I’D LOVE TO DO A HOTEL. Sophie Hicks is a British architect who was formerly a fashion editor. She has a unique understanding of how to create brand enhancing environments for her global client base.
Sophie Hicks, your house in Kensington, London, where we are today is very different in appearance from the rest of the neighbourhood. Was it difficult for you to build a concrete and glass home in a traditional Victorian square in 2018?
It took a year and a half to get planning permission. I bought at auction three garages from the 1950s that were collapsing, and then I designed and built the house right up to the boundaries, completely covering the tiny bit of land. I was designing the house to rent, but when I got halfway through building it I wanted to live here. This house is all to do with light. It’s basic, but sophisticated. There’s no decoration, and rusty steel shows the construction method and its progress in the rain, but there are sophisticated electrics in the steel panels which is really hard to do.
How is it to live in a house with such a lot of glass in London’s climate?
It’s fun. You have rain battering against the glass and that’s nice because you’re part of the elements. Everything’s double glazed and there is an anti-heat loss coating on it as well, so it doesn’t lose a lot of heat.
Now you are an architect. At the age of 17 why did you become a fashion editor?
It was an escape into a world that was exciting. Fashion and street fashion in London in the late 70s was good, and to be involved in making pictures and comment on what was going on was a really interesting and amazing thing to do. Willie Landels, the fabulous editor of Harper’s and Queen magazine, gave me four pages to do every month.
What sort of thing did you do?
I thought, we’ll do fancy dress for Christmas, and I boldly called up anybody that was a bit A-list and said, we want to take your picture dressed in a costume for Harper’s and Queen Christmas issue. My double portrait of Nigel Dempster and Nicky Haslam as the devil and an angel in leotards and tights, Nicky in white with angel wings and Nigel in black with devil’s horn and the trifork, was a cracker.
“This house is all to do with light. It’s basic, but sophisticated.“
An exterior view of Sophie Hicks’ house in London.
Sophie Hicks, you went on to work as a fashion editor at both Vogue and Tatler?
I was at British Vogue with Grace Coddington, a brilliant editor who taught me a lot for when I went on to do architecture, because she can see something and bang!, she instantly knows if it’s right or not. I learnt to concentrate and make decisions quickly from her. Mark Boxer was editor at Tatler when I was there, and he had a very good team.
By taking clothes and inventing a story that was of the zeitgeist of the moment. You have conceptual conversations about ideas and then you throw it together and take some pictures. My job is to make what they’re going to photograph be absolutely right for the idea. Their job is to bring it to life.
With David Bailey you made one of the most famous covers of the time for i-D magazine?
I like Bailey, but he’s a sod. He was shooting Jack Nicholson for some magazine when I turned up in the studio to have my picture taken. The point about every cover of i-D is that you have to shut one eye, but I just couldn’t do it. Bailey put some black tape across my eye while Jack Nicholson was hopping up and down in the background behind Bailey’s left shoulder making stupid faces at me. It was hilarious.
Did you also work with Bob Colacello for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine?
I didn’t work for him. They had an idea at Harper’s and Queen that pairs of people had to swap lives. I had a very good deal because I was 19 or 20 and wanted to swap lives with Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business manager who was a friend. Fred said yes, but he chickened out and said I’m sending someone called Bob Colacello, who was the editor of Interview and Warhol’s right hand. So I got to live in Bob Colacello’s snazzy apartment on Park Avenue, and Bob Colacello had to live in my home bedroom with my single bed with my school mementos pinned around it. Poor guy! He did get to go out with my boyfriend and go to the Cambridge May Balls but he really had the short straw!
What did you do as him?
I swanned around New York pretending to be Bob Colacello; and he was meant to pretend to be me! Laughs. It’s so silly. Laughs. I went to a fashion show and I sat at his desk and I went to a few parties and his assistant looked after me; and I invited my friends round to his apartment. We didn’t swap clothes, but I would have definitely swapped clothes with Fred because he was about my size and had really nice clothes.
This phase of your life that lasted until you were 27 was a decade of fun?
A decade of interest. I ended up working for the designer Azzedine Alaïa, who asked me to come and put together photo shoots for him to record all the collections he’d made up to that point. I went and lived at his place in Paris for a year and a half and I learnt French very quickly because he didn’t speak any English and was a great storyteller.
“My approach with fashion brands is that it’s not my design for them. It’s me absorbing their identity and then making something that enhances what they do anyway.“
Julian was a friend of his by then, and his wife Jacqueline opened the boutique in New York that I went and looked at with Azzedine. We were working together. We were meant to do a book, and he commissioned Julian to do a very beautiful cover painted on tarpaulin of just A A. We did some great photographs, I got Sonny Mehta to say he would publish it, I got Andrew Wylie to be his agent for the deal, and, at Sonny’s suggestion, I got Edmund White to write the intro. Everything was just so, but Azzedine couldn’t say a project was finished and eventually I realised he wasn’t ready to commit to saying it’s ready. This was silly, but I couldn’t push him to do it so had to move on and do something else.
Why did you then decide to become an architect?
I wanted to create something myself. I decided to try to become a student at the Architectural Association in London, so I rang up the AA from New York, where I was on a shoot with Azzedine and everything was falling apart. I said, I’m sure it’s too late to apply for this September, but they said, just come in and see us when you get back and bring your portfolio. I didn’t have a portfolio! But what I did have were my little fashion show sketchbooks full of the looks I liked that I had sketched as the models came down the runway. I turned up at the AA in top to toe Alaïa with these books and said, I’m terribly sorry, I don’t have a portfolio but I’ve bought a couple of my sketchbooks with me of the shows. They must have thought I was insane.
