Lunch with the FT

Last updated: September 29, 2012 12:28 am

Lunch with the FT: Peter Marino

The New York architect bares his biceps - and his soul - to Vanessa Friedman
Peter Marino©Patrick Morgan

In the style-obsessed auditoriums that play host to the world’s fashion weeks, when someone mentions a “star designer” they are not usually referring to an architect.

If Rem Koolhaas, for example, who has done as much as anyone to craft Prada’s retail image, were to attend Prada’s show, he would go largely unremarked. If James Carpenter, responsible for the image renovation of Gucci’s stores under creative director Frida Giannini, were to sit front and centre at Gucci, it wouldn’t cause a stir. But this week in Paris, when Peter Marino walks into the Chanel show – and the Dior show, and the Céline show, and the Louis Vuitton show (all brands for which he has created stores) – flashbulbs will go off, people will call his name and photographs of him in the front row will go viral on the internet.

This is partly because Marino, who has commissioned artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Gary Hume and Anish Kapoor to create site-specific works for boutiques from Spain to Shanghai, is the person most responsible for the current trend for transforming fashion stores into “experiences”. As such, he has determined much of how the luxury consumer understands such places. But partly it is because of how he looks – Marino, 62, almost always wears head-to-toe handmade biker leathers and a Mohawk haircut and has five tattoos, most of which are visible. In the high-end universe he inhabits, he sticks out a mile.

As he does at the Four Seasons, the ur-business restaurant in New York where the dress code is jacket and tie. But it turns out the owners have given Marino a special “character exemption” to wear what he wants. “I also get it at the University Club,” he says, referring to another old Manhattan establishment with old Manhattan rules. “You know, after I did the big Zegna store on Fifth Avenue, they had the opening dinner at the University Club. And first Zegna called the club and said, ‘Well, you know, this dinner is in honour of Peter, so it’s really important that he be there but, do you know what he looks like?’ Then they had to fax over a picture, so it could be approved by the board. Then they finally said OK.”

As he says this, he lets loose an enormous belly laugh – heheheheheheheh – a laugh that, in its 50-decibel glory, announces that Marino – or “Pedro” as he often, disconcertingly, refers to himself – “is in the house”. Then he looks around the room, which today includes Steve Rattner, the investment banker-turned-Obama car tsar, and Joe Sitt, a real estate developer/investor who hired Marino for an aborted attempt to renovate London’s Burlington Arcade last year, all in their executive suits and ties. “I see all these guys and they look the same. I don’t understand it,” Marino says, his voice a little quieter. He has taken off his leather jacket and leather cap and, resplendent in just a black leather vest, plucks at the tablecloth.

“I always tell the kids who work for me, ‘Try to go around the middle: go above or below.’ People who are massively insecure want to be in the middle. It makes them feel safe. It doesn’t make me feel safe. I can’t breathe.”

It is possible to see Marino’s entire career as a flight from the middle: from the middle class, which he was born into and earned his way out of; from the middle market, where he never works; from middle America, which would look at him in wonder.

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Lunch with the FT

I have known Marino a few years now; we see each other at fashion shows, or the openings of stores he has created, or sometimes at the dinner table of the designer Azzedine Alaïa. He is always very loud and very entertaining and makes everyone laugh, playing his part to the hilt.

But while there are a lot of reasons for him to have Lunch with the FT – an exhibition in Paris of Marino’s first original bronzes (€160,000 each; he has, he tells me, sold 10 already); his recent winning of a commission for a spa and retail complex in Beirut ahead of Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster; the fact that he is the only fashion world player, as far as I know, who is able to work for rival brands, such as Chanel, Dior and Armani, all at the same time – the really interesting thing about Peter Marino is how his extraordinary appearance works to burnish, or tarnish, his cv.

Put another way: Marino regularly appears on lists of the world’s top architects; he has a reputation as a scary, tough boss and a perfectionist; his clothes make him look like a member of the Village People who got lost on the way to the reunion tour; and he owns five motorbikes – a Ducati, a Triumph and three Harleys. But, at least twice during our lunch, his eyes film over with tears.

It doesn’t begin like this, though. It begins with us looking at the menu. Marino orders asparagus and starts a discussion with the waiter about the fish, but then I order tuna carpaccio and he asks for the same. He watches what he eats. There was a time, just after the birth of his daughter Isabelle, now 21, when he and his wife Jane Trapnell, a costume designer, each gained about 20lb. “It was awful,” he says. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to fix it ourselves, so we got a trainer. I’m never going back to that.” Now he works out every morning at his house (right next to his office, which is pretty close to the Four Seasons) and has major biceps that he accessorises with a leather thong.

When he turned 50, he started skiing for a month a year at the house he owns in Aspen (which he jokingly describes as a museum to Anselm Kiefer because he owns so many of his paintings), and took up playing tennis every weekend at his house in the Hamptons, after his doctor asked him, during an annual check-up: “You have six months to live: what do you do?” It was both untrue and a serious question, and when Marino answered, “I would ski more and play more tennis,” the doctor said, “Then do it.”

“It’s the best advice I ever got,” says Marino. “Everyone should ask themselves that question and then act on it.”

It was also around this time he started wearing all the leather. Before that, Marino mostly wore Armani suits, thanks to working with the designer, whom he met after his first big fashion job: renovating Barneys NY in its 1980s heyday under Fred Pressman. Long before that, however, when Marino was at Cornell University studying architecture (he graduated in 1971), he wore jeans and leather and had his first motorcycle.

