New York is the center of American theater, so it seems appropriate that Giorgio Armani has a digital light show outside his new digs on Fifth Avenue. But don’t think of the bright, massive illuminated signage that lights up Times Square, even at night. This is Armani, after all, master of subtle shades and minimalist merchandising.
The new Armani boutique that opened in February includes just about everything Giorgio Armani has to offer. The designer calls this new venture “an exciting challenge … as it brings together in one space different elements such as Armani Jeans and Emporio Armani side by side with Giorgio Armani.” Here, for the first time, he has housed all his lines under one roof.
The three-story glass façade structure on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street is historically notable as one of the first examples of the International Style of architecture, important in the evolution of Modernism. The challenge facing Armani and the architects Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas was to maintain the integrity of the architecture while still making a strong branded statement. This was accomplished with minimal change to the exterior, the only addition being a media screen on the store’s façade.
The entire space is defined by curvilinear forms and the juxtaposition of black and light elements and surfaces. Gently curved walls embellish each selling floor, implying movement and adding visual excitement to the light palette of the perimeter. Black presentation shelves seem to float on concave walls. Sales desks, showcases and presentation tables feature curves as well to enhance the overall sensuality of the space. Freestanding, black A-frame merchandise fixtures stretch upward and further accentuate the subtle curves of the tables and cases. Additional merchandise is housed behind hinged wall panels. These “closets” can be opened or closed to change the look of the store and to create additional presentation opportunities.
Lighting is skillfully used to accentuate the curvature of the perimeter walls and highlight the signature staircase. The British lighting design firm of Speirs and Major Associates strove for flexibility and a minimum of glare. They employed a narrow beam and heavy lens for the general illumination and a tight theatrical beam of light on shelves and mannequins. A gentle light wash treats the staircase as a work of art, giving it a diaphanous quality. All lighting fixtures are recessed and nearly invisible.
The most dominant element of the store is the dramatic spiral staircase, a futuristic rendition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s winding staircase in the Guggenheim Museum about 30 blocks uptown. It links the three upper floors of the Armani experience (the lower level, housing Armani Jeans, can be accessed by a scaled-down, secondary spiral staircase). A lighted handrail guides the customer through the corkscrew form as it narrows on its way down. Armani has described it as “a skeletal dinosaur.” The store’s sales associates say customers are saying, “It’s like being lost in a tornado.”
Armani has repeatedly changed the way we think of fashion. In this store, he’s also changing the way we think about retail. For the past couple of decades, many retailers have been repetitively stamping out stores that strived for consistency but in the process fell into the trap of “sameness.” “Identical retail spaces, monolithic and repetitive, belong in the past,” the designer says, “and cannot match the experience offered by a totally original store which introduces the public to the aesthetic excitement of fine, contemporary architecture.”
Giorgio Armani S.p.A, Milan, Italy
Speirs and Major Associates, Edinburgh, U.K.: Jonathan Speirs and Keith Bradshaw, directors; Melanie Rosenthal, project designer; Raymond Bill, 3-D graphic designer
Studio Fuksas, Rome: Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas, owners
Americon Inc., New York
Martin Professional Osram, Frederikshavn, Denmark
Lucifer Lighting Co., San Antonio, Texas
Philips Color Kinetics, Somerset, N.J.
ERCO Lighting, Edison, N.J.
RSA/Cooper Lighting, Peachtree City, Ga.