4 NECESSARY EVILS – Competitiveness
By Pip Usher
Photographs by Marsý Hild Þórsdóttir
THE SAME QUOTATION by Sophie Hicks is appearing everywhere on magazines and blogs: “I pretend I don’t design myself and how I look. You have to pretend that it’s absolutely zero effort – otherwise you’re letting on that it’s important, which it shouldn’t be. But of course it is important for reasons which are too difficult to explain. It just is”.
Sophie Hicks certainly isn’t a celebrity, but her name does not go unnoticed in the fashion world, which constantly keeps an eye on her. With a past in the field of fashion publishing, where she started to work at the age of 17, today her career as an architect is often intertwined with the business sector in which she took her first steps, enjoying a certain critical distance given by the fact that she is suspended between the two worlds. This situation also opened up a series of job opportunities in the field of fashion retail, which she manages with eclectic sensibility.
The first thing one notices is her androgynous and unhesitating look – with a boy haircut and without a hint of make-up – and the moderate use of color in her clothing, which simplicity is not left to chance. This is only the first clue to her personality, which tends to keep everything under control and to make everything work. And then there’s her subtle sense of humor.Outside and inside her studio, between a business meeting and private engagements, Sophie is a very busy woman and always on the move. With a great energy and resoluteness, the same one that turned her from fashion editor into an architect just as she was turning thirty, allowing her to build a family at the same time. Today she has three kids who are a great source of inspiration and help her to have a fresh point of view on the world, enabling her to be always up to date without necessarily being fashionable. On the contrary, Sophie Hicks’ work does not represent a moment or a style, but rather the great ability to adjust to and enhance the identity traits of her customers. That’s why she has a first and basic rule: to get into people’s heads.
You said fashion is all about the Zeitgeist…
I think fashion people react very instinctively to what is in the air. We all know historically that fashions have reacted to the politics of their time. Fashion is often considered not serious and superficial. In the world of architecture which is supposedly serious, many people consider fashion irrelevant. I think they are wrong – I think its important to recognise the mood of fashion as it will inform you about the mood of the people.
You were part of that world since the age of 17. How did you get there?
I entered a competition to work at Harpers & Queen Magazine for a month. I styled some fashion pictures and they made me model the clothes. There are some hilarious pictures of me in a gold lamé suit and too much make-up in the Embassy Club (which by the way was one of the most fun nightclubs in London in the late Seventies). I stayed on at the magazine and then moved to Vogue and to Tatler.
Do you think it was your education and they way your family brought you up that led to you to take up fashion?
Not my education. Growing up in London in the late 1970’s gave me an awareness of fashion. Possibly my mother was an influence, she was a model in the 1950’s and always dresses well.
At some point you decided to leave and you throw yourself into another career. How did that happen?
I was in New York with Azzedine Alaïa to photograph Madonna for his book, the team were flying in and Madonna chucked us at the last minute. In fact the whole trip was a catalogue of disasters, although very funny – Azzedine and I still laugh about it. But I think the unpredictability of the fashion world and repetitiveness of fashion itself eventually got too much for me. I now love to watch the fashion world from a distance.
How are these two worlds related? And how did you live this change? Is there something you miss today about your fashion experience?
The fashion world thinks the architecture world is fundamentally boring. The architecture world thinks the fashion world is silly and superficial. I like having one foot in each camp, it amuses me.The only thing I am a bit sorry about is that I did not ever edit a magazine. I edited groups of pages but never had the opportunity to conceive a complete magazine. That would have been interesting.
What was your style trademark as fashion editor then, and what is it today as an architect?
I don’t think I had a style trademark as a fashion editor. Some editors dress the models to look like better versions of themselves – I didn’t do that. I liked the character of the model to show in the photographs, I liked to create an atmosphere with the photographer. The clothes could be anything but they tended to be quite strong and to suit the model.
And my trademark as an architect – well I guess I work in a similar way – I like to get inside the head of the person that I am designing for and try to do something that really suits them. As if they had done it themselves but better than they had ever dreamt possible. This is how I have worked with Yohji Yamamoto for his new store in Paris which opens soon – he loved the designs I showed him – they made him feel really comfortable I think. Now I just hope the store is as good in reality! We are in the middle of building it now.
For the setting of “Sensation” show [one of her architecture studio’s early works, which consecrated the YBA in 1997], you opted for a non-design or invisible design, and for the “Picasso Painter and Sculptor in Clay” exhibition  you chose fluorescent striplights such as you might find in a workshop. The same ones Le Corbusier was thinking of for housing.
