On opening day at Prada's new Los Angeles store, Miuccia Prada, wearing flip-flops and a skirt that appeared to have been made from a beaded bamboo curtain, stood halfway up a vertiginous wall of wooden steps, which squatted in the middle of the space like an Aztec temple. She was overshadowed by an outsize headless mannequin inflated to the scale of Michelangelo's David. A flesh-colored satin-and-diamanté bra hung over her head, dangling from a steel rod.
Up on the top floor, her architect, Rem Koolhaas, was taking a break from rebranding the European Union and from building Central China Television's new Beijing headquarters. He pointed out the store's computer screens that sample local TV channels for decorative newzak and the tricksy dressing rooms where clear glass walls turn opaque at the touch of a button. The California sun glistened on Koolhaas's shaved head as he gushed over the wall's informational screens—which keep customers posted on the percentage of Americans older than 65 living in nursing homes—and the menswear display that looks as though it were modeled after an airport security system. Despite his reputation for gravitas, Koolhaas still seemed touchingly enthusiastic about the prospect of a conversation with Brad Pitt.
Designed by Koolhaas, one of this generation's most influential architects, the store delights in its own unpredictability to a degree that is, well, almost predictable. Of course, it doesn't have a big sign hanging outside (reassuring nearsighted customers with backlit logos is strictly for Wal-Mart). Who needs a display window when you can bury a couple of mannequins beneath glass portholes in the sidewalk out front, offering a glimpse of a subterranean worm's lair? There isn't even a front door, just an aluminum barrier (perhaps to deter truck bombers?) that is lowered every morning—to the accompaniment of blaring Klaxons and flashing lights—by invisible hydraulics. The other merchants on Rodeo Drive opt for acres of marble and gold leaf, along with a frosty door policy, so of course Prada presents itself as an extension of the street, lining its store with foam, polycarbonate, and aluminum.
This is Miuccia Prada's latest collaboration with a high-profile architect. In 2001 a Koolhaas-designed store opened in New York, carved out of the former downtown outpost of the Guggenheim Museum for a rumored $40 million. Then Herzog & de Meuron, the team of Swiss architects now working on the main stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, did a freestanding store in Tokyo in 2003 that definitely cost more. That building's diamond-patterned steel structure is infilled with huge glass sheets that range from flat to gently curved, like soap bubbles about to pop.
These three Prada stores are the most extreme (and most expensive) examples of fashion's pursuit of high architecture and the cultural credibility that comes with it. And apparently, the more cerebral the architect, the better. To this end, Yohji Yamamoto imported London-based Ron Arad to design his latest Tokyo shop, and Giorgio Armani partnered with Massimiliano Fuksas in Hong Kong. Dolce & Gabbana chose David Chipperfield to create an innocent, all-white backdrop for its anything but chaste version of fashion.
It was Calvin Klein's architect, John Pawson, who introduced high-concept minimalism to New York's Madison Avenue in 1996. Monochromatic, near-empty spaces became the default style for fashion retailing because they seemed to imply that a clothing shop could also be an art gallery. In such a setting, fashion looked as if it mattered, as if it were worth the money. Pawson and Klein in particular seemed to touch a nerve that reached beyond shopping. The story goes that a band of wandering Trappist monks stepped into Calvin Klein's store one day and were so taken with its elegantly spare spaces that they immediately decided to hire the architect to design their monastery. Sure, this is a myth—but not by much. Actually, the monks' abbot had seen Pawson's work in a book and commissioned him to design the monastery. And it is perfectly true: The monks asked Klein to design their robes. He agreed. They changed their minds, however, when they realized that such chic might attract unbecoming publicity—not something the fashion world would regard as a problem.
Beyond visibility, what fashion really needs from architecture, or from art for that matter, are ideas. Forced to feed the relentless monster of style and hungry for images that can reach even the most jaded among us, designers strip-mine everything and anything for inspiration.
Prada's strategy of working with different architects, rather than opting for a single look for all its stores, is not revolutionary. In the eighties, when it was a mark of pride to ensure that every Armani and Vuitton from Honolulu to Helsinki looked identical, Doug Tompkins, the owner of the then-hot Esprit, commissioned Norman Foster, Ettore Sottsass, and Shiro Kuramata, among others, to design various stores. The experiment came to an abrupt end when Tompkins moved to Chile to save the rainforests.
The current relationship between architecture and fashion carries a creative tension since the two fields can appear incompatible. One is about permanence; the other is inextricably linked to constant change. Architecture offers fashion an escape route from the ephemeral succession of styles. After all, marble lasts forever. Even Koolhaas's aluminum and foam have more longevity than Prada's winter collection.
Architects of a certain age may still argue that fashion is frivolous, a minor art, like snuffbox making or glassblowing. But there is nothing minor about fashion, which, unlike constructing snuffboxes, mainlines on sex, status, and celebrity. And deep down, even the sniffiest of architects knows this, accounting for the fact that during most of the last century, the architecture world was both fascinated by and dismissive of fashion. Le Corbusier put the mutual antagonism into words when he inferred that style in architecture was as insignificant as the feathers on a woman's hat: pretty enough, but of no real importance. Adolf Loos, on the other hand, who once famously suggested that "ornament is crime," set the style for the menswear shop by designing Knize in Vienna in 1910, which can claim to be the first designer store in the world and was where Mies van der Rohe bought his beautifully tailored suits. Since then, fashion has morphed from a craft into an international industry, in the process conferring a huge amount of clout—both financial and cultural—to those who control it. Fashion is just too big and powerful to be written off as a shallow sideshow.
