Peter Marino, the Leather Daddy of Luxury

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

When the Elevators open onto the 36th floor at Peter Marino Architect, the first things visible are multiple Damien Hirst dot paintings and a stainless-steel skull with bullets for teeth by Joel Morrison. There are also several massive black-and-white photographs of the principal of the firm, Marino himself, standing always with legs slightly apart and a black leather policeman’s cap pulled over his eyes, looking like a cross between a Hells Angel and Karl Lagerfeld. By the reception desk, there is a Han Dynasty horse carved from an enormous block of sandy stone, and there is one wall of Warhol lithographs in bright, saturated colors—and there has also been delivery of a gleaming new KTM motorcycle. The next morning Marino will leave for a ten-day motorcycle trip across the American West. “Live to ride and ride to live, dude!” Marino says. He is 62 years old and has a trim, jet-black Mohawk and goatee. He is wearing a sleeveless leather top that is open on the sides except for three straps secured by shiny silver buckles, a pair of low-rise leather pants that lace up the backside, a snug leather codpiece, and leather motorcycle boots that cause him to walk with his legs open in a V, just like in the pictures. “This is my summer leather,” he says and raises his bare, tattooed arms to the sky, showing a thick strip of muscly midriff. “Air conditioning!”

He is looking forward to this break for the chance to stare, for hours on end, at a white line on a black highway. Sometimes, when he is riding, he plays Wagner’s entire “Ring” cycle through in his head. After his ride, he’ll go straight to Paris for the opening of the Louis Vuitton boutique he’s just redesigned, and then he’ll go to Beirut to check in on a luxury-condominium and hotel complex he’s been working on for the past year and a half. After Beirut comes Shanghai, where he’ll attend the opening of the company’s largest store ever—the largest store he’s ever designed. “I’m like a sleep-­hibernation camel, dude,” Marino says. “I’ll go on four hours a night for a while and then I’ll come home and be asleep for 72 hours straight.”  

In the past twelve months, Marino has been far more awake than anything else. In addition to the enormous Vuitton openings, there have been new boutiques for Chanel, Céline, and Zegna, among others. And then there is the work he does on the private homes of Bernard Arnault, various members of a Middle Eastern royal family, and other members of the international superrich, like the English jeweler Laurence Graff, who has hired Marino to design a whole new kind of chalet on a hillside near Gstaad. He’s just signed with the Shinsegae corporation, which means both commercial and residential projects for the majority shareholding family. Marino’s firm, which has a staff of 150, completed 100 projects in 2011. None had budgets under $5 million, and only ten had budgets under $10 million. It can feel, at times, like Marino designs everything. Or, as he puts it, “I fucking do everything!”

Marino has been an architect for a long time—ever since he graduated from ­Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in 1971. But it’s never been quite like this: Marino has become the No. 1 designer of the luxury landscape, the man who best understands how to move a customer on any continent through salons full of leather and lipstick and straight to the register. He knows how to work for any number of competitors—walk down 57th Street near Fifth Avenue: That’s Marino’s Vuitton, ­Marino’s Chanel, Marino’s Christian Dior—while keeping the brand identities intact and the sales figures brisk. Luxury, after all, has had a banner year despite absolutely everything else, and Marino is delighted. “Using ‘the Pedro’ produces very large profits,” says Marino, referring to himself, wagging a finger that is covered, like all the rest of his fingers, in an enormous silver ring. He agrees that luxury is on fire these days, and, he says, “I feel very much a part of that growth.”