He grew up in Queens, born to Italian parents. His father was an engineer for defence contractor Northrop Grumman and his mother a secretary at Merrill Lynch. He had two sisters who were much older. His childhood was difficult, he says. He didn’t walk until he was seven and the first time he tears up is when I ask about this. “I don’t like to talk about it,” he says, looking down at the table and then away. This – crying – is not in my experience a situation that often occurs during interviews with successful people. I am not sure what to do.

The food arrives, providing a useful distraction, and he continues with his story. Marino’s parents were from far southern Italy (“Naples was the north for us!” he laughs) but one of the things he did early on was to take English elocution lessons. He went to Cornell, he says, because he really wanted to study art but his father wanted him to study maths, and one of his sisters suggested architecture was a compromise the family might fund. At college, he also took Italian lessons so that he might learn to speak like “the Agnellis”. He already knew where his client list was heading.

It worked, or mostly. The Italian industrialists later became some of his first private clients, along with the Wertheimers (who own Chanel). Now, when Marino speaks, his voice can veer oddly from an almost British accent to quasi-guttural New York street talk (“They’re all pussies here!” he says of the Four Seasons clientele at one point). This is the kind of high/low tension he relishes. He will, for example, utter a phrase like “Dude, these are so up my alley”, just before discussing his passion for Renaissance and baroque bronzes. He began collecting these in the 1980s (he now has about 35), alongside a contemporary collection that includes Damien Hirst, Richard Prince and, of course, Kiefer.

I ask if he thinks his appearance has made the fashion world, which loves a character, like him more. After all, being an art connoisseur is fairly common among designers and the executives that hire them, but wearing head-to-toe leather is not. “I don’t know,” he shrugs, “I don’t wear it for anyone except myself; I don’t have time to change.” He means this literally – he runs from project to project and country to country – but it strikes me as a bit disingenuous: Marino can’t be blind to the part his costume plays in such an image-centric industry.

. . .

The irony is that his bold-faced success in fashion has, occasionally, worked to the detriment of the rest of his business; fashion is only a third of what he does. The rest is private homes (education entrepreneur Chris Whittle, financier Steve Schwarzman and the Qatari Emir who bought the penthouse at One Hyde Park are clients) and public buildings; he has just been commissioned to design an enormous complex in Seoul owned by a member of the Samsung family. This year, “the busiest in the history of our practice”, he has 100 different projects on the go.

The appetisers are whisked away and thin slices of tuna put in their place. Marino continues, “I know what they say, ‘Oh, Peter Marino, doesn’t he do dress shops?’ I don’t care. Fashion has been great to me. It has been economically very enabling.” Most architects work, budget-wise, from project to project; because the renovation of a luxury store chain is planned out over years (“We know 10-15 Chanels are coming, same Vuittons, about five to seven Diors, plus Fendi, Céline, Loewe, Hublot, Graf”), Marino has a guaranteed baseline level of income, and a full staff of 150 at all times. It also allows him to be (relatively) generous to his peers.

“God bless Frank Gehry; he brought creation back to architecture,” Marino says. “The industry had lost its way. In the 1980s all those junk bond kings were building – what? English Tudor houses in Greenwich? So Renzo Piano, Herzog & De Meuron – they helped open the profession to an artistic-ness that had not been there for a long time. They made thoughtful buildings after generations of rubberstamping.”

When I ask him what he’s most proud of, he first cites the glass used for the walls of the Chanel Ginza store in Tokyo, which he invented and which works as a television from the outside but from the inside is transparent; then the New Jersey headquarters of Datascope, a company that makes heart monitors. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “It was featured in two architecture magazines. But no one cares, because the company doesn’t advertise for perfume.”

And, though Marino says he doesn’t care what people say, it’s hard not to think that he does care, very much. When, last year, he was enlisted to renovate Burlington Arcade and filed his plans to “clean the ceiling, restore the skylight, change the lighting, which wasn’t original, to brighten it up” he was criticised for wanting to destroy a Grade II-listed building. In the ensuing row, Marino withdrew from the project. “What a sad state the world is in when the idea of repainting a ceiling causes mass hysteria,” he says. While he doesn’t cry about this, his eyes do moisten for the second time when he mentions that his daughter decided not to pursue her studies in art history and, instead, chose anthropology. It’s his family, it seems, that tugs at his tear ducts.

As Marino orders an espresso, the maître’ d arrives with an enormous pink dome of cotton candy on a plate. Apparently, this is regularly used to “surprise” regulars on their birthdays but Marino gets one even though it isn’t his. Why, is unclear, though maybe, as with the dress code, Marino is an exception to the rules.

“I should put it on my head,” he laughs, his heheheheheheh boom laugh back in place. Instead he shrugs on his custom-made Dior leather jacket and we get ready to go. I mention that the jacket looks a lot like a fencing jacket. “Life is a struggle, and you can let it crush you or you can fight,” he answers. Then he stomps off: a bow-legged, armour-clad moto-cowboy with impeccable taste. Pedro – and Peter – have left the building.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor. Paris fashion week coverage is on FT.com/luxury360

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Four Seasons

99 East 52nd Street, New York 10022

Asparagus Salad $27.00

Artichoke Salad $24.00

Tuna Carpaccio x 2 $48.00

Espresso $7.50

Cappuccino $7.50

Total (incl tax) $124.12

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