RETAIL APOCALYPSE: Anne Holtrop’s Maison Margiela Couture Shows And Shop Interiors
Designing retail spaces, especially fashion retail spaces, follows a different set of rules to other forms of architecture. They're often ephemeral in nature and, although commercial, do not always have clear goals or functions. According to Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, directors of exhibitions at ETH Zürich and the authors of a new book Retail Apocalypse, these and other conditions make retail architecture and enduringly Postmodern endeavor and experience. The world of fashion retail also harbors paradoxes that reflect broader quandaries of how we've consumed culture throughout the past century, especially from the 1970s until now, in a post-pandemic world of the 21st century. For their book Fischli and Olsen gathered a group of architects, artists, designers, theorists, and general cultural observers with a relevant connection to retail, such as Dutch architect Anne Holtrop and his work with Maison Margiela.
His set for Maison Margiela’s Fall Winter 2018 couture show in Paris as well as a series of retail shop interiors the storied fashion house commissioned him to design both feature textile-molded gypsum casts, this shared visual element paralleling creative director John Galliano’s layering of garments.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen: You just worked on a new architectural identity for Maison Margiela’s flagship stores. Of all fashion brands it is probably the biggest challenge to rethink Margiela’s architectural environment. Their completely white phantom-like interiors are so consistent and iconic in the fashion history. How did you approach this commission?
Anne Holtrop: When we were contacted in 2018 by Margiela through Dennis Freedman, John Galliano was already creative director of the house. Galliano had defined the seven codes of Maison Margiela, based on its history and Galliano’s own perspectives. The codes include “Anonymity of the lining” which refers to the concept of taking the lining and making it a visible element of the design; or the “Décortiqué,” which is the name given to the process of taking a garment down to a skeleton or cage. All that remains is the core components which enable you to recognize what the item once was.
We related these codes to gestures of making, like to cut or to cast, which we applied to materials to design a new architectural language for Margiela. Like John Galliano did, we were in this way able to free ourselves from a defined outcome of the work, to a focus on a specific way of making. In that way we could invent the architectural spaces from scratch again with a completely new outcome, while staying truthful to the codes of the house.
Your gypsum walls are very close to your studio’s program — the interest in the cast as a design method. At the same time, these elements seem very close to John Galliano’s haute couture, which is about numerous layers of garments creating expressive volumes and silhouettes. How would you describe this dialogue between Galliano’s vision of Margiela and your architecture?
One of the new core elements are the gypsum casts in textile formwork. Due to the flexibility of the textile, the cast results every time in a different form. After removing the textile formwork, the imprint of the textile remains visible on the surface of the walls and columns; together with the pleats of the textile and volume of the gypsum that pushed the formwork out. The walls and columns are turned inside out. We look at the lining, the interior of the wall. We see the memory of the textile that was once there. The walls and columns made in this way are typical architectural elements. They are the primary space definers. The material color of the gypsum is a natural white, a rooted reality in the history of Maison Margiela.
Months after we had shown the models of gypsum casts to John Galliano, he showed me the new artisanal collection for Fall Winter 2018 he was working on. On the mood boards, there were photos of the casts next to photos of nomads and he explained the gypsum casts made him think of nomads, who were all layers of clothes on top of each other. The casts had become an inspiration for his work and he commissioned us to make the runway show with the first gypsum casts.
Your work has an interesting approach towards the use of color, or actually non-color. Most of your projects are completely mute, there isn’t an added layer of colored surface on façades. What are your thoughts on how the non-color of the gypsum comes together with Margiela’s idea of blank white space?
I was always interested in the color of the material itself. For Margiela, we started looking at materials that are naturally white like gypsum. Or we use white in a way to alter a material, as we do with the white stained travertine. We use a classic beige travertine for the floors and furniture in the stores. Normally, the pores in the stone are filled with an epoxy color-matched with the stone. We use instead a plain white epoxy, that enhances by its contrast the porosity of the stone.
Margiela is a radical example of a fashion company that breaks with norms of beauty and seduction. What is your relation to the notion of beauty in architecture?
I prefer to work in a way where I don’t define the outcome of a work. Instead I prefer to define a process of making that leaves the outcome unpredicted. When I visit a construction site, I see things that also surprise me in their combination and expression. Some things can appear “ugly” or strange, as I haven’t seen anything like them before. Over time, they grow on me and become very beautiful. Beauty is a strange thing.
Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen are directors of exhibitions at the Institute of the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). Together they’ve curated numerous international exhibitions on art and architecture including Readymades Belong to Everyone at the Swiss Institute in New York, Trix & Robert Haussmann at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Nottingham Contemporary, and Inside Outside/Petra Blaisse — A Retrospective at Triennale Milano (all 2018).