Fashion Template

PROJECT Givenchy Flagship Boutique, Paris, France
ARCHITECT Jamie Fobert Architects
TEXT Alexandra Shimo

If there’s a clich in architecture–the bloated, overblown projects where form dominates content–the antithesis is Canadian architect Jamie Fobert. Not that Fobert’s work lacks for superlatives, as he is currently working with some of fashion’s biggest names, including Givenchy, British fashion house Pringle, and Donatella Versace. Yet while Rem Koolhaas’s Prada store in New York has been criticized for its distractions and superficiality, Fobert’s flagship boutique for Givenchy in Paris has been praised for its elegance and subtlety. Fobert creates church-like spaces in a secular world, calming rooms against the constant din of 24-7 BlackBerrys, microblogs and tweets, places that “are intriguing and arresting in themselves, yet never so much so that they overpower their contents,” according to Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the International Herald Tribune.

Fobert may have become the go-to guy for haute couture, yet his portfolio is diverse. His Anderson House won the 2003 RIBA Manser Medal, essentially the prize for the best house in Britain, and he has designed clubs such as East London’s Cargo, a shimmying Mecca for those in the music industry. Art galleries are always prestigious commissions, especially for someone also making a name in retail, and Fobert is engaged in several of these including the Tate Gallery in St. Ives, Cornwall, an art gallery in Cambridge called Kettle’s Yard, and the Charleston in East Sussex, the original house of the Bloomsbury Group.

“Jamie is a young architect, but he’s very well respected in London,” explains Rob Sharp, features writer at London’s The Independent. “His work is understated, but it has a visceral impact. He has had a very intelligent selection of projects and has an amazing pedigree behind him.”

Architectural critics say that Fobert’s spaces don’t feel like regular retail–churches and galleries are common comparisons. With their spare aesthetic, absence of furniture and clutter, the Givenchy stores are no exception. Recessed lighting, parquet floors, and objets trouvs in glass cases complete the picture. Even the furniture is based on high art, with the stools modelled on Joseph Beuys’s Fat Chair. Like the German artist, Fobert explored the idea of distortion, but rather than adding fat, he added a stool, cutting off the legs of a classic French Louis XV chair and inserting a cuboid block on which to sit. The stool thus becomes a hybrid of art and furniture, monarchy and modernity.

The connection between high art and retail is understandable, given the close collaboration between Fobert and Givenchy’s creative designer Riccardo Tisci throughout the design process. Tisci chose Fobert (on the basis of a recommendation by Rawsthorn) to redesign Givenchy’s flagship Paris store, located on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honor, a legendary street where virtually every major fashion house in the world has a presence. That space would become the template for Givenchy stores around the world–to date there are 15–and became Fobert’s calling card for other haute couture signature spaces.

The relationship between Fobert, the understated 47-year-old Canadian, and the effusive Italian Tisci was cemented during a series of collaborative meetings. Every three weeks, Fobert met with Tisci and Givenchy’s president Marco Gobetti, either in London or Paris. Together, they would examine and discuss contemporary art, make sketches and brainstorm, looking for inspiration in works by artists such as Beuys and David Nash. Tisci shares Fobert’s passion for art–raised a Catholic, he is renowned for infusing his fashion with religious references and for bringing high art into his shows. For this fall’s collection, Tisci presented his line not as a runway show, but as a sombre group of photos. Working closely with the Belgian photographer Willy Vanderperre, he exhibited the fronts and backs of his models, like portraits. “What you do as an artist is you collaborate, and if you collaborate with the right people, then you get great results.”

Unlike some of Fobert’s earlier projects, the Givenchy stores could not be gutted and utterly modelled. The walls and the parquet floor of the Paris shop had to remain unchanged, but Fobert still needed to stamp his own creativity on the building. So he designed a series of black boxes, smaller rooms within the main gallery-like space that would contain the collection. “The boxes sit on the parquet floor and you feel you could actually push them around if you wanted to,” Fobert says. “You clearly can’t, but there’s an impression of them floating.”

