Having refurbished Hitler’s Haus Der Kunst in Munich and the Kaufthaus Tyrol, the biggest shopping mall in Austria, the Brioni store in Paris wasn’t an altogether surprising move for David Chipperfield. The modernist architect has cornered the market in museum design, with a neat sideline in monolithic stores for luxury brands. As Warhol once promised: 'All museums will become big stores and all big stores will become museums’. And they have - from Apropos to Zegna. This year’s marble is this year’s model. Something Wallpaper columnist Nick Vinson highlighted in 2014: ‘black Belgio’ (Prada)…..‘grey Cala Paonazza’ (Tom Ford)…..and ‘boiserie-style paneling, columns, arches’ at Viktor & Rolf on rue Saint-Honoré, Paris.
One of the biggest stores on rue Saint-Honoré is the Italian heritage brand Brioni. Following the shock recruitment of the rakish Justin O’Shea as creative director in April the interior of its Parisian outpost was recast as a ‘gallery of clothes’. Following his exit six months later his tenure may one day be seen as an aberration, and the Paris store his legacy. The building's transformation heralded his arrival and declared that this was to be more than a mere store. It was a ‘destination’ in a city that was less of a destination following the series of terrorist attacks. ‘Paris has to make an effort to become Paris again’, Karl Lagerfield said recently. Chances are it will and is. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: ‘Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed’. On rue Saint-Honoré and similar avenues there is the Paris of the modern designer museums - those native fortresses of fashion where fantasy and illusion are a refuge for the wealthy consumer: Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent. To paraphrase Audrey Hepburn, Paris is still a good idea
Paris, 2016. The Brioni store is palatial in its dimensions: two floors covering 590 square metres. The mesh partitions bring an industrial feel, but the overall theme is one of classical luxury. The marble pillars get me thinking of the Haus Der Kunst before the makeover, before the attempt to eradicate its history, removing the blood-red marble of the pillars and plinths taken from the lake Tegernsee at Hitler’s request. Here at Brioni someone has gone to similar lengths; turning to the quarries of Ancient Rome and travertino, the stone Michaelangelo used on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. It covers the walls and floors and is the grey of clouds and twine. The museum element is evident elsewhere; shoes are displayed like exhibits, elevated and mounted in glass cases. O’Shea was intent on presenting menswear in a new way, as the company did in 1952 when it put male models on the runway for the first time.
Brioni was started in Rome in 1945. The name is that of a hotspot in the Adriatic that was synonymous with elegance and luxury. The company chose it as an antidote to the austerity of the war years, and because it was an Italian word that Americans could handle. The target customers were wealthy, stately and materialised in the sleek form of Hollywood actors and fictional British spies (James Bond). ‘That era and aesthetic - that is my aesthetic’, said Justin O’Shea shortly after taking up the post. In becoming the first high-end Italian tailoring brand to arrive in America it capitalised on the country’s post-war consumer boom. The company tapped into the nascent lifestyle culture enjoyed by both the Playboy bachelor and The Organization Man. But Brioni was out of the league of the suburban commuter in The Grey Flannel Suit. It was for the pockets at the Don Draper end of Madison Avenue - its Gold Coast. So, here at the refurbished Paris store, with its palette of grays in mesh and marble, there is something of that New York…..something of the lobby at Consolidated Life where C.C. Baxter is employed in The Apartment….somethingof the secret HQ behind the Del Floria tailor shop in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And bringing things back to 370 Rue Saint Honoré, Paris - something of the glass and steel set in Jacques Tati’s Playtime, where the most impressive gadget is the door that slams‘in golden silence’.
It’s the kind of touch you expect to find at Brioni. The silence is golden here, of course. There is serenity. Exactly like a museum or a mausoleum, where the dialogue comes in distant careful whispers. It’s a silence in which you could be weighed up, summed up by the cut of your jib. The natural light that darts through the first floor windows and spotlights the bespoke section in the windowless basement could be part of a greater plan to expose the absence of craftsmanship in your attire. The rip of Velcro would not only be crassly vulgar here it might cause the very foundations, the Roman Brioni empire itself, to crumble.
