Italian designer Stefano Ricci questioned his sanity more than once while transforming a run-down Chinese restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue into a multilevel Florentine fashion palazzo. “I thought I must be crazy to put my hands on something this challenging,” the designer says of the yearlong demolition, redesign, and reconstruction of the turn-of-the-20th-century building. Nevertheless, he adds, “In the end it became a sort of romantic adventure to bring a small piece of Florence to Manhattan.”
Ricci’s view of his hometown is an idealistic one. His Florence is not a crowded, though still picturesque, tourist destination. It remains a cradle of art, design, and lavish living, as it was during the height of the Renaissance in the 16th century. More than just the fashion capital that spawned Ferragamo and Gucci, as well as Ricci’s own brand, the city is a kind of research center where designers, working in centuries-old villas, continually explore innovative ways to incorporate superfine wools, sumptuous furs, and exotic hides into a wardrobe.
Ricci wanted his U.S. flagship to reflect his utopian vision of Florence, but, oddly enough, he did not try to re-create the decorative Renaissance architecture and colorfully painted frescoes exhibited throughout the city. Instead, Ricci enlisted the Italian architecture firm Studio Spezza to execute a more modern design, though one that is elaborate and, above all, extravagant.
When the store opened last September, nearly every inch of wall space—including the cabinetry that houses handmade suits, suede jackets, dress shirts, footwear, and accessories—had been paneled in rich California walnut that Florentine craftsmen had cut, buff-polished, precision-matched, and fitted in place. Likewise, Tuscan tile setters had installed the Italian travertine floors. The architects added two mezzanines—one showcases tailored clothing and the other accommodates VIP customers and a custom tailor—creating four distinct levels within the two-story building. And Ricci abstained from using brass, gold, or other shiny metals so prevalent throughout Florence because, he says, he wanted to create “a luxurious expression of interior decoration that is more about elegance and comfort than flash.”
While that may be true, the store still exhibits some of the over-the-top flourishes that are characteristic of Ricci and his designs. Among these is the large-scaled crocodile skin from New Guinea that serves as the upholstery for the store’s two-seater sofas and oversize chairs. The skin from the crocodiles’ tails covers the handrails of the staircases. These touches may not be Florentine, but they are unmistakably Ricci’s. —william kissel