Yves Saint Laurent: Where art and fashion collide

Richard Gluckman is rapidly building a reputation as one of New York's foremost architects, with a host of interiors for art galleries and fashion stores. His latest project is a combination of the two, a menswear boutique for Yves Saint Laurent that will showcase the work of young artists. By Ian Phillips. Photographs by James Rexroad

You could be excused for suspecting that architect Richard Gluckman is conspiring to take over New York's Wooster Street. Standing on the pavement at the heart of SoHo, he points to a bookstore across the road. "We did the interior of that," he announces, and then proceeds to rapidly reel off an impressive list of other projects he has completed on the same street. "You should take a look at number 99. We did that. Number 136. We also did that. The Tony Shafrazi Gallery at 119 and the Dia Earth Room at 141. We did those too."

Now, he has also "done" the Yves Saint Laurent menswear store, which has just opened at number 88. It is the first of its kind, the start of a new generation of YSL boutiques and a complete break with the stores of the past. It follows the decision two years ago by Saint Laurent chairman Pierre Berge to bring in designer Hedi Slimane to revitalise the house's decidedly classic menswear line. It has proved an extremely smart move. In no time at all, Slimane has turned the label into one of the hottest fashion tickets around. "The success of the collection led us to think we could not stay with the same slightly conservative store design," says Berge. "They were fairly adamant about creating a new image," confirms Gluckman.

"We wanted something that would not look too much like a clothes shop," explains Berge. "And as it is SoHo we decided to create a sort of half-way house between an art gallery and a boutique. At Saint Laurent, we have never separated art and fashion. We know very well that fashion is not art, but we believe that there is a very strong link between art, contemporary artist and the creation of fashion."

In the past, Saint Laurent was closely associated with Andy Warhol (a screen print of the designer hangs in Berge's office). In the courtyard of his first menswear store on Paris's Left Bank was a sculpture by Niki de Saint-Phalle and now the front section of the new New York boutique will be dedicated to installations - to be changed every three months - by young artists. The first will be devoted to 34-year-old French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, who is best known for his work with glass.

Given the link to the art world, Gluckman seems to be the perfect choice for the project. He may have designed the Gianni Versace store on Madison Avenue and the Helmut Lang SoHo boutique, but most of his projects have been art-related (the Lang boutique was even inspired by a Tony Smith exhibition). His most famous work is the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea (1987) and since the beginning of the Nineties, he has completed more than 40 galleries in Manhattan. He is also responsible for the interior of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. He is currently working on a new Picasso museum in Malaga, contemporary galleries for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Mori Museum of Art in Tokyo, and his most significant project to date - the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.

The latter is Gluckman's first major free-standing project (all his work to date has been renovating existing buildings) and he is tickled pink by the commission. Drawings of it are proudly displayed on a long wooden board that runs down one side of his TriBeCa office. Models of various other projects are scattered about. Near the entrance is a free-standing store for Versace in South Beach, Miami (he was due to get the designer's go-ahead the week Versace was shot dead). Another model is of a house he is building for himself at Orient Point, Long Island.

Gluckman is softly spoken and eloquent. There is something reminiscent of Woody Allen in his slouchy posture, the form of his mouth and his almost apologetic demeanour. He was born in 1947, the eldest of three children and had what he describes as "a typical bourgeois existence" in Buffalo, New York. His father was a printer and, at the age of 10, Gluckman came across the word "architect" and decided to be one. While still at architectural school, he built his first house - a holiday home for his parents on Fire Island, near New York.

After setting up his own practice in 1977, he was commissioned to design a New York townhouse for the couple behind the Dia Center - Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil. They introduced him to artists such as Don Flavin and Donald Judd, and his art projects led him into retail after Versace discovered a couple of the galleries he had designed. "Since doing the Versace and Helmut Lang stores, we have been approached by other design companies," he says, "but have turned them down. I now don't want to be too closely associated with interiors. However, Yves Saint Laurent is a company you just can't turn down."

He was more or less given carte blanche for the store. However, he seems disappointed that he did not get to meet the reclusive Saint Laurent. "I worked directly with both Gianni Versace and Helmut Lang. But, in this project, the individual is once removed," he explains. "So, in a sense, it was what we imagined Saint Laurent to be, not what we know him to be."

The new store contains many parallels to his art projects. The design is spare, the walls white and the interior of the boutique not visible from the street. Gluckman has placed smoked-glass screens in the store front and instead of window displays he plans simply for images to be projected onto the glass.

There are more screens in the main part of the store. They run from floor to ceiling, are lit around the edges by fluorescent light and were inspired by a Bill Viola installation. Between each are the cantilevered racks for the clothes. Both sides of the store are lined with 30ft-long brushed- aluminium cabinets. For the dressing room walls, he has chosen an "ambiguous" material - glass backed with metal - but has draped the inside of them in the Saint Laurent fabric par excellence - grain de poudre.

In the basement is another new departure for Saint Laurent - a VIP room, where celebrities will be able to order made-to-measure clothes that will then be run up by the menswear studio in Paris within a month. "It's not going to be luxe," says Gluckman of the design, "but it will have more comfortable furniture and access to the coffee machine."

Whether they be VIPs or not, Gluckman views shoppers rather like the cast of a play. "The more confident people who go into these stores see themselves as the main character in a kind of pas de deux with the designer," he asserts. "In a sense, we're designing an environment in which this sort of drama takes place, with a supporting cast of sales people. In many ways, we're just the set designer"

Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, 88 Wooster St, SoHo, New York 10012 (001 212 274 0522)

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