Inside Studio Sofield

Bill Sofield defines luxury retail.

Bill Sofield leans across the conference table in his downtown Manhattan office, a cleverly arranged marriage of All That Heaven Allows swank in front and Thurber-era New Yorker in back. He is working up to a confession.

“I’d rather be tortured than go shopping,” he says, his unassuming tenor voice slightly at odds with his six-foot-two stature. “I went to too many clothing stores as a kid—I accompanied my mother shopping all day long. But I think because of that I’m a great retail designer. I understand peoples’ discomforts and anxieties.”

Today Sofield is sitting alone in his office, happily and assiduously not shopping, while a few miles uptown the consumer wonderlands he’s dreamed up over the past year are buzzing. His 48-person firm, Studio Sofield, does residential and retail work in equal measure, but lately the retail projects have exploded. The studio has created the first global flagship for the British heritage label Belstaff, on Madison Avenue, and another a few blocks down for shoe designer Brian Atwood. A spate of boutiques are on the way, as are European rollouts for Belstaff and others. Add this list to a résumé that already brims with projects for Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Tom Ford—the fashion designer has been a stalwart client and a close friend for almost 20 years—and the results are formidable. While Sofield is not the best-known creator of high-end retail, he could very well be called its man of the moment.

“Bill’s worth his weight in gold,” says Harry Slatkin, CEO of Belstaff. “And he’s a guy, so that’s expensive.” In 2011, when Slatkin went looking for an architect to pump some helium into his history-laden brand, he surveyed what the competition was up to. “Milan, London, Paris, New York—everyone was becoming a glass box, and I couldn’t decipher one brand from the next,” he says.

Cue the soft-spoken, Princeton-educated Sofield, who can do without shopping but is crazy for stores. His favorites range from JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s handkerchief-sized jewelry boutique in Paris) to the former B. Altman in New York to Japanese hardware emporiums. What this diverse bunch shares is the capacity not to awe and impress, as today’s big-box palaces do so well, but to seduce and engage, drawing one into a relationship—with the touch, the narrative, the romance of a brand.

Seduction comes in many forms, and Sofield’s explorations of luxury retail’s sensual heart are as varied as the brands for which he works. A modernist by training and a behaviorist by nature, he refuses to define his aesthetic as sexy minimalism or cerebral cool; instead he talks about invigorating an overstimulated and under-inspired client through textural contrast, unusual materials and a combination of seemingly incongruous messages (imagine a Park Avenue princess cradling a Scotch in a Brooklyn Steampunk bar). The designer loves eggshell lacquer walls and canary-colored lounge chairs, steel-paneled staircases and hand-hammered bronze hardware. And while there is a good deal of stagecraft to what he does—he passed through Ralph Lauren in the late ’80s, after all—his genius is for layering materials and references in ways that feel both understandable and new.

“If an interior is too easily digestible, then you kind of see it once and you’ve done it,” Sofield submits. “I like things that reveal themselves over time.” Since his early days working with Tom Ford on Gucci, Sofield has become more comfortable referencing historical styles, pushing clients and himself beyond the modernist comfort zone. At Brian Atwood, for instance, he carved out windows onto Madison Avenue shaped like a stiletto heel as seen from behind, a move that delights him almost more than his client.

“Bill showed me all the materials,” says Atwood, “the mercury-glass mirror, the Rosso Fiorentino marble, the big chunk of purple quartz. He made me crazy—he could have sold me on anything at that point.”

“We show a lot, we see what filters out of the mix,” Sofield says. “And then we think, What are going to be the defining moments? The trick is to distill it all down to a few distinctive elements.”

And how, exactly, does he knit these disparate bits together?

He pauses, smiles conspiratorially and takes a sip of water. “We crochet.”

Studio Sofield is at 380 Lafayette St. For more information, call 212-473-1300.