The box rooms are smallish, to create intimacy, although there are a variety of sizes and shapes. The walls were then cut away, either on the vertical or at an angle to open them up, so there’s a sense of spaciousness and continuity, a seamless transition from the larger room to the smaller boxes.

“As you go into the boxes,” explains Fobert, “they become these castings of historic spaces. They are quite feminine, quite romantic. So your perception shifts as you move through the space. Rather than most retail where you walk in and every surface is full of product.”

On a practical level, the design becomes a moveable feast–the unchanging outer exterior emphasizing the brand’s permanence and timelessness, and the more transient inner black-box rooms, which can be adapted to fit other stores around the world. In London’s Selfridges, for example, the ceiling and the white marble floor could not be changed, but the box spaces inside the store are immediately recognizable as Givenchy, Fobert says. “It’s a conceptual work. You have this timeless box, but it also feels contemporary and transient.”

The contrast between superficial appearances and deeper subtle beauty was essential to Fobert, and part of Tisci’s vision of the brand. The concept continues throughout other detailing, including the panelling. Hubert de Givenchy was known for fitting out Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy, and many of these famous fittings took place in his renowned haute couture salon in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, where he worked between 1952 and his retirement in 1995. A simulacrum of the salon’s architecture–including the room’s ornate wooden panels–were copied in casts, which became the negative for duplicate panels in plaster and leather. The molded wall panels are white for women, and grey for men, colours suggesting calming simplicity. “There’s an imprint of the haute couture salon on that bit of wall,” Fobert muses. “I mean, it’s not important whether people understand that. But it’s there, and people feel it even if there’s no sign that points it out.”

The walls of the box rooms seem to be finished with a simple black sheen until closer inspection. Made of charred wood and varnished with lacquer, the texture was inspired by British artist Nash. Like the sculptor, Fobert worked with a blowtorch, burning oak samples in the streets of London outside his Shoreditch office. This is highly illegal, and luckily the police never appeared, although several old ladies approached and scolded him. Put wood to flame and cracks appear, forming irregular angular paths swirling in a labyrinth. The resulting carbon becomes strangely removed from the wood and the world, reminding us of the natural beauty of decay. The resulting effect is intense, but a smooth lacquer finish mutes the effect, masking the fine crinkles, and the chaotic texture is scarcely visible under a glass-like resin. “It’s something very subtle,” says Fobert. “It’s very hard to photograph because it’s so reflective, but when you look closely, it’s very beautiful.”

Beauty and commerce don’t always make good bedfellows, which perhaps explains Fobert’s insistence that the Givenchy boutique is far removed from a typical shop. “We wanted to create something that didn’t feel like a retai
l space,” he explains. “Tisci didn’t want to hire someone who produced lots of retail. He knew that wasn’t the right way to create something unique.”

Ironically, the Givenchy work has led Fobert directly into the belly of the shopping beast, landing him several other plum retail assignments. Currently, he is redesigning the mammoth 3,000-square-metre women’s shoe department at London’s Selfridges which opens this month, Pringle of Scotland’s Bond Street store, and also the signature and concept for Versace stores around the world. With each, the work demands distilling the ideology and associations surrounding brand down to an immutable idea, and this work draws on Fobert’s experience in fine art.

“Retail is full of possibilities that are in some ways overlooked by the world of interior design,” he explains. “What we do isn’t about surfaces, fabrics and wallpapers. It’s about concepts and extreme explorations of materiality. It’s about working with craftsmen as opposed to buying samples. In the end, we are only truly happy when we feel the work has an authenticity about it.” CA

Alexandra Shimo is a Toronto-based author, media consultant and cultural critic. Her first book, The Environment Equation, was published in seven countries.

Client Givenchy
Architect Team Jamie Fobert, Kevin Allsop, Pierre Mar, Hoi Chi Ng, Claire Lee, Oliver Bindloss, Benna Schellhorn
Local Architect Fentres Sur Cour
Furniture Sice Previt
Contractor Prestapool
Lighting Franck Franjou
Area 300 m2
Budget withheld
Completion February 2008