But they said yes?
Yes, but they also thought I would be trouble, and I proved them wrong. They thought I wouldn’t last, that it was a stupid whim, but when I decide to do something, I do it. I did five years of study in college and two years of practical training and I was a bit older than the other students, so I had friends who were starting businesses and making some money and buying houses. They would ring me up and say, Sophie, will you do this? And I said, well, I’m not qualified. And my friend Neil said, well, look, I’m definitely not qualified, so if you don’t do it I’m doing it, so would you please do it? I did the office for these two friends and then I did their houses, and so when I went back to the AA for my MA part of the course I already had an office and was working and was juggling a lot of things. I quite like that.
A fashion company chooses an architect who understands fashion. As the fashion world becomes more and more intense the brands need extremely strong identities that are distinct from other brands. The architecture of their stores has to reflect the ethos, the character, and the spirit of their brand, but you can only understand what they’re doing if you can look at a fashion show and a photograph and some clothes on a rack and listen to the creative director describing what they’re doing. My approach with these fashion brands is that it’s not my design for them. It’s me absorbing their identity and then making something that enhances what they do anyway.
Was Paul Smith your first client?
Yes, and he taught me a lot about the psychology of selling. He’s expert in Japanese people and how they buy, and we were doing the big London shop for him in Westbourne House, Notting Hill. When you went in the front door there was a very little space and then there was a room on the right and a room on the left, and he said, we’ve got to put something in the tiny hall, because when the Japanese come in, they need something to look at while they work out which way they’re going to go. Give them something, Sophie! People who are scared of walking into a fancy shop need something there to be able to pretend they’re looking at it. That was very clever.
Brands like Paul Smith and Chloé or Yamamoto have completely different styles. What is your style?
My style has nothing to do with it. I have to be a chameleon. It’s incredibly exciting because it’s got absolutely nothing to do with what I like or don’t like. I think, what are you all about and how can I enhance it? The last one I did was Alaïa with Peter Mulier, the new creative director. It’s all about discretion, and a little bit of warmth, and rather elegant, and quite modern, and quite punchy. The main one that we just finished is in New York, but we’ve also done a few in Japan and China, five so far.
As an architect do you specialise in fashion shops?
I also build houses like this one, and I built a new house and stables for my daughter in Northamptonshire that’s perfect for her life. I like building constructions and to try to understand what people want and develop concepts for them. In the last three or four years I’ve been really lucky to work with four of the most forward thinking, cutting edge, new creative directors of fashion brands: Matthew M Williams at Givenchy, Mathieu Blazy at Bottega Veneta, Peter Mulier at Alaïa, and Casey Cadwallader at Mugler. I’m so flattered that they ask me when they can ask anybody.
Sophie Hicks on the cover of i-D Magazine
Sophie Hicks designed the recently opened Alaïa flagship store in New York at 149 Mercer Street, as well as the Alaïa boutiques in Shanghai and Tokyo.
An interior of the Alaïa store in New York designed by Sophie Hicks.
A translucent lightbox hides the concrete interior of Swedish fashion brand Acne Studios‘ first flagship store in Seoul, designed by Sophie Hicks.
Sophie Hicks inside the Acne Studios store in Seoul.
“I would like to do a fantasy hotel.“
Sophie Hicks, whatever the brand is, if you are working in China or in New York, do you need to work according to the city you are in and the taste of its people?
Most brands want a strong identity that carries over and a design that’s similar or basically the same. I’ve just been asked to do Mugler, which is incredibly fun. The fashion, the clothes and the presentation is fearless. It’s unbelievably sexy, it’s funny and it’s so brilliant. I will try and do a shop that brings out all these characteristics.
Is the work process itself very different in Asia to the USA or Europe?
Yes, it’s completely different. In Asia they work as a group and they trust each other. They make their decisions as a group, and once they’ve decided in the group what the decision is, it’s never going to change. As a European or American you need to understand that you need to get in on the early conversation. There’s a whole way of working there, which is softly, gently.
Why do they want a British architect and not a local one?
I did a building in Korea for the Swedish brand Acne Studios. It’s a Swedish building in the middle of Seoul, all about Swedish flat light. It’s a very crisp building. Now 025S asked me to do the perfume building because they really liked that job.
Please can you explain this perfume building that you are doing in Seoul for 025S?
I studied perfume and I understood that the most successful perfumes are a balance between what is absolutely foul and disgusting and what is really fragrant and beautiful. A successful perfume is where that meets in the middle. This is a building which combines the foul and the fragrant, the really ugly and the beautiful. On the ground floor, when you approach it, it is as disgusting and as unstylish as we can make it, and then you start to go up and you go into a world of a white, cloudy dream.
Is there a particular school of architecture that you admire?
There are some architects whose work I would go out of my way to see if I was travelling, such as Felix Candela, a Mexican engineer, or Mies van der Rohe, or Álvaro Siza, or Renzo Piano. If I’m in a place and I think there’s a Peter Zumthor, or if I was in Portugal near Valerio Olgiati‘s interesting house, I would want to go and see it.
You have done many successful things already. What else would you like to do?
I would like to do a fantasy hotel. Fantasy, because a hotel is a home away from home, home in microcosm. I don’t know what it would be like. It might probably be somewhere a bit remote in an interesting, strong landscape. No one’s yet offered me a hotel and I’d love to do one.
I am sure they will. Thank you very much.
Portrait of Sophie Hicks: Alasdair McLellan for Rika
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