Conversation Skye Sherwin. Photographs by Brett Lloyd. November 2015

A rare female star in the world of architecture, Sophie Hicks has designed store concepts for Chloé, Paul Smith and Yohji Yamamoto. Famous for her androgynous style, unflappable manner and tremendous energy, she works from an office on the top floor of her home in Notting Hill, London. Sophie describes her process about getting inside the heads of her clients, most recently Jonny Johansson of Acne Studios, whose new store in Seoul she designed.

Projects like Acne Studios new flagship boutique in Seoul and designing Chloé’s international store concept, have earned Sophie Hicks the title ‘fashion’s architect’. Yet the London based 55-year-old’s CV is far more varied than that moniker might imply. From her early days as a teenage stylist at Harpers & Queen and, a few years later, as fashion editor at British Vogue, she’s been known for her vision and drive, not to mention her signature look: masculine tailored suits and close-cropped hair. Over the years, she’s designed exhibitions, including the YBAs’ celebrated Sensation show at London’s Royal Academy, worked with everyone from Federico Fellini to Paul Smith, and has recently focused on property development, including her own Notting Hill home and architecture studio. Space Magazine caught up with her in the glass-fronted office on the roof to discuss the secret of her success, what makes a home and how to live (hint: shopping doesn’t figure).

You’ve been doing a lot of travelling for Acne Studios Korea project. What do you most look forward to about coming home?
“I quite like being away! I look forward to going to Seoul. It’s really fun. I don’t get very homesick, though I like to come home to my family.”

What makes a home a home for you?
“An accretion of experiences and events over the years that the family have shared, which add patina to a home. My home is quite stark. It’s got a really tough concrete staircase running up through the middle of it. It’s got mainly hard floors and all white walls. You would think it’s chilly but in fact it’s incredibly warm, and I think
that’s through the human activity that’s gone on in it and the personal belongings that we’ve collected and dotted around. And the cats!”

Cats do make a home. What else is important?
“Generosity in entertaining and feeding people I find very important. My son’s birthday is just before Christmas, and I always look forward to cooking a big dinner for him and his friends, which we do most years. Feeding people, making a warm and generous environment, I think makes a house into a home.”

As you said, your house does look very clean and almost gallery-like, but you also have this incredible mix of materials – wood, marble, tiling, with concrete – which is quite unexpected in a domestic environment.
“Well, it’s quite piecemeal. When you enter through the front door, you’ll see a long thin swimming pool that goes underneath the central concrete staircase, which you see through a glass window. (It’s an earlier version
of what I’ve done for Acne Studios.) The pool has orange and white tiles [with a floral print], which I didn’t choose. I commissioned them from Richard Woods, the artist. He said: ‘Shall we do orange?’ I thought: Yes, because I would never chose that, it’s tasteless and fabulous. Left to my own devices, I’d pick white or something. I thought: Thank goodness for Richard! He can take me out of my comfort zone. I’m very happy to take risks.”

Did you know him before that commission? You’re both very invested in architecture, but as you say his work is so different from your own.
“I’d worked with him for a store in Tokyo called Red Ear Jeans when I was working with Paul Smith. We did it all out like a midwestern shack. We had the jeans put on taxidermied animal heads. I like commissioning. If I was commissioning art for a building I was designing, I would certainly get the artist involved in the early
design stages. I don’t like bolt-on art – you need to design it with the building.”

Your architecture practice has its office on the roof of your home, with a glass front so you can be seen from the street and vice versa. Was that important?
“The house and the office are next door to each other. For me to come to work I just walk across the roof terrace from the kitchen, which is rather good. The big glass fronted top floor is 30 metres long. You see the back of terraced Victorian houses, all the extensions, the drain pipes, the windows onto zigzagging staircases, satellite dishes, ivy climbing, chimney pots. It’s a very London view and I love it. I don’t feel observed, I don’t know why, because I’m in a big glass box.”

