Architecture and fashion – specifically, the fashion of how people are clad – have a long and complex relationship. Each has influenced the other in a variety of manners ranging from the way in which a space serves as a stage on which new fashions can appear to how fashion is influenced by a design philosophy embodied in an architectural style. The colors, patterns, forms, degrees of elaboration of clothing have influenced wall covering, drapery, and the overall style of rooms. The habit of hosting large dinners and balls, parties and salons, has shaped the form that historic domiciles have taken. The broader lifestyle of bedrooms, dressing rooms, morning rooms, game rooms, drawing rooms, receiving halls, kitchens, and servants’ rooms could all said to be closely linked to what is considered fashionable and the broader habits of a given society.
The relationship between architecture and fashion, however, does not become explicit until the 19th Century when the first structures built specifically for selling clothing come into existence – promoting what is fashionable as a sales tool in the process. Prior to these structures, places for making and buying clothing were largely done within the typology of the workshop or home. Clothing would often be sewn in these shops and then brought to the homes of the wealthy to try on. The typologies of the factories that produced the fabric for the clothing were hardly distinct from many other factories producing other types of goods. The same could be said for the farms from which the cotton was harvested or the pastures where sheep roamed. In this sense, a typology directly associated with fashion did not yet exist. Even when clothing was sold via a storefront – often below the tailor’s home – there was little difference between stores selling other goods elsewhere on the street. When the more prominent designers began occupying more elaborate homes with space for expansive salons that there aristocratic clients could visit to try on their new gowns, the typology still remained fundamentally that of the house. The interior, however, began to reflect their specific brand and open the possibility of a much more elaborate reflection of their identity via architecture.
Before this elaborate connection between identity, brand, and architecture was fully developed, a series of new built structures came into existence that were designed specifically for retail. We have explored this evolution in a recent essay on the future of retail. In this essay, we will be more concerned with what has come to be known as high fashion or haute couture. In this sense, we will not look at the mainstream trends in the evolution of retail architecture ranging from the introduction of the expansive plate glass windows of the Chicago School department store to the new typology of the suburban shopping mall. Instead, we will look at the exceptions to these typologies in the form of unique or even idiosyncratic spaces that come to define the allure of a particular designer and their brand. We will look at both permanent structures as well as more ephemeral temporary structures. In doing so, we will ultimately ask where this typology might be headed in the years to come and how we might contribute to this evolution.
The foundation of an explicit relationship between architecture and fashion lies in the desire to create a space specifically designed for display. In this sense, the relationship between architecture and fashion is connected to the broader history the gallery and the museum as well as the theater. In the case of fashion, there is a great concern with creating an ongoing atmosphere rather than a more neutral platform on which rotating exhibitions can be staged. The space of fashion should convey the brand and give the guest a sense of what that brand means, what it stands for, why it is of value, and the type of person the person who wares the items could become. If we think about Chanel’s iconic first store at 31 Rue Cambon – as well as her own apartment above the store – the space exuded the luxurious world in which her clientele lived. The same could perhaps be said of the stores of other early 20th century designers. The stores, however, were more driven by decoration than a genuine collaboration with an architect to achieve something novel.
There are not many pre-World War II examples of explicit collaborations between fashion houses and architects. This is, in part, a result of the relatively nascent state of both global fashion and architecture. Of course, both have always existed, but have done so at a mostly local level and before the framework of global consumerism and late capitalism that has driven an explosion of global luxury as well as propelled the careers of a range of star architects. Some of the examples that do exist prior to World War II are not yet explicit collaborations with fashion houses, but with a broader brand on a pavilion to promote that brand or showcase its products. These include the world’s fairs that began in the 19th century as tools to showcase industrial, commercial, and consumer goods. They can also be seen in the collaboration between Le Corbusier and Philips on the Philips Pavilion.
The pre-war collaborations between architects and branded experiences, of course, were minimal as compared to what would occur beginning in the early 1970s with the rise of global consumerism. Stores like Fiorucci redefined retail and more broadly how clothing was displayed and sold. The Gap, which originally just sold Levi’s and LPs, pioneered a store devoted to selling a particular lifestyle. Both made use of novel displays and store style – the former opting for opulent disco, while the latter opted for a more minimal approach. The Gap stores would propel the rise of the largest architecture firm in the world, Gensler. The expanding boutique retail landscape of Manhattan would create new opportunities for designers such at Peter Marino who got his start as an independent architect renovating Andy Warhol’s townhouse at 57 E. 66th St. in Manhattan. He would go on to become the principal architect for Barney’s New York. This work would lead to an extensive career designing luxury boutiques for the world’s leading fashion brands.