There’s an elevator between the two floors, and at basement level a staircase that calls to mind Grace Brothers, despite the stately grey tavertine. Simplicity is central. It’s evident in the surroundings and the exhibits. The suits are single button front without a vent, courtesy of Justin O'Shea: ‘The first thing I wanted to do was make the suit cool again. That was my primary goal… The suit is a fashion item- it’s not only to go to work in for formality purposes’.
The store changed under the aegis of Justin O’Shea, and the Brioni logo went gothic. If it had been comic sans it couldn’t have been more of a shock. Oddly, it’s a font that is suddenly fashionable. Even Kanye West picked up on it with the merchandise promoting‘The Life of Pablo’. So, this was one of the charges levelled at O’Shea: he was following trends rather than setting them. But it’s apt that he would opt for the gothic theme. Here’s why...
It brings to mind loud 80s guitar bands dressed in black. Something you could never imagine being fashionable….rather like heavy metal. Yet here was Metallica advertising Brioni in the initial campaign after O’Shea took the reigns. Middle aged heavy metal men in white tuxedos and expert tailoring. It made little sense - and then you saw Justin O’ Shea. The shaved head, the tattoos, the goatee beard, the interviews peppered with expletives, and O'Shea captured in freeze-frame tanked up on testosterone on his Instagram page: JOS getting tattooed; JOS at the gym; JOS congratulating UFC Champion Conor 'The Notorious’ McGregor ‘for being an all round badass’. And in some ways the former cage fighter stripped, bald, bruised, bloody, tattooed, has a look of JOS about him, or perhaps one he would hope for after a round in the ring or a night on the town.
It all set the notorious JOS apart as much as his background.
O’Shea didn’t emerge from the Antwerp scene like Dries, Dirk, Raf, Margiela…. or from Seoul, New York, Paris, Milan…..but Queensland. He was from mining country. He’d been a truck driver. He’d been in a rock tribute band. Finally, and this was the biggest shock of all, he wasn’t a designer. His background was retail, all be it as the king buyer for a luxury online brand. A career that doesn’t say Brioni and bespoke but Amazon and Asos. Many criticised his qualifications, arguing that a spivy look, a history in sales and a social media following barely made him a contender, let alone a champion. ‘He’s a man in a suit. This is one of the few concrete reasons for his appointment’, wrote esteemed fashion writer Alexander Fury.
But was it actually his maleness….his machismo that rankled? It seemed so outré……so outmoded. ‘I just want a men’s brand to be masculine’, he boomed. It seemed so at odds with what had been happening with men on the runway, what with all the blurring of genders and all. And some of us welcomed that. Those of us that emerged from infancy into the dazzling light of glam rock in the 1970s, and jettisoned adolescence for adulthood during the gender-bending club years of the 1980s. It reached out to those of us that were once loners and queer outsiders in postcodes that made the news but never the fashion pages. When everyone from Burberry to Gucci and beyond put lean and hungry male models in pussy bow blouses it was a move that chimed with the androgynous future we once held out for that was anticipated by the late, revered fashion historian Anne Hollander, the author of ‘Sex And Suits’. In the essay ‘Girlie Men: Revamping Male Couture’, she wrote: 'For generations (men) had to look tough, modest, honest, and restrained under plain suits or plain sportswear. Masculinity was allowed no erotic range in dress; the phallic necktie, licensed to reflect light and glow with color, was famously men's only hope.'
Justin O’Shea wears a necktie. It’s a big-thick-phallic-fuck-off-motherfucker-son-of-a-bitch-double-windsor-knot of a tie. You can imagine him saying this as he ties it each morning. It’s often floral. But without the subtlety of the ever-present blood-red roses that erupt from glass vases here at Brioni, courtesy of celebrity florist Eric Buterbaugh (‘I approach flowers like a fashion brand approaches clothing’). The floral ties are as loud and lairy as a Mr Fish kipper tie.