Marino is an unusual high-fashion creature in ways beyond the codpiece. He has three distinct ways of speaking: There is the default speech, which bears traces of his native Queens accent (he had a childhood coach to lose it, but sometimes it’s there) and in which most sentences begin and/or end with an enthusiastic dude. Fucking is a top adjective. And then there’s the whole third-person thing, or “the Pedro,” which he adopted after an article in a Spanish magazine referred to him as Pedro el Grande, Peter the Great. That he’ll use in a variety of contexts, like when giving a tour of the Chanel boutique in Soho, where he curls up on a leather banquette in the dressing room and purrs, “The Pedro loves leather,” or when he is asked if he wears Chanel’s newest men’s fragrance and he answers, “Fragrance is not allowed in the clubs where the Pedro goes.” He also uses it to explain the 30-year absence he took from riding big bikes. “I wanted to wait until my daughter was a teenager,” he says, “in case the Pedro checks out.” And then, sometimes, he lapses into a full English accent. Not a posh one, exactly, but one that is more London, that calls to mind the swinging sixties along the King’s Road. He uses this one frequently when he’s talking about his wife, Jane Trapnell, and he talks about her a lot. “She’s gorgeous,” he’ll say. “Just brilliant.”

If Marino’s personal style is specific and indelible, his architecture and interiors are much harder to pin down. Marino’s boutiques do not instantly assault with their Marino-ness, like, say, Rem Koolhaas’s Prada store on Broadway and Prince. (“Where are the clothes?” Marino asks. “And by the way, has Rem Koolhaas ever been asked to design another store?”) It’s all very clean and spare on the outside. “I do really modern with materials that are so luxurious that they’re, like, baroque.”

Inside a Marino space, it’s all smooth-moving luxury, where drawers and doors close in perfect silence, and the elevator button is weirdly satisfying to push. They are well and flatteringly lit and, like Marino’s office, full of eclectic collections of art. They feel rich and full and calm. Because the bags are the number-one moneymaker for all these companies, they are always right up front, and they are always easy to see and touch and admire. “If something’s a high-margin product, I understand its importance to the store. If Karl’s going Byzantine, you’re going to want a new wall for jewelry,” he says. There are very comfortable places to sit when you’re trying on shoes, and the ready-to-wear tends to be tucked away, in upstairs salons that feel almost residential, private enough places to undress and assess. The genius of a Marino store might be that you move through it without being assaulted by anything specifically overwhelming and are instead overtaken by a feeling of affluence, efficiency, comfort, and calm. ­Marino deliberately avoids the news—“For me, it’s worse than religion”—but he is well aware that the luxury boom is coexisting with huge discrepancies in income, and he tries to be sensitive to that when he imagines these temples to cash. “I’m in Spain for Loewe,” he says, “and there’s 20 percent unemployment. You have to be very subdued.”

And for the new Céline store on Madison Avenue, he imagined a version of luxury congruous with that of the brand, which is to say incredibly quiet. At least one third of the space is taken up with a curved staircase, and, as Marino says, what is more luxurious than the ability to use space that way in that Zip Code?

In fact, Marino’s most important aesthetic motivation may be his claustrophobia. “Dude,” he says (slight Queens accent), “I can’t even take a shower.” Marino lives in a colossal apartment on the far eastern side of 57th Street. There is a stage in his apartment, and to celebrate big anniversaries, Marino and Trapnell produce operas. Next year is their 30th, and they are planning a production of Orfeo ed Euridice for 100 guests.

Because of his claustrophobia, Marino’s first mission with any space is to open it up and access all available natural light. “Ask any woman,” he says. “I asked my wife. She has a very humanistic take on things, and she’s like, ‘You need light.’ Look, I believe that women would crawl across broken glass to get a cool pair of shoes. But if you want to have a nice time, you need natural light.

“Nine out of nine architects start with a sketch and then they say, ‘What should we make it out of?’ ” Marino says. “I start from the bottom up, what should it be made out of, and then I worry about what should it look like. The material, the color of the material, the way it feels, and the way you respond to it is every bit as valid as the form or the shape.”

As Maureen Chiquet, the CEO of Chanel, says, “His finishes are sublime.”

So what materials interest him most?

“Leather,” he says, without missing a beat.