Do you have to be strict about keeping work hours because the office is so close?
“No, I just leave. We’re three people and very strict about not doing ridiculously long hours, and I run a very tight ship. I’ve often worked from home because when I had children, I had my office in what was meant to be a dining room, but was in fact an overflowing chaotic office. I’m used to it, and my children knew when they were little, not to come in. They’d open the door, I’d just look at them and they’d go out again. Maybe that’s too fierce, but it’s impossible to work with children hanging around you. It’s better to work for a few hours and do a lot, rather than drag it out into a chaotic mess.”

Your career as an architect blossomed at around the same time that you started a family. You mentioned how disciplined you have to be. What other challenges were there?
“Well, time is the big one. I was having children, studying and running an office. I find it quite easy to get things organised, but it is stressful. I never took projects that I didn’t want. If you’re offered a nice one it’s very difficult to say no. My girls have become a little bit like me, my oldest daughter [Burberry campaign star
Edie Campbell] did a degree at the Courtauld in History of Art and was modelling at the same time and horse riding semi-professionally – she’s an amateur rider, but a serious one. Attempting to do more than you can really do tends to be a family trait running on the female side.”

It’s a good trait. You’ve just completed Acne Studios flagship store in Seoul, with two rough concrete floors, concrete columns and a floating concrete staircase, all encased in an opaque ‘lightbox’. Did you have a very specific brief from Jonny Johansson?
“No. What I do with all new fashion clients is an in-depth study of who they are, and what’s the character of what they create. I didn’t know Sweden at all, so I also tried to find out a bit about Swedish culture and how Acne Studios fits within that. I put it all down in a homemade film. The main image of the film was taken underneath a concrete bridge in Stockholm, where the water rushes past at high speed and a train comes over your head, and the sound is of this mechanical clanking train passing. It could have gone either of two ways: into a more rural rustic natural way, or a more urban and gritty way. Jonny chose the urban and gritty.”

Your design uses some quite particular details like the imprint on the concrete of wooden boards that form the paths from water to beaches in Sweden. That’s very specific, where did that come from?
“I think all Swedes seem to feel an incredibly strong link to nature, and they all have this love of the islands. Jonny certainly does. There’s this incredibly strong link to this quiet, reflective, modest lifestyle. The boardwalks in those islands, they’re so simple and so undesigned and unfancy. The architecture is all small wooden
houses. I thought to have the imprint of the wood on the concrete would give a small link to the natural world.”

Your design uses some quite particular details like the imprint on the concrete of wooden boards that form the paths from water to beaches in Sweden. That’s very specific, where did that come from?
“I think all Swedes seem to feel an incredibly strong link to nature, and they all have this love of the islands. Jonny certainly does. There’s this incredibly strong link to this quiet, reflective, modest lifestyle. The boardwalks in those islands, they’re so simple and so undesigned and unfancy. The architecture is all small wooden
houses. I thought to have the imprint of the wood on the concrete would give a small link to the natural world.” no obvious decoration inside the store. Concrete is very important and there’s a metallic backdrop for the clothes. It’s pristine and all the pipework is on the roof.
“They’re quite Viking the Swedes. And they don’t mince their words. They don’t decorate the way they are, or their conversation. They’re quite blunt. It seemed to me that the key part of the building should be very raw and unadorned, forceful and strong. That was really the starting point. I call it the concrete monster, but it’s really a concrete being, I suppose, or beast. Once you’ve got your beast, then you need to put it in a home. We toyed with how we could encase the beast. And eventually, we came upon this polycarbonate, which we used, but it could have been glass or anything. But the idea is that the beast is encased in its own display case, but because the Swedish character is also quite modest and a little shy, it’s in a display case but the case is not transparent.”

How does its Korean setting work with the design?
“It’s in a little grotty car park, surrounded by really ugly different backs of buildings. It’s quite a fabulous location. The setting is very important. It’s really a conversation between Acne Studios and Sweden and Korea. Acne Studios is a bit of a destination shop, they tend to not be on the main street. They see themselves as something a little bit apart and certainly forward thinking. The store is in a perfect location, because it is slightly hidden, off one of the interesting lanes on the hills in Gangnam, which makes it a little bit exclusive. Also it is around the corner from Corso Como and Boon The Shop, which are the two most stylish multi-brand shops in Seoul. It’s exactly right.”