Lairy, yes. A good word, but there’s a better one: ‘Lair’. Here’s the dictionary definition: ‘Austral./NZ. Informal noun. A flashy dressed man who enjoys showing off’. It fits O’Shea as well as his ‘Wall Street Fashion Gangster’ look, accessorised with a swaggering confidence. ‘It’s very gangster to wear a silk shirt. That’s the guy I want to appeal to….They’ve got so much money’. He was probably one of those boys at school that had everything sewn up. He could throw a punch, put the ball in the back of the net, and always get the girl. Recalling the original interview at Brioni, where he wasn’t asked where he saw himself in five years time, he said he’d said: 'Look, this is what it’s gonna be. I’m not gonna create 73-fucking-thousand mood boards for you. If you want me to do the job, give me the job and just trust me. And if you don’t like it, then fire me'.
You can’t imagine Brioni HQ back therein Rome being to O’Shea what Lanvin was for Alber Elbaz when he was creative director, minutes from here on rue Saint-Honoré. ‘It’s kind of like my bunker’, Elbaz confided, when filmed at his studio for the New York Times. 'It is all black because from a black hole I thought I would have a better perspective …I feel very comfortable in the dark……It is the only place I feel skinny and beautiful…..The moment I get out of my office I feel I am worth nothing. I’m so like not athletic……..I don’t like the sun. I don’t like vacation. I don’t bike even. And here I feel I’m like, I know everything'.
O’Shea was social, cocky, self-assured, uncompromising, keen to let everyone know that he wouldn’t be broken by an industry that charged along at breakneck speed, in which brittle creatives jumped or were pushed from great heights over short periods of time. The world that brought about the suicide of Alexander McQueen and took John Galliano to a meltdown in this very city, at La Perle. But these were designers. Before getting the job Justin O’Shea had sketched one item: a pair of sunglasses on the back of a napkin during a lengthy flight. So, think of O’Shea and think of the character Morrissey suggests ‘Christian Dior’ could have been, if he hadn’t fixated on fabrics and dyes and making the poor rich smile: ‘You could haverun wild on the backstreets of Lyon or Marseille/Reckless and legless and stoned/Impregnating women/Or kissing mad street boys from Napoli’.
If you take out the Neopolitan boys, isn’t this Justin O’Shea?
‘I love tailoring’, he said. And this is where I for one get it. I love tailoring, but I loved it less when I was a tailor. For three years from the age of sixteen, apprenticed in the art of bespoke before I legged it. At Brioni they start them younger. But don’t be fooled into thinking Bangladeshi sweatshops. Think Russian gymnasts and Chinese musicians. In Penne, Italy, there are rumoured to be more tailors than people. The home of pasta quills is also home to the Brioni factory and the accompanying finishing school established by the master tailor and co-founder Nazzareno Fonticolo. Eight boys are selected for a four year apprenticeship. At an age when balls have dropped but voices have yet to break, they embark on the career that writer Gay Talese believes creates a mental disorder, which leaves you oscillating between silence and wild fits. The dandyfied pioneer of new journalism loves tailoring. He loves Brioni, and remains a poster boy for the brand in his dotage. Writing of the trade of his Italian father in ‘The Brave Tailors of Maida’ (1989), Talese attributes the aforementioned occupational malady to ‘excessive hours of slow, exacting, microscopic work that proceeds stitch by stitch, inch by inch, mesmerising the tailor in the reflected light of the needle, flickering in and out of the fabric’. At Brioni, when it comes to a hand-made suit that translates to 7,000 stitches in a single jacket. In the acclaimed2013 documentary ‘Men Of The Cloth’, one of the master tailor’s featured- a nephew of Fonticolo - is filmed in Penne . Here the young tyros embarking on an apprenticeship can expect to be master tailors by the age of22, and yet, as he says in the film, rather cryptically: ‘You will never be a complete tailor until you die’.
