Peter Marino, top architect of luxury stores, designs with materials in mind

The perpetually leather-clad designer Peter Marino is the go-to retail architect for iconic high-end brands such as Chanel and Vuitton. His strategies are subtle and sometimes counter-intuitive.

The Tokyo Chanel store in the Ginza district, designed by Marino.

Architect Peter Marino may have a tough-guy biker image, perpetually clad in leather and chains, but the affable designer is also the reigning king of elegant, high-end retail environments. As Amy Larocca of New York magazine puts it in her just-published, colorful profile of Marino: "walk down 57th Street near Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]: That’s Marino’s Vuitton, ­Marino’s Chanel, Marino’s Christian Dior," referring to the flagship stores of the world's most venerable luxury brands.

Although they're also all competitors, these companies (and numerous others, including fashion houses Fendi and Celine) have each hired Marino. And he's kept "brand identities intact and sales figures brisk," as Larocca wrote. Marino's also proven to be an innovative retail architect, having designed show-stopping stores like the Chanel boutique in Tokyo's Ginza district, which features a video skin on the entire building's outer surface. The display can showcase giant runway or other fashion images or appear to morph into a pixelized tweed.

I've interviewed Marino at his New York office in the past myself for another publication, and can attest to his unique combination of lively biker-dude and refined aesthete--a charmingly contradictory persona that Larocca describes with delight. In many ways, he lives the design ideals he communicates in his retail ideas: he is highly aware of the impact of rich materials (the shiny, supple black leather he wears) and the importance of a consistent brand (his own signature style of glam Hell's Angel). But beyond the vivid description of Marino the designer, the New York portrait offers some good tips on retail design, based on Marino's strategies, that other companies, high-end or not, might want to try:

  • Store details described such as "drawers and doors [opening] in perfect silence" convey a sense of "efficiency and calm." These types of minutiae can help customer feel comfortable in an establishment that seems well-run down to the non-squeaky hinges.
  • The biggest moneymaking objects are placed up front in a Marino-designed store--in his case, it's usually a Chanel or Vuitton handbag. These are presented so they can be touched, felt...experienced.
  • Fitting rooms are placed in a nearly "residential" setting, separate from the main shop floor, where it feels private enough to undress.
  • Marino tends to incorporate flattering, natural light in his retail spaces.
  • Marino's design process begins with the architect considering appropriate materials to express the brand's message--rich leather, traditional marble, etc.--rather than his design for the physical walls, windows, or other large structural concerns. “Nine out of nine architects start with a sketch and then they say, ‘What should we make it out of?’ ” Marino told Larocca. “I start from the bottom up, what should it be made out of, and then I worry about what should it look like. The material, the color of the material, the way it feels, and the way you respond to it is every bit as valid as the form or the shape.”

Luxury retail in general is doing well. In May, consulting firm Bain and Company predicted that the luxury goods market will grow 6 to 7 percent in 2012, defying larger worldwide economic crises. On August 14, Reuters reported that luxury retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and designer labels such as Michael Kors are resilient and optimistic. And while this trend clearly has a lot to do with the spending habits of ultra-rich shoppers who may not be affected as directly as the masses in a recession, it might also suggest that some luxury retailers are doing something right to market to their customers in an era of tumultuous economic news.

Perhaps there are broad lessons like those from Marino that lower-end retailers can apply to their own store designs--by substituting, say, potentially fast-selling $50 handbags for $1,000-plus ones to offer consumers up front, in plain view. Or by planning for windows, so sunlight can lift spirits even in a budget-friendly boutique. Or paying attention to materials to make a point about the store's identity--instead of leather, perhaps a designer could use recycled metal or wood to convey a brand message. Marino's focus might be a sense of luxury that's unattainable to most of us, but his strategies, when analyzed and broken down to their core tenets, could very well be seen as universal retail design wisdom.

Image: d'n'c'/Flickr

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