Each time I walk through the glass door of Matthew Williamson’s Meatpacking District flagship (and I do this far too often), I’m whisked off 14th Street and into a tropical oasis of playful prints, romance and whimsy. Suffice to say, it’s a far cry from scavenging for one of the designer’s collaborative pieces at H&M. But it’s not just the vibrant garments that sweep me away; it’s the store’s outrageous design.
The first room is an electric pink boudoir with a hand-painted jewelry chest, an intricately embroidered chaise and a clique of suspended mannequins clad in Williamson’s flippant frocks. Of the two adjacent rooms, one is bathed in a soothing rose hue and displays opulent accessories in delicate bird cages, while the other is an aggressive blue den filled with exciting stilettos and select designs. It serves as the gateway to a VIP dressing room and is illuminated by a shocking wall of swirling lights. The collection hangs in the circular back room. Lavish dressing rooms, finished with butterfly wallpaper designed by Williamson himself, invite me to try on hot pink jumpsuits and beaded dresses. And across the way, behind a glass wall, a lone gown stands in a luscious green jungle. Created by image director Clare Ceprynski, the store embodies the vitality and effortless elegance of Williamson’s clothes. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with the woman behind the design and learn how this wonderland came to be.
Katharine Zarrella: The architectural design of the store is very unique, particularly the round room in the back. Can you speak a bit about what went into it?
Clare Ceprynski: The footprint of the original space and its location provided my start point. I changed the existing layout completely, moving the position of the front door from the right to the left hand side. This allowed me to suck the row of very dominant structural columns into the wall space of the store. It enlarged the window and enabled me to maximize the size of the shop floor, giving much more light and room to the back of the store and allowing me to be more expressive with the floor plan.
Conceptually, at the time, I was looking at a lot of Constructivist posters from 1920s Russia. The shapes, including the egg shapes and the spinal, vortex corridor, were inspired by these. I was keen to design something particularly dynamic that would draw the client into the back of the store. Egg shapes are much more elastic and energetic than lethargic circles or ovals. I also cut the main corridor on the angle, with an exciting garden vista at the end, to transport you through the space.
Some of the very simple decorative features, like the small bands of brass in the poured concrete floor, came from my love of Carlo Scarpa. I was keen to impart architecturally minimal gravitas with an at-home, laid-back floor expanse. My design language is all about horizons, vistas and spatial illusion.
Katharine: Why did you decide to have four separate and very different spaces in the store?
Clare: Matthew’s work is very much based on the idea that the rub of two polar opposites will ignite a new spark of energy when they collide, for example, the meeting of synthetic and organic elements (like the fiber optic wall next to the antique chandeliers). This prompted me to design the two very differently decorated rooms at the heart of the store, which add discovery to the Matthew Williamson journey and a sense of autonomy and surprise for our client. The outlining skeleton of space then provides the escalator—imparting momentum and unity to the design.
Katharine: Each of the rooms appears to have a unique color scheme and theme. What inspired each room?
Clare: The colors work atmospherically and psychologically to define space. The Tuscan pink provides a chic, almost museum-type tranquility. Women, in particular, seem to love this ergonomic space, while the glossy blue is sexy and tempting. It allows our client to revel in an overtly tactile or midnight experience. I love the polarity of these two rooms. They really sum up, for me, what makes Matthew’s label unique.
Katharine: How did the elaborate lighting on the back wall of the Blue Room emerge?
Clare: Matthew Williamson is often perceived as a red carpet/cocktail label and yet, this distinctive element of our brand had been unexplored in our interior design concept. My aim was to add this facet to the dimension of our in-store retail experience. We are, after all, in the city that never sleeps and in the district that is notorious for its nighttime/clubbing set. I was keen that this flagship boutique should truly echo its unique position and its immediate environs. Further, we wanted to directly appeal to the fashion tribe that make the Meatpacking District their retail destination of choice. The Blue Room is designed as an opulent pocket, deliciously and darkly sexy. I wanted it to be a unique environment to display shoes. With its masculine, library elements and its dark lighting, I wanted to appeal to shoe fetishists who love our footwear range.
Katharine: I adore the antique baubles that cover the dressing room walls. What are they, exactly? How did you hunt them down?
Clare: We have used vintage brooches on luxury de Gournay hand-painted wallpaper before—in our flagship boutique in London on Bruton Street. I wanted to make the VIP fitting room just that little bit more luxurious and precious, so I encrusted the area around the mirror, where the light catches them and makes them really sparkle. The other fitting rooms have fewer but very favorite vintage brooches that were selected from a market stall in Portobello, London, when I was sourcing for the store.
Katharine: A little bird told me that a great deal of the store’s furniture was vintage. What were you looking for, specifically, when you went to search for these pieces?
Clare: I love the idea that vintage furniture really adds a different dimension to a store design. It instantly makes the experience more unique and much more relaxed. It warms up the space and provides atmosphere. I was very lucky to have help from a dear friend called Christian Hartings, who has lived in New York for many years. He showed me around and introduced me to some dealers, auction houses and vintage markets. He helped me pick out many of the important finds. I also went shopping with Matthew, who picked out some of the pieces personally, like the chaise at the front of the store. Matthew has a very keen eye.
Katharine: The store is filled with images of bright, exotic birds. What’s the story behind them?
Clare: Hummingbirds and exotic birds are part of the established Matthew Williamson brand DNA. I used birdcages, first, when I designed the flagship store in London. I love the Schiaparelli connection too—the idea of tamed exoticism or specimen selection (Schiaparelli’s flagship store in Paris had a wonderful gilded cage as a window display; I was lucky enough to see it at an exhibition on Surrealism and fashion at the V&A Museum in London very shortly before I designed the New York store).
Katharine: I love the “hand” pegs in the dressing rooms, and I think it’s brilliant that they carry over onto shopping bags. How did this theme come about?
Clare: I found the Buddha hands in a shop downtown and thought that they would be perfect for the store. I love that Cocteau-esque idea. We had previously developed all the store packaging for the opening of the store in London that included the henna hand sticker.
Katharine: What would you say was the most difficult part of the store’s creation?
Clare: Each stage of the design and build had its own difficult moments. I am naturally an ideas person, so my favorite part of the project was definitely the initial concept and getting that on paper. Pulling together all my ideas and expressing that spatially is what really excites me. I also love sourcing and design development. I loved working with different professionals on singular elements of the store design—the rug with The Rug Company, the wallpaper with de Gournay, the plan chest display units with Clements Design—all of which I really enjoyed.
The final stages of construction are always the most physically exhausting. You literally are the single reference for all problem solving, whilst you also become a handyman, putting up all the images in the restroom or hanging a giant chandelier. I also did all the merchandising, the store window and dressed the space. It is nerve-racking because I am doing all this on Matthew’s behalf.
Katharine: In what way would you say the store’s design interacts with Matthew’s clothes?
Clare: The clothes are always the star! The store is an amphitheater to showcase the clothes; the space is vehicle to impart the designer’s philosophy.
Matthew Williamson: 415 W 14th St., New York, NY 10014, (212) 255-9065