Flight of Fancy
Philippe Starck imbues Jean Paul Gaultier's New York flagship with a certain je ne sais quoi
Sheila Kim -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
It began as a serendipitous friendship, developed into an unlikely partnership, and resulted in a stunning flagship. Jean Paul Gaultier had long admired the work of fellow Frenchman Philippe Starck, so when the time came for Gaultier to open his first U.S. boutique—in a graceful New York town house—he immediately sought out the venerable interior designer. Starck, for his part, had sworn some 20 years ago that he would never do retail, although he has flexed his creative muscles in virtually every other genre, from big-budget hotels to mass-market product design. But something—hard to say what—compelled Starck to take a meeting anyway. To his surprise, he discovered a kindred spirit, an iconoclast with a serious fun-loving streak. A partnership was born.
"I didn't feel that fashion retail was my territory, but Jean Paul became like a brother," says Starck. By the third brainstorming session, he had internalized Gaultier's fashion philosophy as well as the contradictory qualities of his work: sophisticated yet cheeky, whimsical yet logical, multicultural yet oh-so-French. The new flagship, which opened on Valentine's Day on a particularly tony stretch of Madison Avenue, embodies all these fantastical, elegant paradoxes.
The 2,300-square-foot ground-floor boutique, to serve as a prototype for future stores and redesigns, has a simple layout—long and narrow, with a central circulation spine—but complex influences. Three concepts guided Starck's design: femininity, surrealism, and Indian culture. Gaultier's fascination with India is amply evident in recent couture and ready-to-wear lines, which feature a brilliant palette of crimson and saffron. His obsession sparked an investigation of indigenous building materials such as tadelakt, a plaster wall treatment common in both North Africa and the Middle East. Starck applied this traditional finish, which creates a silken sheen, to the walls and ceiling as well as to built-in display niches at the front and rear of the store.
Intricately engraved crystal and glass, used for chandeliers, garment hanger posts, mannequin bases, and mirrored display cases, recall late 19th-century Baccarat furniture and accessories—a favorite of Indian maharajas at the time, Starck explains. Custom acrylic chairs complement these elements. The reflectivity also goes a long way toward instilling a dreamlike quality, says Starck: "It creates an optical illusion, like in Alice in Wonderland." Walking into the boutique is like stepping through the looking glass, entering an alternate reality where everyone is beautiful and well dressed.
To soften any hard edges, Starck lined sections of wall with padded, flesh-toned taffeta with button details—the designer likens the resulting suppleness to the female form. Set into these padded sections along the main gallery are mirrored, illuminated niches for showcasing small products, from accessories to fragrances, often displayed on a sprinkling of flower petals. A padded alcove at the rear of the store is ornamented with sconces incorporating glass-encased, LED-lit Gaultier perfume bottles.
The fragrance wall's shrine of a centerpiece is a large-scale version of Gaultier's Eau de Parfum bottle in the shape of a corseted torso. It's a surrealist version, explains Starck, of a "Buddha in a temple." The concept of surrealism—a theme dear to Starck, who likes to tweak sensory perception—comes to life in a video projected into a ceiling alcove above the main entrance. Cast onto the four sides of the double-height well (essentially a skylight without an aperture) is a montage of clouds drifting against a blue sky like a modern-day fresco, as evanescent as fashion itself. Gazing up at the floating imagery, customers are perhaps transported for an instant to a realm where visionary minds meet.