At the same time, more experimental architects were considering how space, form, color, atmosphere, and objects more broadly were related to the underlying drives that fuel our desire to wear something, be somewhere, or participate as part of a community. Architects such as Diller and Scofidio – inspired perhaps, in part, by post-structuralist critical theory as well as a resurgent interest in surrealism and dada and its implications for how we relate to and produce space and architecture – began to make constructs, installations, exhibition designs, and theatrical sets that interrogated our relationship to brand, identity, and fashion. While not yet at the scale of a building, these experiments began to test the limits of what a building could be, the form that it could take, and the way that the inhabitant might relate to its architecture. The work was accompanied by more theoretical work of architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown who further analyzed how form and architecture in general relate to desire, meaning, and perhaps ultimately consumer habits.
During the 1990s, a tremendous amount of wealth was accumulated by a number of fashion houses. These historic luxury goods purveyors saw their fortunes expand at an exponential rate due in no small part to a period of rapid globalization following the fall of the Berlin Wall. This process was also accompanied by a period of global deregulation and denationalization of industries in Russia, Central and South America, and Asia. This process created immense wealth and an entire new class of individuals who were eager to consume luxury goods in order to showcase their new status. As this occurred, there was a greater need to distinguish one’s brand from others. Moreover, there was a desire to create a global brand that could be recognized through consistent stores encountered in markets all around the world.
These brands were able to take new risks and make greater investment in employing architecture and even ground-up new construction as a result of the tremendous success and cash stockpiles they had on hand after a decade of success. At the same time, consolidation within the industry was occurring which allowed for redundancy in marketing, advertising, HR, and even production to be reduced. LVMH and Kering are exemplary of this trend. LVMH owns 75 houses while Kering owns 16. At the same time, independent and family owned brands such as Hermes, Burburry, and Chanel have been able to list their companies publicly and generated tremendous capital to help further expansion. This is also true for companies such as Valentino and Lanvin that have sold to wealth funds in the Middle East and China respectively. Other companies such as Prada that remain entirely privately held benefited equally from this decade of success.
Prada perhaps more than the other luxury houses was instrumental in exploring and capitalizing on collaboration with noted architects. This collaboration began through commissioning Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA / AMO to study their brand and develop a strategy for distinguishing it globally. This work extended from Koolhaas’ research at the Harvard GSD into shopping and globalization more broadly. The result was the creation of a unified brand experience across a series of more traditional stores that extended from the minimal celadon green stores for which the brand had become known while also creating a series of flagship stores that were architecturally singular. At the same time, it resulted in a broad strategy for how customers would interact with the brand, make purchases, and even how new clothing would be presented to the public.
In terms of specific work of architecture, the first product of the collaboration was the Prada Store on the corner of Prince and Broadway in New York. The store took the unconventional approach of essentially voiding the entire ground level of the store of the shopping experience – essentially making it a display space without customers – and instead inviting customers to descend to the lower level via a circular elevator or unique set of stairs. Once on the lower level, they were then able to enter a cavernous windowless space defined by shelves moving along rails to provide maximum flexibility. Customers were essentially held captive in this space removed from the life of the street above. The store provided further innovation by designing the primary stairs to the lower level as both a means of descent and also a seating area facing a curving form that could “open” to become a stage.
The collaboration also led to the design of the Prada store in Los Angeles, the Prada Transformer – a temporary structure that can be rotated onto different faces in order to accommodate different functions – an ongoing collaboration on the design of runway shows, and finally the Fondazione Prada – a massive arts complex designed to house Miuccia Prada’s art collection as well as rotating exhibits. At the same time, Prada commissioned Herzog and de Meuron to design their flagship store in Tokyo. This extremely luxurious building that occupies a fraction of the total land mass in perhaps the most expensive shopping district in the world expands upon the notion of shopping as a form of theater. Private shopping rooms are distributed throughout the building and can be turned into private salons occupied for hours by shoppers who eat and drink as they try on clothing and make decisions on what to buy.
