Rafael de Cárdenas gives good quote.
The former Calvin Klein men’s wear designer and founder of Rafael de Cárdenas/Architecture at Large loped into a large conference room at his Manhattan office. A photographer wanted to shoot his portrait in front of a red backdrop, but de Cardenas, who isn’t shy about saying what he wants, stood in front of a peach-colored remnant from one of his projects.
“I hate Jerry Hall because she married Rupert Murdoch,” de Cárdenas said, adding that he worked with the model in the past and thinks she sold out. “You can print that.”
With the publication by Rizzoli of his aptly named book “Rafael de Cárdenas/Architecture at Large RDC/AAL,” the New York native feels he has the license to be especially vocal these days. The book features nearly 70 projects, including the architect’s vibrant and visceral work for Cartier, Nordstrom, Delfina Delettrez, Baccarat and Gentle Monster. De Cárdenas designed a temporary Nike fitness studio in Manhattan’s SoHo and reinvented an apparel wing for Russian department store Au Pont Rouge.
“The book’s been a big — really big thang,” Cárdenas said, referring to the sense of accomplishment of completing it, prestige of having Rizzoli as its publisher, and the length of time it took to complete.
“The first time I saw it, I was in Paris, where I live half of the time,” de Cárdenas added. “I’ve always been an of-the-moment person. I think it exceeded my expectations.”
Lacking a roadmap for his career hasn’t hindered de Cárdenas, who said, “And to think that this business started with little or no plan. We’re growing exponentially.”
Since founding Architecture at Large in 2006, de Cárdenas has designed some 100 projects, including restaurants, art galleries, stores, a department store, luxury residences, furniture collections, limited-edition objects and temporary installations.
As a fashion-savvy teenager, de Cárdenas mostly window-shopped, but occasionally bought something at Barneys New York and Charivari. “Barneys was cool, but Charivari seemed way cooler,” he said. “I remember saving my allowance and buying a Romeo Gigli coat on sale. It was made from super thin linen and had drawstrings at the sleeves. People made fun of me when I wore it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m financially reckless, I just spend money on things that give me joy,” de Cárdenas added. “Shopping and buying and owning things are a fingerprint of our culture. What’s wrong with considering your car color?”
De Cárdenas was no less smitten with fashion as an undergraduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. “While I was at RISD, Hussein Chalayan was working with Alexandre de Betak. Between 1992 and 1996, I followed John Galliano. I was obsessed with runway shows and learned that Alex Betak was behind some of the most interesting ones. I thought he was bringing a fresh perspective to fashion.”
After college, de Cárdenas spent three years designing men’s wear at Calvin Klein. “I loved fashion and wanted to participate in maybe a different way,” he said, adding that he moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture. After he graduated and earned a master’s degree, Greg Lynn, a studio professor in the architecture department and owner of Greg Lynn Form, hired de Cárdenas in 2002.
Back to Betak: De Cárdenas said the runway show, event and exhibit designer inspired him to return to New York, where he joined design and production studio Imaginary Forces as creative director of experience design. “It was coming up with dynamic ways to deliver content in physical spaces,” said de Cárdenas, who obsessed about whether he should leave Imaginary and launch his own company or keep his day job until billings increased.
When de Cárdenas finally decided to leave Imaginary in 2005, he didn’t hang up a shingle or incorporate until the following year. “I had a few projects in 2005 but didn’t make any money,” he said. “I dove in and incorporated in 2006 and hired some people. Now, years later, I feel like I’ve found my role in fashion.
“I’ve been lucky to make wise decisions. Failure is an important lesson, and you learn from your failures. As much as I can’t say I’m not at peace with failure, I’m pretty good at getting back up and producing the next thing, which has to be the best the world has ever seen,” said the architect, who deploys cliches such as, “You have to go hard or go home,” and, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”
“Saying that, ‘I love retail design is too reductive,'” de Cárdenas added. “I love desirability, and heightening desirability, and anticipation. I love the idea of the fantasy that surrounds the acquisition.”
De Cárdenas is a non-apologetic consumer, which makes him more attuned to the needs of customers. “I’m a shopper. I love shopping and love being sold to,” he said. “I love the salesmanship. I remember this woman at the fragrance counter at Barneys on Madison Avenue. She sprayed perfume on the palm of her hand and crinkled it up and waved it across my face. It was Creed, and I loved it. At Prada, there was a sales associate in men’s who was really good at fitting suits and helping you live your dreams.”
Successful retail platforms balance style and substance, de Cárdenas said. But, there’s more. His projects always have a secret sauce baked in ambience and effect, achieved with lighting — often fluorescent; laser light; paint; louvered features, and mirrors but never smoke and mirrors. Recurring themes include black-and-white zigzags; rope; yarn; webbing, and industrial strength plastic wrap. For a project at MACRO Future Museum in Rome, de Cárdenas slung 20 miles of fluorescent tape over stacks of shipping pallets.
“To some degree, there is such a thing as overanalysis,” he said of store design. “I’m pretty good at style and substance. The substance part is important. You have to make good products and provide a genuine and authentic experience. Whether it’s social media, pop-ups or temporary [units], retailers will be more aggressive and test experience-heavy designs in temporary spaces. They have to learn from that for their permanent spaces,” added de Cárdenas, who’s worked on Nordstrom’s pop-in series.
“When I designed Baccarat’s New York flagship, it was a great opportunity to be aggressive with a brand that has a beautiful romantic story but hadn’t been brought into the 21st century,” he said. “I fell in love with the brand at the Baccarat factory, three hours east of Paris.”
De Cárdenas wants to help shopping centers modernize and bring back excitement and foot traffic. “I think those big guys are reluctant to take too much risk,” he said. “The world of old men telling people how they should shop — we don’t want it. I get it, we’re being [outdone] by Asia, which has more food and hospitality intersecting with retail. Westfield is not an American company and they’re very good at defining retail and luxury without alienating anyone.”
The retail malaise, which has been dubbed an apocalypse by some, stems from a lack of imagination. “Sears and Kmart should have closed years ago,” he said. “You need to identify your tribe — your customer — a little bit. It’s so basic. The Gap, which defined so much of my youth, has become a corporate entity with no individualism. Trends move fashion. Gap has 20 different fits for jeans. Instead of offering 20 fits, they should offer trends.”
Ever the creative director, de Cárdenas cited Alamo Drafthouse as a popular concept that could use a once-over. “I like the concept but not the look. There are so many awesome ways to combine food and theater, like Metrograph, a very independent theater that unites food and beverage with movies.
“The tricks that worked in 2016 won’t work [today],” he concluded. “There’s lots of good s–t going on and from people younger than me. I know it’s competitive, but I keep my clients, so I must be doing something right. I love what I do and inherently want to think of new ways to do it.”