So you have to be in the know?
“Ish, the Koreans are real professional shoppers – they know everything!”

On your website, you identify a moment where fashion houses consciously decided they wanted to make more than just stores for shopping, places that offer another kind of experience, on top of the clothing itself. How have you seen that evolve in recent years?
“I’m not a shopper to be honest. I only want to go to a shop if I know there’s something interesting for sale there, because I don’t like shopping if I don’t have to. Also, another strange thing is that I make a conscious effort not to look at all the new stores because I think it’s too distracting. I look more in airport stores, because they’re difficult and they’re really under scrutiny. I’ll look at technical specifics, like how various problems with lighting have been solved. Those big swanky stores that have art and ‘experience’ and stuff – I’m not really interested in that. I think shops are for shopping. Also, it’s always bad art, it’s always a bad fit. When have you been into a shop and thought: ‘Ooh wow! Who is that painter?’ They always jump on the bandwagon after someone’s become established, so it seems to me.”

You’re known for a very distinct personal style, in terms of how you dress. Most people go through quite a bit of experimentation before hitting on what feels right for them. Was that your experience or have you always been very definite about what you want clothing wise?
“I like to wear clothes that I feel really comfortable in, and so I don’t experiment with looks. I’m not out to make a splash. I guess I’ve had the same approximate look in clothes since I was about 18 or something. With slight variations. I went through an Alaïa phase when I was working at British Vogue. He has incredible tailoring, so I could do my look in his clothes, which was fabulous. He made the best classic pleat front trousers ever.”

In terms of your own route into architecture, Madonna cancelling a big shoot at the eleventh hour that you were creating with Azzedine Alaïa, is often referred to as your light-bulb moment. But presumably there were other reasons. You’d started so young working in fashion, editing a teen issue of Harpers and Queen in 1977 when you were seventeen. Did you feel like you’d achieved everything you could?
“Well, I’d always wanted to do architecture from the age of 13 or 14. When I came to choose my A Levels against everyone’s advice, I thought I’d better take maths. So I’d had it at the back of my mind. I loved working in the fashion world. At 17, what is more fun? It feels frivolous, exciting, but also creative. You meet interesting funny people. After a while I thought two things. I was only 26, and I saw the fashion coming round. I remember one or two things had gone full circle. I thought: Hang on a minute, if it’s gone full circle already, how many more times around the circle am I going to have to go, before I think that’s enough?’ I didn’t like the repetition.
“The other thing is that I was rather excited about actually creating something myself, rather than working with other people’s creativity. It’s a silly story the Madonna one. It was like that, but really it just kick-started me into doing what I wanted to do.”

How difficult was it going back to school when you’d already had an established career and a professional identity?
“Well you have to keep a low profile. I went to the Architectural Association. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. You want to suss the place out and find your path, because you’re starting something new and experimenting. I thought it was very important to keep quiet. So most of the students in the classes I took had no
idea what my previous life had been. There was one girl who I did a joint project with who knew what I’d been up to because she liked clothes. I remember standing in the bar at the AA with her, filthy dirty because I’d been making stuff, welding and stuff, in our overalls, having a beer with smears of dirt on our faces and under our fingernails. She looked at me, I just said: ‘God, at Vogue, they’d never have thought would they!’”

You were interested in film too, which is how you ended up in a Fellini film.
“Well I was momentarily interested in the idea of trying to train to be a film director. I was given an introduction to Fellini so I went to see him and ask him if I could be an assistant on one of his films. He said, no you can’t, but you can be in one of my films.”