Into this hothouse of craftsmanship, expertise, precision, and dexterity strode Justin O’Shea earlier this year with his vision and his demands. They were no strangers to change after all. Brioni had pioneered the continental look way back, and by the end of the 1950s was putting men in dinner jackets in all colours of the rainbow. But this was something else. The boardroom men at the company that owns Brioni wanted to reproduce versions of Justin O’Shea on the runway, and so this became the brief for his debut collection: Chinchilla coats. Crocodile trench coats. JOS said think pimp, but this was so pimp it could have been accessorised with knives, needles and hookers instead of those silver-edged attaché cases. It conjured thoughts of the figures that Tom Wolfe discovered in the ghettos of New Haven documented in 'Funky Chic’: 'the Prince Albert pockets and the black Pimp mobile hat with the four-inch turn-down brim and the six-inch pop-up crown with the golden chain-belt hatband’.
In the wake of the collection, Justin O’Shea bragged to Vogue: ‘I could talk about bespoke tailoring qualities and the amazingness of the guys in Penne and blah blah blah and we got all exclusive fabrics and rah-di-rah-di-rah…..But that’s not what a guy necessarily cares about so much at the moment. Guys want to do the coolest things’.
Now he’s gone. Maybe mood boards weren’t a bad idea after all.
In October, David Chipperfield’s Brioni store on rue Saint-Honoré looked exactly as it did in the summer. The silence was golden; the blood-red roses were Eric Bauterbaugh. Now it was more mausoleum than museum. The company’s creative director had gone. The turn-over in these roles is quick these days, but at six months this was a record-breaker. Did he jump or was he pushed?
It was Paris fashion week, and the announcement was news but not huge news in the city of light - not the tragedies that touch us all: Charlie Hebdo…..the Bataclan. But on the ritzy avenues where fashion matters it was a talking point. The basement of the rue Saint-Honoré store had been the runway for O’Shea's debut collection in July, now, his final collection was to be presented to a group of retailers in a showroom in Milan. It sounded clandestine and illicit. Exactly how far had he taken this gangster pimp thing?
Rumour had it the original designs had not reached out and touched the gangsters he was targeting. Perhaps it was like that moment following9/11 when the fake tan and if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it Tom Ford look of the 1990s was suddenly vulgar. Something sedate was required. As many a cultural historian will confirm, men’s fashion transitions in time of turmoil - war, revolution…... terrorism. So where does that leave it now?
Safely in the arms of tradition and craftsmanship back at Brioni, and a client base of hedge funders, actors and heads of state. But they’ve missed a trick. The 21st century figure that best fits the Brioni ethos is 31-year old Kevin Systrom, founder and CEO of Instagram. Sartorially, he virtually stands alone in the world of start-ups and billionaires, with neither the Issey Miyake turtle neck that was the uniform of Steve Jobs nor the obligatory grey t-shirt of Facebook’s Steve Zuckerberg. Only Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter, comes close with his Prada suits and Rolex watches. Instagram has become one of the surest ways of showcasing a fashion brand, and last year Systrom toured Europe, beginning in Paris, where he met the luminaries of the fashion industry. He wore Brioni. ‘I love Italian fashion for men’, he says ‘not metrosexual, something manly with a rugged feel.’ He sounds like O’Shea. It could have been a great marriage, where tradition and modernism come together as they do at the David Chipperfield-designed store on rue Saint- Honoré. Systrom is Brioni; O’Shea is instagram. On the day of his departure, O'Shea posted an image on the photo-sharing app for his 102k followers. It was the marble-like, coffin-like shape from the window of the Brioni store, which encases the large gold gothic letter B. The adjacent blood-red Bauterbaugh roses now seemed funereal, as was the last post that day: ‘The @brioni_official coffin’. The burial of a brand or the death of a career? Either way, Paris is still a good idea.