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The 70-year-old biker-architect who’s literally shaping the luxury industry

Lauded architect Peter Marino, the man predominantly responsible for the look of every Chanel, Dior or Louis Vuitton boutique you may have seen, says that if luxury stores want to be ‘less intimidating’, they should offer 50 per cent markdowns.

The 70-year-old biker-architect who’s literally shaping the luxury industry

Peter Marino (right) with Christian Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano. (Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth)

Peter Marino’s first experience of shopping was as a child, tagging alongside his mother on their occasional trips to town from his home in Queens, New York. In the 1950s, the Manhattan department stores were dark and labyrinthine, designed to slow the senses and immerse the client in a vast cocoon of schmatta. Time would stop. The space would shrink. Marino loathed it.

An acute claustrophobic, who still rides a motorbike because he cannot stand being trapped in a car, the experience was awful. “You couldn’t breathe. All department stores had no light. They didn’t want the lady to realise she’d been there for two hours . . . and the light of day was changing. I found that so sinister. The more I learned about department-store thinking, the more I was repelled.”

Marino has spent the past 50 years eviscerating those notions of the upscale retail space. A lauded architect, and the man predominantly responsible for the look of every Chanel, Dior or Louis Vuitton store you may have seen, we have met on a scorching hot day in July at the Bristol hotel in Paris; the 70-year-old is dressed in his customary uniform of leather biker trousers, boots, leather biker cap and leather gilet. His look recalls the doorman at an underground fetish club but Marino’s claustrophobic leanings are untickled by the heat.

Marino’s bizarro deportment is a deceptive guise. He’s actually quite conventional – long-term married to his wife Jane and daddy to 28-year-old daughter Isabelle. He graduated from Cornell University, and founded his architecture and design firm Peter Marino Architect, in New York, in 1978.

That same year, Andy Warhol hired him to create the third incarnation of his famous Factory. In 1985, he was commissioned by the Pressman family, then-owners of the US department store Barneys. He designed 17 of their shops. Further clients followed – Armani, Calvin Klein and Chanel among them. Today, he oversees some of the most expensive shop fits in the business, and quotes his projects as costing “in excess of US$1,000 (S$1,363) [per] foot”.

His latest work is the transformation of the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Bond Street in London. A 17,435 sq. ft. emporium of polished limestone, it features a double helix staircase, artwork by James Turrell, and lots of man-friendly sitting areas: Chaps favour a chair while waiting for their wives to shop, said Marino, because it makes them feel more comfortable.

“They get nervous on a sofa because it’s sociable and somebody might talk to you.” The project has taken more than 14 months, and cost a multitude of millions, but its most spectacular feature is its epic use of light.

“I want to breathe,” said Marino when asked of the unifying themes of his design. “The customers in the stores I do are intelligent enough to understand that if you look out of a window and see a tree, it’s not going to keep you from buying a dress. That’s old schmatta-land thinking: ‘Never get the customer distracted’. I’m a heavy believer in natural light,” he said. “Dark rooms are for sex; light rooms are for shopping.” He stops, and looks at me. “I didn’t say that.”

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ARCHITECTURE IN THE AGE OF THE INTERNET

Marino’s career has coincided with the rise of the megabrand, and much else has changed. How far have internet shopping, global expansion and shifting consumer habits changed the thrust of his design?

“There are trends, but there are also eternal truths,” said Marino. “I cut my teeth on Barneys in the 80s, doing the first women’s store, and there are a couple of things that still hold true.” Such as? “Things like nine out of 10 people enter a store and turn to the right, because nine out of ten people are right-handed” said Marino, before pointing out that men travel more distinctly anticlockwise while women tend to “zigzag” through a store.

“The customers in the stores I do are intelligent enough to understand that if you look out of a window and see a tree, it’s not going to keep you from buying a dress.” – Peter Marino

“So, as an architect, your most important look is not what’s directly in front of you, it’s to the right. And those are kind of eternal things with shopping. As much as the brands like to pretend the statistics have changed, they haven’t.”

