The Evolution of Bulgari
How a 135-year-old Italian jewelry company became a luxury hospitality brand.
Saving humanity’s live retail experience from the cold metaverse — one dazzling flagship at a time.
PETER MARINO, THE world-famous architect, invites me to sit on a bench in his Southampton garden, facing a large early eighteenth-century stone fountain. He found it at a small auction in Bordeaux a few years back, when he was busy working on a couple of vineyards in the region. “I fell in love with it, and I knew I had to bring it here,” Marino says. “And yes, the logistics were complex, but it was worth it.” Indeed, it was. The water drops on the old, rugged stone evoke a sense of timelessness while we chat in the warm afternoon sun. Behind us, farther away, we can hear a gentle stream flowing from the arm of one of the Les Lalanne sculptures — a thin figure made of delicate bronze cabbage leaves — into a rectangular reflecting pool hosting water lilies and the occasional frog.
“It is so important to sit in a garden and enjoy it, without computers and phones,” Marino says. “I recommend it to everybody. It does not matter if it is a private or a public garden,” he adds. “It just brings back sanity and pleasure.” Marino’s own garden sprawls over 12 acres of trees and carefully designed paths that venture into orchards, around flowering beds, and past dozens of magical Les Lalanne animal sculptures and bronze-leafed sofas scattered on the lawn. This particular day comes with a bonus: an endless wall of multicolored azaleas along the main lawn in full bloom. While we sit, Elizabeth, a gardener from a nearby nursery, shows up to discuss filling a border behind the fountain. She has a couple of ideas and in a matter of minutes the decision is made: she will plant Hakonechloa Macra, a slightly golden Japanese forest grass that would look very good under a nearby Gingko tree.
Marino is the world’s most sought-after architect for luxury fashion stores and has a distinct habit of continuously setting new records.
Everything here defines Marino’s mantra. Every item must be unique and well-balanced. The attention to detail is laser sharp, ensuring the whole appears natural. It is the same mantra that’s brought him to an unprecedented pinnacle of success: Marino is the world’s most sought-after architect for luxury fashion stores and has a distinct habit of continuously setting new records. He certainly has the best private gardens in the Hamptons. Last year he completed the first renovation of the beautiful 1895 Rogers Memorial Library building on Jobs Lane in Southampton, which now houses the Peter Marino Art Foundation, his private museum.
Besides privately collecting works by major contemporary artists — Warhol, Basquiat, Kiefer, Muniz, and more — he has one of the world’s greatest troves of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, possibly the largest assemblage of Les Lalanne sculptures, and a stunning array of eighteenth-century Meissen and Chantilly porcelain. In fact, he was hired to design the Oriental Gallery of the Porzellansammlung, the Porcelain Collection at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Furthermore, Marino is chairman of the Venetian Heritage foundation and has published seven lavishly illustrated books. He is involved in dozens of projects on four continents in three equal categories: luxury stores, private residences, hotels, and residential towers. He even manages to play tennis, wearing black, of course, the shade of his iconic uniform.
Marino, 72, is in this usual all-black (and all-leather) attire — black cap, straps, chains, intimidating skull rings, dark shades, etc. — when he arrives on his motorbike to check on his latest triumph in New York: conquering the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. With a target inauguration date of Easter 2023, he will have finished redesigning the Tiffany building, his third store on the most coveted luxury intersection in the world. He previously designed major renovations of the Louis Vuitton and the Bulgari flagship stores, diagonally across from each other. It was the first time the same architect had been given the opportunity to reimagine those three corners, which are so intrinsically a symbol of New York. And there’s more. In line with his record-setting habit, he designed the U.S. flagship stores for Chanel and Dior (just east of Louis Vuitton on East 57th Street), Zegna, and Fendi (just west and south of Bulgari on Fifth Avenue). Fittingly, he also lives on East 57th Street, and his office is around the block on 58th.
While checking progress at the Tiffany building site, Marino is keenly aware of the more abstract and daunting new challenge he’s also confronting: the metaverse. His ambitious task is to defeat the oversold narrative of virtual retail by bringing real people back in the tens of thousands to his newly designed shops, wherever they are — Paris, London, Seoul, Tokyo, Rome. Marino reigns supreme in Place Vendôme in Paris, where he has completed eight stores, including Bulgari last year and Chanel just this past May. He has also completed projects on London’s Bond Street, including the latest renovation of Louis Vuitton.
Every year, he creates new stores for Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Dior — all with the latest innovations in design. To keep up with simultaneous projects, his firm, Peter Marino Architect, has assembled offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Southampton, employing over 160 people. And that is why the metaverse challenge is daunting. His clients — starting with LVMH and the company’s chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault — are investing billions of dollars in luxury stores around the world, and relying on him to attract people there.
The metaverse, which promises an experience identical to visiting physical stores, has ridden a wave of incredible growth in e-commerce during Covid. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Retail Trade Surveys have estimated a 43% growth of e-commerce sales in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, with similar margins in 2022. Meanwhile, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has estimated a growth of 50% in e-commerce sales from 2019 to 2021 in seven countries, including the U.S. and China, and an increase of 60% of users making purchases online in a survey of 66 countries.