Like so many of the eccentrics who still dot the fashion world, Marino’s career started with Andy Warhol, whom he met through Pat Hackett, who was a friend of a friend of his from architecture school. He started lurking around the Factory on weekends, and eventually he became part of the crew. This was during the seventies, when Warhol was doing lots of society portraits, and the Agnellis and Rothschilds took a shine to Marino, and, as he puts it, someone had to design their houses. Warhol hired Marino to do his own house, on East 66th Street, in partnership with Jed Johnson, and then to design the Factory when it moved to the north side of Union Square. And then came Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who had an enormous apartment in the Pierre, and then eventually the Pressman family, who were in the process of converting Barneys, their bar-mitzvah-suit company, into something fashionable and fantastic. Who better than the architect of the Factory?

“The important thing to understand is that now people say, ‘Oh, let’s go see that new store, it’s so cool,’ but in the seventies, doing ‘dress shops’ was the dog end of the architecture business. No serious architect would ever touch a ‘dress shop.’ It’s a giant OMG when you think about it now, but I was really the first person to do it. And that was really the beginning of my career.”

With the Barneys job, Marino started meeting people. He flew to Milan to meet Giorgio Armani and Carla Fendi, to Paris to meet the Hermès people. Eventually, he attended the ready-to-wear shows, standing on his tiptoes in the back of the house. “There’s so much effort in a fashion show,” he says. “There’s so much beauty. They’re these kind of massive, mixed-arts things. They rarely achieve the overall beauty of a painting, but the humanity is off the charts. They’re collaborative; they’re operatic.”

Marino had found a home in the fashion world, and by the early nineties he was designing boutiques for Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and Donna Karan.

Marino did not always dress like a Village Person. He started out in jeans and a T-shirt—“like a total pig,” he says—and then, during his years with Armani, favored a well-cut Italian suit. But twelve years ago, he had a life-altering conversation when he went to his doctor for a checkup. “He said, ‘If I told you right now that you had cancer and a month to live, what would you do?’ And I said, ‘I would get a bike and ride, and if it was painful I’d go off a cliff and die happy.’ And he said, ‘You better start doing that right now.’ For the first 30 seconds, I was like, Where are we going with this?, and then he was like, ‘You don’t have cancer, but you’re getting to a certain age, and I want you to enjoy your life.’

“He’s from Argentina. He’s, like, smoking while he’s telling me this. And I’m like, ‘Okay, so I don’t have cancer? How about you? You have to stop smoking and you have to start working out.’ ”

So he waited until his daughter was in her teens, he dug out his old chaps, and he got a new bike. It all just took off from there. These days, most of his leather is custom-made by a tailor named Felix, and Marino even wears it when he’s at his house in Southhampton, where hydrangeas flank the gravelly drive. Trapnell—who Marino is quick to point out is “a very, very, very elegant Wasp. Literally, like, a Mayflower Wasp” (English accent here)—even gets involved. “And by the way, I need her to dress me in the morning. She’s like, ‘Dude, why don’t you just get a valet?’ She’s a very elegant woman. Wasp meets Southern Italian boy, instant attraction. Both sides.” (Of his wife, Marino explains that they share “deep karmic chords. She’s a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford. My advice is, marry someone who’s smart. Sex is great for twenty years, but then you’ve got to talk to her.”)

In the past couple of decades, Marino has changed, too—he’s become an icon. “When I first met Peter, that was not his look, but my look was not kilts, either,” says Marc Jacobs. “We both went through a physical transformation, and I think we both get off on the persona we’ve created. And, you know, it seems perfectly normal to me. In the world that we all run in, I don’t find anything odd. I think of a musical number from Gypsy where the strippers are all saying, ‘You’ve got to have a gimmick.’ You look at Karl, you look at Peter, and that’s what’s expected at the top of your game, that your identity and your lifestyle become as much of interest as the work you create. I get a lot of attention for showing up in a lace dress, or for who I’m dating. There’s no separation of you as a person and the work that you do; it’s all this performance art of life.”

Marino is a great show—but inside his boutiques he knows who the stars are. “I do believe that merchandise totally rules,” he says. “And I believe that the primary function of what I’m doing is to move merchandise.”

Peter Marino, the Leather Daddy of Luxury