When Ralph Lauren asked me five years ago to recommend some British architects who might design his new store, I found it harder than Cilla Black on Blind Date to predict his fancy. The Ralph Lauren look is always changing - cowboy meets Navajo Indian, White House meets Duchess of Windsor. I couldn't match the look to the steely honed backdrops of Sir Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nick Grimshaw or Michael Hopkins. I knew that, at the time, Calvin Klein had just given the minimalist John Pawson his flagship store on New York's Madison Avenue to turn into a temple to consumerism. So I recommended a handful of younger architects: Sophie Hicks, fresh from the Paul Smith shop in Notting Hill; Lifschutz Davidson with the OXO tower makeover on the Thames; David Chipperfield for Joseph Menswear in Sloane Avenue; Louisa Hutton and Matthias Sauerbruch.
Instead, Ralph Lauren weighed in with megastar import from New York, Thierry Despont, whose client list reads like Fortune magazine's guide to the rich and famous: Bill Gates' house on the shores of Lake Washington, Conrad Black's Georgian mansion in Montreal, Calvin Klein's weekend home, the Niarchos shipping magnate's family home, Warner Bros chief Terry Semel's Fifth Avenue apartment and the decorative galleries at the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Not to mention the Statue of Liberty (he restored her). Style bible W described Despont as "all the rage these days for moguls like Bill Gates and Leslie Wexner, who have chosen him to design and decorate their grand, if not quite yet ancestral homes". Despont doesn't like the word mogul - it has a "bad connotation". He prefers "self-made".
Thierry Despont calls himself an "eclectic classicist", which means he has strongly identifiable roots. Studying architecture at the Paris Beaux Arts, followed by a masters from Harvard in urban planning, gave him street savvy as well as a bit of blue chip French classicism. His period is the Twenties - too late for Art Nouveau - to the Forties with French Moderne. The architects' own home is furnished with fashionable French Deco and French moderne furniture. Despont grew up in Limoges, "an ugly town that had elements of continuity and stability", worked for British architects Llewellyn Davies in New York, and opened his own offices in Manhattan in 1981. Now he works out of a converted 1920s bank in TriBeCa. Ralph Lauren is his first shop, and he has given a nondescript building a bit of monumentalism by extending the stonework with towering quoins and bronze mullions in the very large shop front. There's a hint of Luytens in the grandeur.
"I admire Luytens for taking buildings of Georgian character and making them more abstract and Cubist," says Despont. "He inspired a lot of good Thirties' English Deco buildings, nothing too look-at-me."
For much the same reasons sure-footed Ralph Lauren has picked the right architect. The Frenchman has brought chic to establishment New Bond Street. Thierry Despont says: "it is rather provincial to a Frenchman like me. Only joking... what's great about Bond Street is the mix with strong shop branding and identity still looking good on a unified street. That's because the scale is right." It's the biggest shop on the block.
Bond Street these days goes from La Scala-sized, rococo Versace to Soho, loft-sized DKNY drenched in white light, to Pawson's silky white plastered cube at Jigsaw, with traditional Aspreys in between.
Inside, there is no bronze or gold, but nickel-plated door handles and stair balustrades combined with mahogany panelling and floors. There is both dark and blond wood and on the walls, panels of white lacquer broken with pale suede and navy and green wool. This play of textures from rough to smooth, gloss to matte, metallic to woollen feels as good as it looks. The store is modelled along the lines of the 1920s cruise ship, the Normandie. You could sink the Titanic inside its 45,000 square feet, of which 24,000 is retail space and the rest offices. You have to admire Thierry Despont's skillful handling of this great soaring space. If you want to get ahead in retail, the rule is to get an atrium. The first thing Despont did was to open the space to show four floors.
This coolly contemporary background to Lauren's fashion and furnishings is a very skillful manipulation of architectural history, all the more appropriate for being a backdrop to a designer who trawls through history to package lifestyle. Ralph Lauren can take a slice of history and make a product range out of it. Architects who will sport the Polo label on their shirts and sweaters mostly hate the homely props he builds into his themed collections. Pleated lampshades, lacquered boxes, screens and footstools, plumped up cushions, rugs - even his khaki-tented Safari look had cut-crystal scent bottles. They call this "camouflage". He calls it "ditzing up".
"The atmosphere at Ralph Lauren's is going to be both exciting and elegant, like being invited for a drink in a great club in Hollywood, or London or on the Normandie".
The atmosphere is more salon than saloon, now that Ralph Lauren has hung up his cowboy boots and denim. The way he dresses for his advertising has always been a clue to the way he dresses rooms with his home furnishings collection. This year he's wearing Prince of Wales check with a houndstooth tie that looks swell in the classical 1920s interior of the new store. Crystal chandeliers, paintings and photography on the mahogany panelling, even a fireplace - I'll warrant any British high-tech team wouldn't have built that lot. There are even antiques in glass and silver to buy. "Just like a home except there's no kitchen," the architect observes.
Thierry Despont claims that he never got a brief or a budget from Ralph Lauren. Even the publicity machine with which Lauren surrounds himself won't divulge the budget for the new store - from which I assume it ran over the squillions allocated. Instead, Thierry and Ralph walked in the woods like two film extras, half-remembering Hollywood movies in terms of lighting and design. "Like Gilda is one of my favourite black and white movies, but the truth is that what I may pull out of my memory may not have been right. Windows with light pouring through Venetian blinds..." Despont muses. Ralph Lauren, he says, has a great sense of style, influenced by the best of Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties. Secretly, the real fascination for Thierry Despont in those old movies was that everything was so tightly controlled, every image manipulated. "Total control from the single curled lock on the forehead of the star to the cut of the lapels. Architects by nature are control freaks."
In the store, Despont uses ambient light with ceiling fixtures, including chandeliers and lots of table lamps and wall sconces dotted about. It took him two years to find the right lights and he even designed some in that style that he describes as `Ruhlmanesque'. Emile-Jacques Ruhlman refined neo-classicism, using sharkskin and ebony with ivory details. Thierry Despont's palette is more pc. The light has to be as true as possible to daylight, which he diffuses and controls in intensity. If he had his way he'd have used a more golden light: "In New York, Balthazar restaurant is brilliant because it's warmly lit and flatters people who feel good there. But in a store customers might be surprised by what they had bought when they stepped outside." The time Despont spent in the Getty Museum taught him the importance of never pinpointing or framing with light, but keeping it natural.
Thierry Despont describes himself as a happy man. "I do what I like with a passion. I don't expect everybody to like what I do." This was his first shop. He has always done residential places, which is how he developed his decorative skills. Unlike the modern architects who dislike decoration, and in particular patterned textiles - you'll never find a chintz in an architect's pad - he shepherded Bill Gates's wife round the Paris Biennale, in which the decorators flounce every thing, to help her choose her home furnishings. Who knows, maybe we will soon see Bill Gates wearing Prince of Wales checks with a houndstooth tie.