Carla Sozzani: I’ll Take Manhattan

Looking down from far above, the port seems like a toy town, with its tiny boats, old brick warehouses with signs reading “Seafood” and “Shellfish”, and – across the East River – the jagged outline of Brooklyn’s high-rise buildings.

Many floors up in the Howard Hughes offices, there are models of Space Age structures and then a more familiar curved pattern with rounded letters: “10.Corso.Como” read the dots and dashes that announce Carla Sozzani’s first retail venture in New York.

“I like the area because it’s very nice and walkable. At the centre I want there to be a restaurant, café and Italian food – like an Italian piazza, where everyone sits outside and then there are shops all around,” says the woman who invented the fashion “concept store” in 1990 on Milan’s Corso Como. In Italy, the airy shop and art space are hidden inside a former garage, separated from the once ordinary street with bushes and greenery.

“Then you also must have a gallery, because I think it’s important to have exhibitions and help people come to see something interesting,” Sozzani continues, referring to her New York outpost.

“This is where people were coming on boats at the time – it’s where New York started! And for me, as a European, that’s very exciting,” she says.

David R. Weinreb, the Howard Hughes CEO who is developing the Seaport district, says that it has taken him five years since his first call to the designer/retailer to convince her to be part of his project.

“I believe Carla is the best expression of what works in retail today,” the executive says. “Part of the responsibility of being a developer is making sure that what you build is relevant. You can’t just have traditional retail – you have to create an experience. That is the reason we fell in love with each other.”

He is speaking metaphorically, because one of the project’s attractions for Carla is that her partner, the artist Kris Ruhs, lived in Queens as a young man and knew artists in this lower Manhattan district. Ruhs has been designing the store interiors since the launch of the original Milanese 10 Corso Como and subsequent branches in Seoul and Shanghai.

Why, when American retail seems in turmoil and department stores across the country are being shuttered, would a real estate company look at more shops to open, even if the Sozzani mix is unique?

First, this venture is in an area that Weinreb insists is the “birthplace of innovation”.

“Everything started from the port,” he explains. “The option of a 24-hour city really started from the Seaport. Commerce started here. This was actually the nucleus of New York early on, so the heritage is really unique.”

In the way of the fashion world, other brands have sniffed out that something is happening south of Wall Street. During the last New York Fashion Week, Tommy Hilfiger staged a show on Pier 16 and Fendi held a party with London’s Boiler Room club in the Seaport district in 5,000 feet of outside space. Meanwhile, the Howard Hughes developers have persuaded restaurateurs including the renowned Jean-Georges (Vongerichten) to bring more culinary delights, including a food market, and Weinreb hopes to introduce Cipriani’s and Harry’s Bar.

The Corso Como store is destined to open in the Seaport mid-2018, with Pier 17 offering a giant 1.5-acre rooftop space for restaurants, bars and special events. The area is served by the Fulton Street Line subway on its first and last stop to and from Brooklyn and, according to Weinreb, Howard Hughes controls seven buildings in the core district, including an old hotel.

But can man and woman live by commerce and food alone? Sozzani does not think so, emphasising the importance of art in the 13,000-square foot space, as in all the other Corso Como stores. Quirky artists or renowned photographers are the focus of her own collecting.

From November 2016 to February 2017, pieces from Sozzani’s personal collection, curated by Fabrice Hergott, Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, were on show at the Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in Paris. But this display of almost entirely black and white images was overshadowed by the death of Carla’s sister, Franca Sozzani, Editor of Italian Vogue.

Carla’s view is that art and culture are as important as commerce, and that is what separates Corso Como from other concept stores. When I asked her about her philosophy, she replied, “It’s got to be a mix, like I will do here,” she says. “Photography and design, architecture and sometimes fashion, but mainly photography.”

I ask Sozzani how much the content would change in this area, where the boats bringing in immigrants marked the dawn of modern America.

“I want to do more everywhere,” Sozzani says. “Between China and Korea, there is lots of collaboration with local designers. You know, I try to, I’m not saying help, but offer more support to people who maybe don’t have a place to show their work. I think working with young American designers, not famous, could be very interesting. It’s nice to mix with people.”

For the Howard Hughes project, the idea of a creative shopkeeper with international appeal and a local interest is heaven sent.

“I’ve always said that a mark of a great leader is someone who has the power to reach out to people who are smarter than they are and do it better – that’s why it is so important to have someone like Carla,” Weinreb says. “I think my job is to be a curator. If you create an authentic environment and make sure it stays relevant, that keeps people coming back.”