LONDON — For the past two years, the Tanzanian-born, London-based architect David Adjaye has been falling in love with fashion.
Although the 37-year-old designer of Selfridges’ Superbrands area is already considered a wunderkind in his field, he said fashion has helped him see architecture in a different way.
“Retail space is about seduction — about making people want to browse and buy merchandise. The whole point is to seduce, which means that as an architect, you really have to clarify your concept,” said Adjaye in a spare and sunny conference room at his Hoxton studio, Adjaye/Associates. “It’s not like designing a library, which is all about waiting, studying and retreating. Fashion is about being relentlessly focused — and feeling good.”
Before getting to work on Superbrands, Adjaye redesigned the beauty hall and accessories area of Selfridges’ Manchester store, covering the walls and ceiling with faceted acrylic in the bright, muted colors of the early morning sky, and the floor in white pebble resin, “just like a beach,” he said with a big smile.
“Floors and ceilings are areas that are often overlooked in retail. In the past, curating the ceiling and floor has been left to the engineers or the services staff. But they’re important spaces to control because they frame the product,” he added.
It was Vittorio Radice, the former chief executive of Selfridges and the architect behind the store’s renaissance, who spotted Adjaye. Radice had seen the dramatic, angular spaces fashioned from black reflective glass that Adjaye had designed for Browns Focus, the hip retailer on South Molton Street and sister store to Browns, and knew he was the right person for the job. “He asked me to create a plaza — a destination — for luxury brands,” Adjaye recalled.
For Superbrands, Adjaye took the sky theme a step farther, covering the ceiling in colored glass panels that mimic the light of a glorious day, starting with watery blue and progressing to fiery oranges and reds. “The sun sets on Stella McCartney, because her clothes are all about going out for the night,” said Adjaye.
The floors are made from black, sparkly resin “like a glamorous road tarmac, a sparkling ‘Wizard of Oz’ floor,” he said, while the entrance to the new area is a “luscious red tunnel” made from zodiac quartz.“I wanted to give people the sense they were leaving the normal Selfridges and coming to another place, to a new world that is literally under its own sky.” He said he loves the way the different boutiques look against the backdrop. “Marni looks like a flat, white screen. It’s very powerful.”
Adjaye laughs when asked about the recent love affair between architects and fashion retailers — Future Systems with Selfridges, Marni, Comme des Garçons and New Look; Rem Koolhaas with Prada, and Tadao Ando with Giorgio Armani.
“In the past, architects have been a little highbrow about fashion. The perception was that fashion brands were only concerned with making statements via the exteriors of their stores — and then tarting up the interiors with lots of logos and brand names.
“It’s an exciting moment now for architects working in fashion, because brands are more concerned today about projecting an image, and asking how the architecture can come to signify or symbolize the brand,” said Adjaye, pointing to Prada’s Tokyo store and Giorgio Armani’s Hong Kong flagship as prime examples of the new relationship between the two worlds.
The opening of Superbrands signals the end — for the moment — of Adjaye’s adventures in retail. He's currently working on the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo; two new libraries in northeast London, and a prototype house in Nanjing, China. But there’s no doubt he’ll be back. “I’d love to do a concept store for Comme des Garçons — I think it’s an extraordinary, innovative company — and I buy so many of their clothes.”
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