What stopped you pursuing that path?
“That film put me off! It was meant to be a film of Kafka’s book, Amerika, and I was supposed to be playing Karl. It turned out to be a film called Intervista, with Fellini’s and his great stars, Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg’s reminiscences of filmmaking together. It just seemed like such an unbelievably chaotic nightmarish industry. I mean, budget, timing, chaos, disorganisation. Never having the budget at the moment that you need it. It just said to me: ‘My God, if you’re even Fellini, and you can’t make the film you want to make… Maybe this isn’t the thing for me.’ It would have been wonderful, but I like order. Then I feel relaxed and confident, and what I hate is a mad panic and the chaos that brings.”

What did you learn as a fashion editor that proved useful when it came to working in architecture, perhaps in terms of concept stores or more broadly?
“I actually learned organisation from doing fashion. It helped hugely to have worked in the world beforehand, and that’s probably why I was starting to be commissioned to do jobs in my third year of architecture studies. I also found I understood the fashion industry better having trained to be an architect. I appreciated how people in fashion work on instinct and that’s anathema to architects.
“I respected fashion people more having left them. Good ones have an incredible knack for sensing the zeitgeist. Because they’re under pressure to create these new collections every few months they have to be very decisive. I think that’s incredibly useful in any creative world. The ability to know what’s right at any given moment and then act on it fast. If I’m designing a building, you need to edit yourself constantly and not be distracted. If you have a rail of 50 outfits and you can shoot six, you can’t wonder. You have to know what’s good when you see it.”

How would that play out with the Chloé stores for instance? I was interested to see Rodin’s Gates of Hell was a reference. It’s definitely not something I would immediately associate with Chloé.
“Phoebe Philo had done a couple of collections by then, so you could see what she was doing. Rodin’s Gates of Hell, it’s really story, material, the seriousness of the bronze. The fact that there’s more to Chloé than the surface prettiness. There’s a solidity and a weight. The historic nature of it as well.”

One of your early commissions was doing the exhibition design for Sensation, the YBA show. That was such a seismic moment for British art. It became edgy in a new way against the backdrop of Brit Pop. Working on that show, did it feel like you were part of a new moment?
“I was an observer. It was an incredibly exciting moment. I’m not sure there’s been a movement as exciting and all-encompassing since really. Art seems to me to be rather fragmented now. Artists since have not grouped together, probably because there hasn’t been such a charismatic character as Damien [Hirst].”

With your wider property development, these are homes for imagined clients, because they’re projects that you pioneer. Who is the client in your head and does it change from site to site?
“It changes from site to site. I just finished a small development in Bloomsbury, just across from St George’s Gardens.”

I know that park, with the ancient gravestones. It’s a magical spot, really tucked away.
“It’s a lovely spot. For that one the imaginary client was the person commuting from Paris who could wheel his or her suitcase from the Eurostar and not have to get into the taxi queue. In the end it was rented by an American businessman whose Parisian wife wanted to stay on in Paris and he would commute back and forth every few days. It worked!”

One of the challenges in London must be negotiating the mix of architectural styles, from very traditional, neo-classical Georgian buildings to ill thought through twentieth-century developments. There’s often little coherence but a lot going on. How difficult is it creating new buildings within that?
“It’s incredibly hard to get planning permission. I embarked, three years ago, on this idea to get planning permission for houses in conservation areas, with contemporary facades visible from the street. That sounds pretty un-contentious. Why should any house built in a conservation area only have a pastiche façade? Yet when you look around central London, I mean Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster, there are almost no modern houses visible from the street. They’re all hidden down alleyways, or the modern façade is only at the back. We’re incredibly
traditional and conservative in Kensington and Chelsea and I think it’s completely unhealthy. It produces bad architecture, this desire to not shock anyone and only have pastiche buildings.
We’re very feeble in England generally. I don’t know what it is that makes the British aspire to the Georgian rectory come what may.”

And what are your current dream projects?
“Ooh, I’d quite like to do a hotel. I’m very keen on how to live. Whenever you’re at home, there’s stuff you’ve got to do, even if it’s just making the bed. The wonderful thing about hotels is that it’s a fantasy home and fantasy life. The views are different, the experience is different and you know you don’t have to make the bed.”

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