Older people who once despised the internet have now learned how to shop online. They appreciate the convenience of home delivery. Both Amazon and Walmart are experimenting with delivery by drone, and now the metaverse is bringing the shopping experience into uncharted waters, creating virtual reality experiences, platforms where anybody can build their own shop, even shopping districts, like the one offered by MetaTown, a virtual town by BrandLab360. The promise is to be able to shop, socialize, connect, and network worldwide, and to dramatically transform the shopping experience, even at the luxury level, through the constant improvement of virtual reality.
To give an idea of the magnitude of the threat to traditional shopping, LVMH paid $15.8 billion in 2021 to buy Tiffany & Co., the largest acquisition so far by the world’s largest luxury company. And that’s before any investments in improvement. So besides transforming the flagship store on Fifth and 57th, Marino has to redesign other flagship stores in Milan, Paris, and Tokyo to keep up with the competition of virtual.
How does he feel about this encroaching metaverse? I ask. “Look,” Marino says, “the digital world has become like going to work. You shop for what you need in the moment — you stock underwear, black socks, and T-shirts. Digital has become drudgery, and drudgery is work, not fun. It’s not experiential. Luxury is different. What I seek to do for the luxury brand is to offer a day off. The new luxury shop experience is walking into a beautiful building at 11 in the morning and staying until six in the afternoon, strolling into an outdoor terrace museum, a garden, or a restaurant, seeing interesting people, or hearing a lecture while sitting on a wonderful couch. That is the opposite of drudgery. Give the consumer a gorgeous afternoon exploring their emotional side of life. Touch and feel and smell are real, not virtual. You cannot tell me that a computer will give you a gorgeous afternoon!”
Marino’s wildly successful career was not built overnight, or by chance, and certainly not by computers: “I am an old-fashioned humanist, and I got nothing from that computer experience. Now I see that people are crazy about NTFs, and sales are increasing rapidly. I think the jury is still out, but to me, that is an investment tool, and I do not buy art as investment. I buy it because I like it; I like to see it and enjoy it.”
‘The digital world has become like going to work. You shop for what you need in the moment. What I seek to do for the luxury brand is to offer a day off.’
Marino built his strong convictions and philosophy, learning directly in the field. Totally self-made, he started from scratch with no connections. He grew up in Douglaston, in the northeast corner of Queens, and studied architecture at Cornell University, which also offered classes in a New York City program. “I opted for that program,” he recalls, “and I ended up studying at a Union Square location.” He began hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub and restaurant that was the epicenter of Manhattan cool in the early ’70s. “It was my school-out-of-school and my platform into a new world.” Max’s Kansas City, located on Park Avenue South at 17th Street, was the favorite hangout for artists, poets, musicians, and writers. Among the regulars were Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Glass, Roy Lichtenstein, Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, Fran Lebowitz, and Andy Warhol, whose studio, known as the Factory, was nearby.
At Max’s Kansas City, Marino became friendly with Pat Hackett, Warhol’s diarist. The Factory was moving to new offices at 17th and Broadway, and Hackett recommended him for the job of designing the space. “Peter Marino was this bright young architect in his early 20s,” recalls writer Bob Colacello, who was then the equally young editor in chief of Interview magazine, produced at the Factory. “Andy liked the idea. They met, and both he and Fred Hughes [Warhol’s business manager] saw that there was real talent in Peter. They were both very good at discovering talents, and hired him. Peter did a wonderful job. He created a very attractive space and built beautiful tall glass doors to open into the Interview office. He became a regular — the rest is history.”
Soon Marino was hired to work on Warhol’s and Hughes’ private residences. “Andy was living with his mother at 1342 Lexington,” Marino recalls. “When she died, there were too many memories, so in 1975 he moved to East 66th Street, and I worked on the architecture of that home and on Fred’s, who moved to the Lexington place, while Jed Johnson decorated the interiors.”
Those were the key formative years for Marino, both artistically, through his extraordinary exposure to the art scene of the time, and in terms of connections. Back then, walking through the Factory was the height of glamour. Being natural, funny, and warm helped, of course. In those days, he wore a bow tie and a preppie jacket while meeting the Wertheimers, the owners of Chanel; the Shah of Iran and his wife Farah Diba; and Mick Jagger. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé hired him to do the architecture of their New York apartment at the Pierre Hotel, and in the early ’80s, Marella Agnelli asked him to be the architect of her new duplex on Park Avenue with Renzo Mongiardino decorating three public rooms. “She was calling me ‘Peterino,’” Marino recalls. Her husband, Gianni Agnelli, the industrialist who owned Fiat, and an international socialite and famed collector, would ask Marino to tag along visiting galleries. “He would call on Saturdays at 7 a.m., ‘Peter, are you ready?’ And we would go exploring the galleries of Bill Acquavella, Knoedler, Wildenstein, Wittgenstein, and Leo Castelli down in SoHo. We would go to the Frick, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim and MoMA further downtown. And I realized how much I was learning from a refined collector like Agnelli and others like him. Always learning is what I enjoy the most, and it is central to my work today.”
