look out of date,” he explained. “That’s my formula.”
But perhaps what makes Marino most valuable to the fashion industry is the way he is so sharply attuned to the practical needs of retail. “Some companies might over intellectualise the process,” he said. “Shopping is shopping. I try to make goods very, very, very accessible. I’m not John Pawson who puts two bags on a wall sixty feet long because I think that’s just torture,” he continued. “If you’re there in the store, the idea is to see the merchandise, touch the merchandise and hopefully get some kind of emotional response out of it.”
Indeed, uniting emotion and shopping is something Mr. Marino does uniquely well. The London ‘Maison’ he designed for Louis Vuitton, which opened last year on Bond Street, is an ambitious examples of experiential retail, integrating work by artists like Takashi Murakami, Gilbert & George and Andrei Molodkin into the shopping environment, something Mr. Marino is famous for doing. “It’s really good bringing artists in early, because you create the space around their art and you work together with them,” said Mr. Marino. “The reason they’re artists is because they don’t see things they way you and I do. They have unique visions and it’s just fantastic. Some of the commissions that I’ve been allowed to do have really synced with my architecture.”
And while Marino has so far eschewed digital interfaces inside his stores, he has embraced new technologies to turn the façades of his flagships into cutting-edge works of art. “I think computers remove emotion,” he said. “But modern technology on façades is totally legitimate and we always push it.” Indeed, as part of his commision for Chanel’s Tokyo Ginza tower, Marino spent eighteen months developing a new kind of “triple polarised” glass which allowed him to turn the building’s exterior into a TV screen, while allowing those on the inside to see out. “We are [using new technologies] with Vuitton and we are doing a new Dior store in Seoul, which will have a beautiful lighting affect on the exterior,” he said. “And for Chanel we are doing a store in China which has a new computerised way of doing neon. It literally feels like a work of art.”
Unsurprisingly, Marino is responsible for many of the most impressive luxury flagships popping up across Asia. Last Week, Louis Vuitton chief executive Yves Carcelle hosted an opening party for the ‘Island Maison’ Marino designed for the brand at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino in Singapore. “It’s a vacation spot for millions of Chinese. It’s an occasion spot [sic] where you go for a week, you go to the casino, the amusement park, hopefully you go to the shopping center,” said Marino. “But [Vuitton] didn’t want to just be in the shopping centre like every other brand,” he explained. “The LV island is a real experiment in retail. It’s an object sitting in the water. You take a little wooden path 100 feet to the store, or there is a tunnel with a moving walkway; a little history of the company flashes by you, which is great fun, and then you come up,” said Marino, explaining the choreography of the consumer experience. “Because Vuitton, with their luxury luggage collection, owns the world of travel, it’s very much reminiscent of a luxury liner.”
With Chinese luxury consumption projected to account for 20 percent of global luxury sales by 2015, it’s no surprise that Marino is increasingly active in the country. “The stores there are anywhere form twenty to eighty percent larger than they are in the West, either due to optimism or the Chinese growth rate,” he said. “But I worry a little bit, because really big is hard to keep [it] luxurious,” he added. “I keep fighting against a lack of intimacy and a lack of surprise.”
Indeed, the demand for fashion is so high in today’s China that not all brands see the need to innovate architecturally. “They just make a box and stick it up and they are successful,” said Marino. “Here in the West, there is so much competition you have to raise the bar.” But in rapidly growing markets like China, flagships also serve to educate consumers. “They convey the brand’s origins, heritage and story,” he continued. “In every market survey that I’ve read or witnessed, [Chinese consumers] are very interested in this.”
For Marino, communicating authenticity is key. “One of the things that I do in China, specifically, is try to accentuate the origins of the company,” he said. “So with Loewe, the oldest Spanish luxury brand, we give it a bit more Spanishness,” he continued. “In this case, we would use an artist like Cristina Iglesias — we want Spanish artists there, because we want to get the message across that this is a Spanish luxury goods company.”
“For Chanel and Dior, I’m also very much promoting that they are French luxury brands,” he underscored. “This means a lot to the Chinese. When they go shopping, they want the legitimate experience of the brand.” Which is precisely what Mr. Marino is so very good at conjuring.
This piece was written by managing editor Vikram Alexei Kansara, with research from contributing editor Timothy Coghlan