There Goes the Bride
Wedding dresses are out of the picture at Vera Wang’s second New York boutique, but Gabellini Sheppard Associates managed to marry minimalism and theatrics all the same
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 4/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Vera Wang’s announcement that she would present her fall 2009 ready-to-wear collection at her second New York boutique, rather than in the Bryant Park tents, set the fashion world atwitter. While many interpreted the move as a recession-inspired stroke of restraint, Wang’s motivation was more about architecture than economics: showing off the adaptability and technical dexterity of Gabellini Sheppard Associates’s design. “It’s a white-box theater. Nothing’s built in. Everything is changeable,” Interior Design Hall of Fame member Michael Gabellini remarks. Shelving and display platforms can be reconfigured, sliding panels repositioned, and hang bars and mannequins moved around on cables suspended from the ceiling. Or everything can be put away to transform the 2,200-square-foot space into the perfect tabula rasa for a runway show.
Among the looks that Wang sent down the runway were A-line dresses and corsetlike cummerbunds sewn from black neoprene—yes, the exact same synthetic rubber covering benches and display modules. “Vera fell in love with it when we were designing the store. Another case of architecture inspiring fashion,” Kimberly Sheppard says, though she’s quick to point out that the reverse is also true. “Vera believes that luxury is about ease and comfort, how a garment fits and moves with the body. That gives her pieces a performative quality and a theatrical dimension, which our own concept reflects.”
Alas, there was also a theatrical dimension to the renovation itself. Although the storefront boasts a regal cast-iron pedigree and a coveted SoHo address, the split-level layout is rather unusual. The airy front portion soars to nearly 23 feet, while the back steps down to a claustrophobic 8. “The space was stubborn. Our design scheme came quite quickly, but the technical aspect took much longer,” Gabellini recalls. Removing a massive structural beam and replacing it with concealed steel bracing gained an extra 6 inches of headroom on the lower level. The team then connected the two levels with a fluorescent-lit Corian staircase running the full width of the space, thus emphasizing the rear’s intimate, rather horizontal proportions rather than fighting them. As such, the rear of the store becomes a sort of backstage to the front proscenium.
There’s a dramatic, even balletic quality to the double-height front, where white fiberglass mannequins seem to dance in midair. They actually hang from stainless-steel cables hooked into tracks recessed in the ceiling. “It’s like a theater rig from which we can hang props, scrims, and fixtures,” Gabellini notes. The system also supports a network of powder-coated steel hang bars inspired by ribbons. “They’re unraveling, unfolding, like a narrative without a beginning or an end,” he muses. The bars are fashioned from standard steel tubes, laser-cut and then finished by hand. “A marriage of art and industry complements Vera’s collections,” Gabellini explains. “Her fashion is very high-tech yet also about handwork. We spent eight months developing the shape of those bars, thinking about how everything from light shirts to heavy knits would balance and move to reveal their volumetric quality.” Gabellini and Sheppard didn’t have to consider the special requirements of wedding dresses—larger dressing rooms and lounges, more alteration and office areas, no colored lighting—because this boutique is devoted to Wang’s four-year-old ready-to-wear business, leaving the blushing brides behind at her uptown salon. (The smiling bridesmaids, too.)
Shoes and bags are showcased on luminescent acrylic platforms placed along the Corian staircase. “It’s a light-diffusing etched polyethylene, kind of a gold standard of acrylic,” Gabellini says. Slabs of the material top stacks of the neoprene-wrapped modules, which are roughly the size and shape of gym mats, with a plywood board and polyurethane foam inside. The same polyethylene forms the sliding partitions that divvy up the lower level. Hung from ceiling tracks, these panels can be reconfigured to create circuitous pathways.
A sophisticated lighting system imbues surfaces with an ethereal glow. “The hyper-white environment allows Vera to 'paint’ with light,” Sheppard says. Halogen spots and warm fluorescent bulbs are supplemented by LED-lit acrylic bands that trace the coves between floor and walls. Although the light’s color and temperature can be adjusted ad infinitum, the system generally cycles through presets calibrated to mimic sunrise and the romantic glow of twilight. “Bouncing illumination off all the surfaces fills in the shadows and enhances how you look in the mirror,” Gabellini explains. The cosmetic quality is flattering not only to the architecture but also to the clothes—and, of course, to Vera Wang’s best-dressed customers.