Similar collaborations have occurred between Future System and Commes de Garcon on their stores in New York and Tokyo. They can also been seen in the collaboration between Toyo Ito and Tods and later Mikimoto in Tokyo. We might also think of the space Frank Gehry designed for Issey Miyake in Tribeca or MVDV designed for Chanel in Amsterdam. It has also occurred on more ephemeral structures such as the collaborations between Zaha Hadid and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel on a temporary pavilion. These structures have all showcased a high level of inventiveness that calls attention to their existence within the broader urban fabric. They show evidence of a sense of risk taking and experimentation. In some ways, the experimentation that occurs in these projects will then play out more broadly in the work of the architect on projects for more conservative institutional clients. The collaboration, in this sense, has led to the diffusion of some avant garde tendancies of fashion into the field of architecture and urban planning as well as cultural, political, and social institutions more broadly.
As this has occurred, there have also been an increasing degree of collaborations between visual artists and fashion houses. This has manifested in more elaborate runway shows driven by the vision of the creative director, but often executed in collaboration with a specific artist. In some cases – such as Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton – the creative director also has a career as an artist. Another example might be the broader vision for architecture and space that Kanye West has established as an extension of his music and fashion brands. It can also be seen in collaborations between artists such as Murakami and Louis Vuitton as well as Theaster Gates as an advisor to Prada. The result is to increasingly blur disciplinary lines and create opportunities for creative professionals to capitalize on each other’s reputation and extend influence into new spheres that might otherwise not have been possible.
What then are the broader consequences for how we approach the relationship between fashion, architecture, and art in the future? The collaboration between architects and fashion designers will continue to offer the chance to push the limits of disciplinary boundaries. It will create room to take risks and infuse the respective fields with new ideas. It will also continue to create opportunities for both to reach new markets. At the same time, it will continue to be a relationship that is dominated by the need to drive sales and promote the broader lifestyle of consumption and consumerism that dominates the globe at the moment. This lifestyle is, on one hand, not particularly sustainable from an ecological perspective. On the other, driving the luxury fetish runs the risk of drawing attention away from more fundamental concerns that could support the broader health of ourselves and communities. Faith in luxury runs the risk of misdirecting aspirations and ways that we invest our personal capital. It can also continue to encourage the rise of real estate values in urban centers that in turn can displace residents who are no longer able to afford to live there.
With these concerns in mind, architects might use their collaborations with designers to explore alternative visions for how we relate to objects. This could involve exploring ways that fashion spaces can be more inclusive by thinking about more ephemeral solutions that allow for a kit of reusable parts to be deployed in a more diverse set of neighborhoods – both to broaden exposure and to create local opportunities to work in these temporary locations. It could also involve looking more closely at the supply chain of both the fashion designer’s products as well as the materials that might be used to construct a space. This could lead to an exploration of how those supply chains might be intertwined and how this relationship might create room to make both more efficient. This exploration would intersect with a broader goal of making these showrooms entirely net zero.
As this occurs, architects and fashion designers might continue to explore how digital and display technology can help guests connect more deeply to the brand. This could involve relying on an underlying digital experience that would allow the guest to access this experience wherever they happen to be. This could lead to an ongoing engagement with the brand that might involve the capacity to record, archive, and share objects purchased in the past. Such capacity might lead to a broader valuation of objects that might once have been considered obsolete or no longer “in-fashion.” More broadly, architects could help fashion designers balance the need to offer the new with the desire to produce timeless objects that can be appreciated and worn for years to come. In many ways, this is to touch on the fundamental tension between architecture and fashion that perhaps is the primary source of the incredible results of a successful collaboration – the tension between permanence and impermanence.
As a final reflection, we might consider how the fleeting, passing, disappearing, lightweight, invisible, etc… can form a dialogue with the permanent, present, appearing, heavy, visible, etc… in the work of architecture. We might think about how the movement of models, people through a crowded hall or down a busy street, confronts the body in repose reading a book or watching a film. These confrontations can lead to an exciting architecture that offers a diverse stage that inspires people to engage their environment and each other. Moreover, this play of oppositions can produce space that is both timeless and novel.