Now heavyweight architects are only too happy to take on fashion commissions, to share a little of that reflected glow of celebrity. Every ambitious new designer is signing up his or her own personal architect: Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen have both resorted to young, hip architects (Universal Design Studio and William Russell, respectively) to demonstrate that they are, in fact, younger and hipper than their older colleagues, who themselves have to try even harder to show they can still cut it. As a result, fashion and architecture are converging at an alarming speed. Each side is feeding on the other.
Designer Rei Kawakubo, who founded Comme des Garçons in 1973 and helped redefine Japanese fashion for a Western audience, is betting that the enthusiasm for high-profile architecture will prove a dead end. The architecture of her early shops was as radical as her approach to clothes. Her first in New York, designed with Takao Kawasaki in 1983, looked absolutely nothing like a traditional clothing store; no merchandise was in the windows and not much more was in the shop itself. Instead of broadcasting its wares to passersby, the Wooster Street store acted like a filter, its slightly menacing character demanding a certain amount of courage from customers. In Tokyo this kind of reticence was well understood. At its Roppongi shop, Comme des Garçons took minimalism to the extreme, displaying no merchandise at all. Garments were kept on shelves, screened from sight; customers had to request them. In 2001 Kawakubo joined Ab Rogers and Shona Kitchen in building a Paris store where glossy red display units moved back and forth like sleek robots.
With its cracked concrete floor and fissured raw-plaster walls, that first American Commes des Garçons store on Wooster (which is now closed) suggested the setting for a familiar sci-fi scenario: A band of survivors from some apocalyptic catastrophe gather in the ruins of a more technologically advanced past to barter over the last few surviving scraps of fabric. When Kawakubo opened it two decades ago, she was the first to see the possibilities of constructing a fashion store resembling an art gallery—or a work of art. Today, of course, when even The Gap tries to echo an art gallery, such a strategy has lost its punch. So Kawakubo's latest architectural method is to produce what she calls the guerilla store, which looks as if squatters have usurped an abandoned shop. The first launched in Berlin this past February, followed by an opening in Barcelona in March. The only way that you know you're not in a thrift store is by checking the price tags. Perhaps this is the most avant-garde approach to architecture of all: to make it so invisible that it ceases to exist.
MORE SITES TO SEE
Fashion hardly has a monopoly on great retail design. Witness these seven recently opened shops by innovative architects.
IDEA STORE, LONDON
Architect: David Adjaye
Tower Hamlets, a London borough, disbanded its public library in favor of a series of Idea Stores, where customers can buy or borrow books, CDs, and DVDs. Adjaye striped his shop with clear and colored glass, turning it into a neighborhood beacon. Curved shelving units create coziness amid the cacophony, for unlike a traditional library, the Idea Store allows talking—even on cell phones. At 1 Vesey Path.
SUPREME, LOS ANGELES
Architects: Harry Allen and Simparch
When James Jebbia decided to open a California branch of Supreme, his hip New York skateboard shop, he turned to designer Harry Allen. Taking his cues from a giant skate "bowl" by the artists' collective Simparch, Allen designed fixtures in plywood and metal. "It's humble," he says, "but all very considered." At 439 N. Fairfax Ave.
PUBLIX SUPERMARKET, MIAMI
Architect: Wood + Zapata
Miamians refer to the South Beach Publix as "our own little Guggenheim Bilbao." New York-based Wood + Zapata placed a parking lot on the supermarket's roof, then built ramps for customers (and carts). The ramps create a place to see and be seen—a very Miami icon. The project propelled the architects into the major league, leading to new commissions—the revamp of Chicago's Soldier Field, for one. At 1920 West Ave., Miami Beach.
APPLE STORES, WORLDWIDE
Architect: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
With its iBooks and iPods, Apple has made design part of its mission, and its 87 retail stores follow suit. When a site needs a new exterior, the company hangs sheets of steel; at other locations it goes contextual (in Chicago: Indiana limestone). The interiors are as crisp as a good WiFi connection. A London store is slated to open in December. /retail.
IIT CAMPUS CENTER, CHICAGO
Architect: Rem Koolhaas
This is more than the Illinois Institute of Technology's bookstore and student center—it provides entrée into mondo Koolhaas, a world bursting with architectural invention. Before Koolhaas built on the site, which ran beneath elevated tracks, he noted the paths students took across campus; he then used those lines to generate a dazzling floor plan of triangles and trapezoids. The store sells mugs printed with the image of Mies van der Rohe (who designed IIT's original buildings), so merchandise featuring the leader of architecture's Rem-formation can't be far behind. At 3201 S. State St.
Architect: Kazuyo Sejima
Herzog & de Meuron's Prada and Sejima's Dior shops draw fans to Tokyo's bustling Omotesando. But true aficionados follow a side street to Sejima's hhstyle, a furniture store behind a wall of mint-green glass as elegant as the 20th-century classics on display. Two upcoming U.S. projects—the New Museum of Contemporary Art in lower Manhattan and a gallery in Ohio—should gain her a Western audience. At 6-14-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku.
DE LAIRESSE APOTHEEK, AMSTERDAM
Architect: Concrete Architectural Associates
Circles symbolize wholeness, which is why the designers of this homeopathic pharmacy fit a round store into a square building. At the center of the circle—made of 522 translucent plastic drawers—is a futuristic Corian counter supported by a massive tree trunk over a gingko-leaf floor. At 40 De Lairessestraat.