But the concept of the store has changed as well. “The new trend is in pop-up shops, which are experimental and are supercool,” agreed Marino. “That’s a new phenomenon in retail. And they are so colourful, they’re off the charts. But they’re ephemeral, and you can be experimental, and this is a great new freedom. What I do, with the budgets of what I do, has to last for 10 years.”

But the Louis Vuitton store in London last got a revamp nine years ago – even that timeline is truncating. Marc Jacobs was then artistic director at large of Louis Vuitton. The whole creative team has since shifted, and the store must showcase a large and varied range of products, including Nicolas Ghesquiere’s womenswear, Virgil Abloh’s menswear and Francesca Amfitheatrof’s fine jewellery. Marino’s solution has been to create a gallery-like space with neutral backdrops against which a range of products are displayed.

“I’m an architect paid out of advertising budget,” said Marino, who is soft-spoken, easy-going and funny. “So my work, like advertising, is built on the statistic that of the four people who enter the shop three will leave without having bought anything. The point of my doing a beautiful store is that, aspirationally, those three people will return and become one of the purchasers next time. But it’s not about pure materialism either, because it’s a sense of beauty, of art combining with fashion, and the hundreds of hours that go into these fashion collections. And people respond to it. They really do.”

“My work, like advertising, is built on the statistic that of the four people who enter the shop three will leave without having bought anything. The point of my doing a beautiful store is that, aspirationally, those three people will return and become one of the purchasers next time.” – Peter Marino

CAN LUXURY STORES BE ‘LESS INTIMIDATING’?

In a world obsessed with experience, Marino’s stores are big on feels. But ask him whether luxury stores have become more inclusive, and he bats away the question. “It’s funny, because I never think of a store as being exclusionary, except in the case of a jewellery store which has locks on it, which is a little bit intimidating. But I’ve studied dozens of surveys and, in the end, if you do surveys of 100 people, 70 would say they find luxury stores very intimidating. So what does that really mean?”

It means they can’t afford it.

“Thank you,” Marino nodded. “Nothing has changed in this regard. Whether you’re exclusionary, or inclusionary. I could leave the door open . . . and it wouldn’t make any difference. All of the surveys keep saying you have to be less intimidating,” he rolled his eyes. “I usually just throw it back and say: You want to be less intimidating? Why not have a 50 per cent markdown sale. You’ll be amazed by how popular you’ll become.”

Even so, his stores are pretty popular: Contributing in no small way to the brand’s “remarkable performance” cited by the LVMH group in its third-quarter revenue report. “The average time in a store is between 30 and 40 minutes,” said Marino, returning to the numbers. “If it’s a flagship it’s up to an hour-and-a-half. If you look at the Champs Elysees, it’s unbelievably inclusive. I was there Saturday, there were whole families with five, six kids. They had no intention of buying anything at Vuitton. They all had their little Zara shopping bags, they were just like, look, we’re at Vuitton, taking pictures, being tourists, looking at the art.”

For Marino, shopping will always be a sensual experience. Does he worry about being extinguished by T-Mall, or other internet innovations whereby people will only shop from the comfort of their own naturally lit living rooms?

“Human reactions are very similar,” he said. “Women still stroke the walls in my Chanel store. It’s quilted leather and they’re supposed to touch it. They’re supposed to feel that this is a special experience. You’re not going to get that pressing a button of your computer.”

“You know I don’t have a computer,” he added, when asked if he works in competition with the web, or alongside it. “I’m totally unaware of anything. I am the original Luddite. There’s only a few of us left,” he continued. “And I’m proud of it. I want to go to the grave telling people I’ve never had a computer.”

So, does he see the future of the store as inviolable? “For sure. Because they define the brands more than anything. The fashion show comes and goes. There’s so many of them, so much fashion being thrown at you that the only thing you can retain is the store. It’s still the thing that best reflects the total values of the brand.”

And with that, he takes his leathers and heads out. Into the light.

“Women still stroke the walls in my Chanel store. It’s quilted leather and they’re supposed to touch it. They’re supposed to feel that this is a special experience. You’re not going to get that pressing a button of your computer.” – Peter Marino

By Jo Ellison © 2019 The Financial Times

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