MILAN — The prospect of a dozen tall, arched windows on a corner site in Milan's "golden square" shopping district would set many fashion folk dreaming of display possibilities.
Not so with Nicholas Ghesquière, whose new Balenciaga flagship here gives all that prime visual real estate to vertical gold blinds, as if some alien spacecraft alighted inside a Milanese palazzo, venting its intergalactic exhaust against the glass.
And that's precisely the look he was going after.
"It's the environment of a luxury house, but not a classic one," Ghesquière said of the 4,300-square-foot unit, which opens today at 19 Via Santo Spirito. "It's really that mix between history and modernity."
To be sure, the modernity is obvious, from lighting fixtures that resemble satellite panels extending from a space shuttle's robotic arm to display fixtures resembling shards of ice bursting through the floor. Ghesquière, who collaborates on store design with French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, said high-tech and futuristic design elements are paramount for a brand prized for fashion experimentation.
Yet the designer is also very conscious of where the Milan store — Balenciaga's first major retail statement since the company's New York flagship bowed in 2003 — has landed, from the warm, muddy color palette to original hand-painted doors and ceilings that are a folksy foil for geometric mirrors and iceberg-like structures propping up Ghesquière's handbags and shoes.
"Our elements are superpresent, but still you have to feel that you're in Milan," he explained in an interview. "It's more of a salon spirit. We wanted to give something warm. With Balenciaga, there's always the two sides, experimentation and patrimony. It's also the first time we integrated historical elements within the environment of the store. I think there is a beautiful harmony between those two elements, which was not obvious."
Although a long time coming, the Milan store broadcasts how far Balenciaga has come in extending its aesthetic into broad assortments of product, from extravagant runway gowns and costume jewelry to sunglasses and sharply priced ranges of pants and knits. The two-level unit culminates with the brand's first VIP room: a cozy suite with a tricolor Pierre Paulin sofa and displays of expensive accessories set among Balenciaga Edition evening dresses, which are reedited vintage styles from the archives of the founding Spanish couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga.Ghesquière characterized a Milan shop as an important rite of passage for any brand, and a sign of maturity for Balenciaga, one of the fastest-growing businesses in the Gucci Group stable that recently has been posting double-digit sales gains.
In contrast to many designer boutiques in Milan, where leather goods are king, shoppers entering Balenciaga encounter a first floor devoted to ready-to-wear: women's to the right, men's to the left, with solitary iceberg-like display plinths set back in niches showing a sampling of the bags and shoes that await upstairs. Clothes are hung on long, multitiered racks set on various angles, with three meteorite-shaped dressing rooms sheltered behind a white wall.
Indian marble on the floor, in rich rust and caramel tones, exude Milanese luxury — only it is carved into fractal shapes, like some futuristic honeycomb. Hundreds of tiny lamps drip from the ceiling like robotic eyes — a wink to the massive Balenciaga retrospective in 2005 at Paris' Museum of Fashion and Textiles.
Ghesquière, who also collaborated with Gonzales-Foerster and lighting designer Benoit Lalloz for that exhibition, said the Milan store reflects many similar design elements, including the louvered window blinds that can be opened to let in more light. "It's the only way I'm approaching art," he said. "It's a real collaboration. It's more than decoration. It's an atmosphere."
A wonky metal staircase, which looks like it might have unfurled from Marvin the Martian's space capsule, leads shoppers up to a long, blue-lit corridor that, beyond flat-screen TVs broadcasting Balenciaga fashion shows, spills into an expansive landscape of shoes and leather goods. Beyond the retail floor is additional space for the company's Italian offices.
While the boutique is only steps away from the Four Seasons hotel and the luxury shops lining Via Della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone, Ghesquière said he prized its location "on a more discreet street," and hopes it will become a strong attraction.
"Milan is a shopping city, so walking distance was superimportant," he said. "I wanted to give access to the brand. Having a corner store was important for me, and it was a big satisfaction to use a space that was never a fashion store. I find that quite luxurious, too."Previously, the main floor housed a gallery, while the level above was a private home, he noted.
"I hope it's going to surprise people, especially in a city whose expectations are really high," Ghesquière said. "We know how much the Italian people love fashion, and they were always very attracted to Balenciaga for fashion and accessories."
At present, Balenciaga wholesales its collections to about 100 doors in Italy, its number-two market in Europe.
Expanding its network of boutiques has been a priority for Balenciaga since 2001, when Gucci Group bought the brand as part of an acquisitions spree. Ghesquière said he continues to hunt for spaces far and wide — "every big city in the world is on the list" — although he's not in any great hurry, and his criteria are strict.
"Since the beginning, we wanted each of the stores to be different," he said, characterizing New York as industrial, its raw concrete floors reflecting its Chelsea environs of galleries and warehouses. The Paris flagship on Avenue George V, by contrast, has more "artificial landscape" elements, from house plants and a sky-like ceiling to a volcanic rock cash desk.
Ghesquière noted that fast-growing Asia is a priority for new boutiques, as is Europe and the U.S., but he declined to set a timetable for the next opening. He said that "it's a good moment" for the brand, and "there is an amazing support." Last month, Gucci Group named Isabelle Guichot, who had previously been at Sergio Rossi, as Balenciaga's new chief executive officer, succeeding James McArthur.
Meanwhile, the designer said he would be returning to Milan later this month during men's fashion week to host a small dinner in celebration of the new boutique.
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