I still remember the first time I walked into Chanel. It was a dreary Friday afternoon with dark, threatening clouds lingering overhead. My friends and I were on our way home from a class excursion to the museum, and having just reached the lower end of Collins Street, which runs uphill, made us vulnerable to both nature and gravity. The rain came rushing down the street, hard and fast. For some reason I suggested that we walk into Chanel. It was right behind us, and it looked so clean and warm. Walking up the steps, I could feel the water seep into my clothes. My socks were wet and my glasses were foggy. There to greet us at the top of the steps was a doorman, who quickly looked us up and down, as if to assess whether we were there to steal or seek shelter.
When we stepped past the glass doors, I could feel my legs slowly turning to jelly. Nervous heat spread through my face and down my chest, though it was difficult to tell rain and sweat apart at this point. I was completely in awe: there, in clear glass displays were thousands of dollars’ worth of jewellery, perfume, and sunglasses. In a chamber to my right was the ready-to-wear collection, displayed like art. I caressed a navy tweed jacket, familiarising myself with its texture (because I knew that I’d never have the guts to walk into Chanel again), though applying the lightest touch because secretly I was terrified that it would crumble to dust. None of the sales assistants bothered to speak to me. Was it because I was wearing a school uniform? Or was it because I was wearing sneakers? I guess I’ll never know. All I can say for sure is that walking into Chanel for the first time was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Fashion and architecture have always been related art forms, as both must accommodate human bodies, human lives, and human experiences. We celebrate Cristóbal Balenciaga as one of the most innovative couturiers in history for his bulbous, cocoon shapes that encased the body like fluid armour. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that architecture separated itself from fashion in its purest form and joined a different conversation: retail. It is a conversation that is still had today, in high-rise executive offices filled with blueprints and sketches and budget estimates. Oddly enough, flashy retail superstructures started in a place we generally associate with the silent schools of avant-garde designers, with their deconstructed layers and amorphous silhouettes: Japan.
In her book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre, Dana Thomas states that “in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese economy flourished, giving birth to a newly flush middle class that wanted to live a more ostentatious life.” As distribution of luxury goods was limited, Japanese merchants would travel to Europe to buy bags smeared with logos, then bring them back to Japan to sell for three to four times the European price, giving rise to what is known as a “parallel market.” Louis Vuitton headquarters soon realised what was happening: Henry Racamier, who married into the Vuitton family, discussed plans with Japanese businessman Kyojiro Hata to expand the company to Japan, hoping to entice the increasingly wealthy middle class. By 1978, Louis Vuitton had opened its first Japanese stores in Tokyo and Osaka to great success. Other luxury brands quickly followed, and by the turn of the millennium “the Vuitton stores kicked off a luxury architecture war in Japan”: in 2001, Hermès opened a $137 million twelve-storey glass-brick tower in Ginza, which included 1,400 square feet of retail space, executive offices, an art gallery, and a small cinema; in 2003, Prada unveiled an $80 million six-storey emporium on the posh Omotesandõ street; and in late 2004, Chanel opened its $117 million Ginza boutique, a monolith of glass and steel.
There was a time when retail space felt warm and intimate, almost an extension of the designer’s own spirit. Often these stores would be directly below the creative studio, which in turn was close to the designer’s own home. But that culture changed when fashion brands fell out of their founders’ hands (or, in some cases, their descendents’ hands) and became collector’s pieces for tycoons like LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault. He, along with the heads of Kering, Richemont and, to a lesser extent, the Prada Group, spent a good share of the late 20th century buying brands from their founders. They effectively eliminated long-running familial ties to establish newer and bigger money-making machines.
With new owners, new products and new creative directors in charge of overseeing all levels of product and advertising design, creating a beautiful retail space was next on the agenda. But it didn’t make sense to just put these products in shiny display windows and wait for the customers to come, because the space had to be functional, modern, and most importantly, it had to be consistent with this new idea that luxury with synonymous with size. Just as the wealthy affirm their status via large homes, the biggest brands say it through real estate: the size of the store (which, more often than not, is completely disproportionate to the amount of stock for trade), the interior, and the location. It is very rare that you will see a Louis Vuitton store standing in isolation; there will be a Fendi or Christian Dior close by, like a show of solidarity to the LVMH billion-dollar empire.
Interestingly, though these brands try to position themselves as unique and authentic in an ever-crowded fashion arena, the store architecture can generally be traced back to one man, leather pants and all: Peter Marino. Marino opened his own firm in 1978—the same year that Louis Vuitton opened in Japan and thus began this rat race—and was soon able to count fashion designers, CEOs, and oligarchs of foreign finance among his clientele. He has since designed stores for Chanel, Armani, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Donna Karan. “As the brands have grown and expanded across the globe, the stores have become bigger and more opulent in their finishes,” writes Sheryl Garratt, in a feature of Marino for The Telegraph. “Dealing with the owners Marino had an advantage over other architects, because already he had their trust: he had designed many of their homes.”
A store opening is still very much a big deal among the fashion crowd, giving people yet another excuse to dress up and pose for cameras (whenever else would they have the opportunity to do that, after all?). There is so much glamour and aspiration infused in these luxury retail spaces that even the most strong-willed and confident people feel embarrassed about, or unworthy of, entering. In some cases, you may not even be given the chance to enter the store if you’re not appropriately dressed, which could mean anything from wearing Crocs to wearing a chicken suit.
My first experience inside Chanel was certainly embarrassing, but that store on Collins Street has since moved to a location on Flinders Lane (in fact, a store designed by Marino), a couple of blocks away at the former site of the Church of Scientology. However, over the years my understanding of fashion has evolved, and the elitist, exclusionary myths that once shrouded luxury retail spaces have less command over me because I know it’s all a ruse. I earn my own money and I have the right to buy, and when confidence drops there’s one thing that gives me comfort: the store that is the source of so much anxiety and panic will fall to the ground long before I do.
“Architects have big egos,” says Marino. “We like to think we’re creating pyramids and they’re going to be around for thousands of years. And it’s a joke, because they’re not even going to last our lifetime.”