In those days, he wore a bow tie and a preppie jacket while meeting the Wertheimers, the owners of Chanel; the Shah of Iran and his wife Farah Diba; and Mick Jagger.
Those early accomplishments and relationships became Marino’s launching pad. He began designing stores for Barney’s, including an Armani boutique, which started his retail career. He continued working directly for Armani and shortly thereafter for Valentino, who was very close to Marella Agnelli. One of his innovations was introducing the works of emerging artists into luxury stores to create an aura of the avant-garde. This was in sync with his provocative design, which is a mix of traditional and contemporary surprises in his furnishing choices. Renaissance humanism — placing the human experience at the center of the equation — became the underlying principle behind Marino’s projects. And the mission continues: His foundation in Southampton has brought a new, artistic buzz into the heart of a town long associated with celebrated painters, from William Merritt Chase a century ago to the king of Pop Art, Roy Lichtenstein, but increasingly at risk of losing its artistic heritage after an influx of bankers, investors, and lawyers.
Many of Marino’s longtime clients have become close friends. “You end up knowing how they live, what art they have or like, and a private relationship grows,” he says. “I’m like the trusted, old surgeon who’s performed hundreds of operations. New ones are coming because I’ve done 500 stores, and I keep working with the same clients. I’ve worked with Bernard Arnault since 1995. A collaboration that, in my mind, defines an era.”
Italian photographer Priscilla Rattazzi, one of the private clients of his early period, tells me that they recently crossed paths at a wedding in Palm Beach, Florida, after having not seen each other for a while. Things had been difficult for her; her wonderful house Marino designed in 1990, was recently sold. They spoke, embraced, and shed tears, remembering a long-gone wonderful past. “He has true empathy,” says Rattazzi. “He is a lovely man.”
I ask Marino how he has managed to keep his sanity over a period of 40 years of craziness and global travel. “Focus,” he says. “Passion. But mostly, I married the right person, Jane Trapnell. We’ve been married for over 30 years. We raised Isabelle, our wonderful daughter, who works with me in the foundation. I make it a point for us to spend every possible weekend together.” Peter has also rejoined forces with his old friend at the Factory, Bob Colacello, who leads the conversations with the artists at the museum and foundation. He is also the editor of Foundation, a magazine published by Marino’s nonprofit. Fifty years later, a tradition continues.
Armed with this unique history of channeling into architecture and interior design his life experiences on the human and artistic side, Marino is now on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, well equipped to deal with the metaverse’s threat to the dwindling relevance of physical stores. So I ask him to give me a preview of this newest project, the Tiffany & Co. store. How will he design it? “Tiffany is the only real American luxury brand,” he tells me. “It was the original quality brand serving high society, and we want to bring the old glory back. I grew up with Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ I’ll always remember how brilliant Audrey Hepburn was portraying Holly Golightly and a certain timeless New York chic in the movie.”
“It would have been dreadful to change the exterior of the building,” he says, even though Tiffany & Co.’s New York flagship was built as recently as 1939 (the original Tiffany store opened in 1837 in downtown Manhattan). “But we’ll bring a revolution to the interior to make the shopping experience unforgettable.” Marino shares in great detail how he will transform the new Tiffany & Co. flagship store on Fifth and 57th. It will have a new main floor and different settings for a dynamic, ever-changing shopping experience. He has set aside space for a museum, a Michelin-level restaurant, and a garden on one of the new terraces he is building. Works of art will be displayed along the floors, he explains, where people can spend an entire afternoon if they want to.
“I have forever designed society apartments, and the feeling in the suites will be like one of those apartments, not a commercial space. It will be my trademark, like Elsa Peretti.” Possibly, like jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, Marino may also become an integral part of the brand. Coming to Tiffany & Co. to shop will be an adventure. And the more one listens to Marino, the more one wants to believe that he is right, that humanism will prevail over an algorithm. And that people will come — in person — by the tens of thousands.
Mario Calvo-Platero is a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Born in Tripoli, Libya, he received a degree in economics in Turin, Italy, and then a Fulbright scholarship to study international affairs at Columbia University. He has covered the White House, American politics, and economics for three decades. He lives in New York with his family.
Jonathan Becker is a photographer best known for his decades-long relationship with Vanity Fair. Throughout his career, he has photographed many of the most famous people in the world from the worlds of art, literature, and politics.
How a 135-year-old Italian jewelry company became a luxury hospitality brand.
Troubadour’s Embark Duffle is the unintentional diaper bag of your dreams.
A conversation with the creative director of Chloé and her eponymous fashion brand on standing up...
American design icon Kelly Wearstler shares her top spots for aesthetic awe.
Luxury linens from Pratesi are the stuff dreams are made of.