A marriage made in white space

Calvin Klein's newest shop offers a clinical calm amid the chaos of Madison Avenue
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The Independent Culture
Outside Madison Avenue's new Calvin Klein store, the street choreography is chaotic. Pretzel-sellers flog their wares, shoppers bustle, yellow taxis roar, shop ads scream "Take Me!" Everything is neurotically fast. Then the doors of Klein's "wonderland" swing open and immediately there is a sense of cool whiteness, space, light and near-monastic quiet.

Monastic, but not chaste. "This store is sensuous," says Klein, seated upstairs in the men's changing room. "It feeds the eye. It makes you feel good. I find it sexy."

The store, which opened in September, is Klein's antidote to raucous urban living. It is designed to be a sensual haven where harassed city dwellers can come to rest their eyes and comfort their nerves.

It also sells a dream - a pure, clean and expensive dream. Come and join the "less is more" lifestyle, the store whispers. Leave behind the cluttered Country House look of the Eighties. Install white rooms, buy crisp linen, wear black suits - but above all, keep it sleek, chic and simple.

Simplicity is Klein's buzz word. So, there are no escalators at the new store, no decorative railings or display windows, none of the grand retailing flourishes. The interior is made up of featureless white plaster planes that appear to float horizontally into nothingness. New Yorkers are seduced. Fashion clones working for, among others, Ralph Lauren, have been seen traipsing through this vision of boundless space. "They are afraid they may be missing out on something," says John Pawson, London-based architect of the store. "They are afraid they may be left behind."

Klein's Madison Avenue store is based, says Pawson, on a Zen philosophy that to be "thingless"(if not Kleinless) is to possess the world. There is nothing new in this premise. The need to purify, to mute, to strip and expose, has been expressed in buildings ranging from Cistercian abbeys and Shaker meeting houses to office blocks by Mies van der Rohe. A person weighed down by "things" (shopping bags excluded) is like a ship into which water is pouring, say Zen thinkers. Only by heaving the cargo overboard will the ship reach port safely.

What is new is Pawson's interpretation of this ancient and ageless thinking. "My work is about creating perfect spaces," he says. "I do this by building carefully proportioned areas, using hand-selected materials and controlling the light." Instead of opting for the clinical spaces that such austerity might imply, Pawson adopts what he calls a "poetic" or "humanitarian" form of minimalism. "I like objects and walls to blend like shadows. Children love my spaces," he adds confidently. His two children, anyway.

"I want customers to move freely through the store. I want nothing to impede them, no obstacles, no enforced routes. One of the greatest luxuries a building can offer a visitor is the chance to walk, unimpeded, around bare walls."

Klein agrees: "People are used to seeing lots of decoration, ornaments and mouldings - objects that refer back to the 17th and 18th century. But that is another time. This store is different. I have just white walls. I want the building to show off the clothes and accessories - not compete with them."

The effect is trance-like. There is a feeling of being sucked into a calming vacuum, of being lulled into a meditative state before spinning around the store in a painless and timeless fashion. Low ceilings make spaces seem even longer. Thin gaps in tall walls create a feeling of compression. Huge expanses of glass give a hazy, bubble-like quality to the Calvin Klein experience. The mind is free to travel anywhere. But the eyes are meant to focus firmly on the clothes. "This isn't supposed to be a religious experience," warns Klein firmly.

Colour-free, stark spaces have been a long-running theme in Klein's life. His first architect-designed apartment was featured in New York Times Magazine in 1971 under the heading "The Anticlutter Approach". The look was surreal and cool: stainless steel cubes for occasional tables; bleached antlers on a black pedestal. And space. Plenty of space. His next apartment (on the 46th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper) was equally, as he would put it, "stuff" free: walls were knocked down and curved and rotating partitions installed. Furniture was kept to a minimum - just pillows made of fabrics crying out to be fondled.

"I've lived in apartments so spare that people would ask, 'How could you live like this?' " says Klein, crouched in one of Pawson's cushioned chairs. "But a neutral environment allows people to be the focus rather than the decor. I'd rather see colour come from people, from their hair and clothing, than see lots of paint on the walls."

For the renovation of the new 22,000-square-foot store (a former bank, designed in Greek Revival style and built in 1928) Klein sought out New York's most famous minimal Modernists such as Richard Meier. But lunching at the Royalton on west 44th street, the hotel's owner, Ian Schrager, gave him a monograph on Pawson's work. He took this with him on a flight to London and was impressed.

"I wanted to create a space that would act as a canvas for my clothes. It had to be gallery-like. White walls. Nothing else," says Klein.

Pawson knew what he meant. He understood that neutral backgrounds can make the object of envy more potent. He also understood the need to pamper customers. "Customers don't have to go shopping any more. It's so easy to order by telephone." So the new shop would be a place to "hang out".

Working for Klein was clearly a demanding experience: several months of eight o'clock starts and eight o'clock finishes. "Meals would be brought to us. We never got up from the table," says Pawson.

Pawson learnt to admire Klein for his endless energy, commitment and patience. Klein got to hear (as clients inevitably do) about Pawson's past: Eton, Oxford, his four years in Japan, two years at the Architectural Association, how his grandparents were primitive Methodists, how his parents taught him not to invest emotions in objects, how he appears regularly in the diary pages of the British Vogue.

There were disagreements: "Calvin likes contrast. Sharp lines. Surprises. I go for softer materials, shadows, blurred lines," says Pawson. Klein wanted furniture; Pawson to keep the shop furniture-free. Klein wanted customers to move easily; Pawson liked the idea of forcing them to walk through narrow gaps into big white spaces.

The end result does not look like a compromise. Long stretches of glass interspersed with Ionic pilasters sprouting from a floor of camel-coloured York stone create a chaste, temple-like effect. This effect conspires to elevate clothes into works of art. Here, the aesthetic of the art gallery meets that of soft jumpers and sleek suits.

Klein is pleased."I can't see myself wanting to change anything, at least not for another 10 years." Pawson, too, is satisfied with the outcome. "I see people walk into the shop and exhale a breath. They respond physically to what is around them."

But do they buy? "Yes," says Pawson. "Up to 1,000 people an hour walk through on a Saturday." But do they buy? "Yes," says Klein, "although right now this place is a bit of a novelty in New York - many of our visitors are architecture or design students."

I didn't buy. The gallery feel of the place put me off fingering the "masterpieces". The white, too, became wearisome; to work in such an environment must require a certain act of will. Sales staff were polite about the set-up. They didn't feel nostalgic for clutter and colour, but I did overhear a sales woman praising a customer's luridly bright cardigan. "It is so refreshing to see colour around here," she said. "Looking at beige and white all day can be tiring."

She should have rested her eye on some of the "homely" stains on the walls. Already the staircase walls are scuffed and the paintwork dirtied. Pawson says these are just teething problems. That the shop "just needs a bit of time". Time to do what? "Time for the maintenance man to become a permanent fixture. Time for the cleaners to learn how to scrub properly".

Pawson's life has calmed down since the opening of the New York store. No more photo shoots, no more weekends at the Long Island retreat, no more long conversations with one of the world's top designers. But when a suitable London-based store is found, his status as court architect will no doubt work in his favour. "People have said we are a very good match," he says, sipping a cappuccino in a west London coffee shop and smiling coyly. Then, a touch wistfully: "I think the names Calvin Klein and John Pawson go well together."