I believe the most important thing when you are designing an exhibition is not to detract from the artworks. There is nothing more annoying for the viewer than noticing the exhibition design (and nothing more arrogant of the designer than to think their design is as important as the art). I am now working on an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts about the Galerie Maeght which had its heyday in Paris in the 1950’s. They represented Calder, Braque, Miró and Giacometti and we are showing everything from paintings and sculptures to maquettes, letters, sketchbooks etc. The Maeght family have wonderful archival film footage of the artists and we have been editing films to be shown in the galleries too. We are building huge iron and glass cabinets to show the ephemera which will be displayed in an organised confusion to get maximum juxtaposition of ideas, materials, objects and so on.
What do you think of the idea that – quoting Le Corbusier – our homes don’t need furniture, but only equipment?
One irritating thing about Corbusier is that he came out with incredibly pretentious remarks like this.
Apart from rare and remarkable exceptions the world of architecture is “male”. Why?
Probably because the architecture world is run by men. And the construction industry is totally male. When I get jobs it is from clients who recognise that I can offer something quite rare in terms of design. I also have a small office which means I am in control. So the client gets me designing and me at the meetings.
We could say that your look is inspired by the male dress code and that you haven’t been wearing skirts for almost thirty years. Can you rationalise the reason for this choice?
When I was a child (up until the age of 9) my mother controlled my look: I had long hair with a fringe that I scowled beneath, she dressed me in print dresses, flared and short, with matching knickers and sunhats – I was mortified. My poor mother didn’t realise that she was sowing the seed of a life-long reaction against all things feminine! So now I am very comfortable wearing tailored clothes and hiding my knickers. I emphasize my feminine side in other areas instead of clothes.
There’s a certain fixity and rigor in your look. Does it come natural to you or is it a self-imposition?
Its totally natural. I only like to wear things I feel totally comfortable in. I make slight variations from year to year.
Could we say that this choice is somewhat close to what J.C. Flügel used to call “The Great Masculine Renunciation”, that is, in other words, the uniform in exchange for power?
I am not part of a mass who are demoralized and trapped in their grey suits. I am one woman, quite comfortable in her grey suit, rather amused by the fact that she still gets mistaken for a man, and very feminine inside the grey suit. So no in answer to your question.
What reaction does your way of dressing cause in people?
Good ones from my perspective. It slightly unnerves them which means they pay attention which is good from a work point of view. My friends know I’m not scary really so that’s fine.
It might not always be like that, but from a certain point of view the work of an architect should be somewhat like that of a psychologist. You build a great (economic and emotional) value for your client and you must be sure you can satisfy and understand him… How do you enter into people’s heads?
That’s a very good and key question. You enter into people’s heads in different ways depending upon the person. I always start by talking, watching, studying them, asking questions. The nicest way (and how I did it with Paul Smith) was to get together once a week – we used to have breakfast in my office, and talk for an hour or two. Just until you understand each other and are on the same wavelength. I didn’t get so much time with Yohji who is more private and anyway usually in Japan, so I read everything I could, and watched films of him and anyway I knew his clothes from the start – I was at the first show he had in Paris, so I can’t say I got into his head, but I got into his ethos and the atmosphere he creates. After the first presentation I made he just said “Fabulous” – so that was good. But what do you do when you are working for a brand where the designer changes often? It was fascinating working for Chloé – I designed about 100 shops for them – and when I started I designed for Phoebe Philo, but when she left I realised I had to design for a brand image. I had to adapt and develop the concept for the stores for an imaginary Chloé girl.
Let’s talk about Paul Smith. You have been collaborating with him for a long time and you also dealt with product design with him, over a perfume bottle project.
The great thing about Paul is that he has a hundred eccentric ideas at each meeting, he throws them out to you and you only have to catch and run with the ones that you think work. When you make presentations he makes quick decisions. He doesn’t change his mind. He knows what he likes. It really helps the project to go smoothly that he is so sure of himself.
You appeared in the film “L’intervista” (1987) by Federico Fellini. Tell us all about it: your role, how you were engaged, Federico, Cinecittà…
At that time I thought I would like to be a film director so I wanted to study with a master, and my friend Dado Ruspoli was a friend of Fellini’s so he arranged for me to go for an interview. Fellini had his office at Cinecittà, which was hot and dusty in August. Bertolucci was just finishing “The Last Emperor” there and I saw a wonderfully opulent and rich set in one of the studios. I had learnt some words of Italian and went to see Fellini who was very friendly but was not interested in having me as an assistant – he said come and have a part in his film which was meant to be “Amerika” by Kafka and he wanted me to play Karl. By the time he started filming it had turned into “L’Intervista” a rather chaotic film. I was not sure what my part was, but it was fun to be there.
© Muse Magazine 2008
4 NECESSARY EVILS – Competitiveness
By Pip Usher
Photographs by Marsý Hild Þórsdóttir
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