Peter Marino: More Than Just the Leather Guy

Noted Architect and Art Collector Launches Foundation in Southampton
For years, Peter Marino was known for his architecture, design, and leather attire. Now, he will also be known for his art collection. Judy D’Mello

Seated on the sort of veranda upon which afternoon tea is taken, all covered in twisting vines and delicate blooms and overlooking a riotous horticultural idyll, the architect Peter Marino cuts an improbable figure. 

He is dressed, despite the 80-plus-degree weather, in his trademark black biker leathers, although not the full flamboyant ensemble, in which he looks like one of the Village People, but a dressed-down, weekend-in-Southampton version: close-fitting black T-shirt, leather pants (“I have them custom-made by a tailor whose name I refuse to reveal”), fingerless leather gloves, and chunky biker boots, which he said he buys online for $70.

Of course, Mr. Marino is most famous for being the architect responsible for taking luxury shopping to a whole new level, having designed and reimagined flagship stores for the likes of Valentino, Dior, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Chanel, Fendi, Yves Saint Laurent, and others. He is possibly the only architect able to work for rival fashion brands by creating distinctly idiosyncratic spaces in which he masterfully commingles art and commerce, often commissioning artists to create work that reflects the brand’s unique DNA.

In this process of blurring art and fashion, he has also become a force to be taken seriously in the art world, as the owner of a truly major contemporary collection that includes work by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, and Richard Prince, as well as an extensive antiquities collection with Renaissance and Baroque bronzes that were once exhibited at the Wallace Collection in London.

Currently, some fruits of Mr. Marino’s largesse are on display at the Southampton Arts Center in a collection titled “Counterpoint: Selections From the Peter Marino Collection,” open until Sept. 23. During the opening reception in July, he announced the launch of the Peter Marino Art Foundation, to be housed in the original Rogers Memorial Library building on Job’s Lane in Southampton Village. His goal is that the foundation, which is expected to open in summer 2020, will function as New York’s Frick Collection does, featuring changeable shows from his personal collection and commissioned work, as well as providing educational opportunities. He would also like to spare Southampton “from becoming a mall,” he said, by helping preserve its cultural past. Last week, the Southampton Arts Center named him the 2018 Champion of the Arts.

Despite all of this, it’s always Mr. Marino’s leather getup that gets the most attention. Even the security officers at Kennedy Airport know him, since he travels often for work, as “the leather guy.” What is now his signature style — during a recent visit to his Midtown Manhattan office, his habitual S&M trope was on full display, with tight black leather pants, a leather armor-like vest, short-sleeve T-shirt revealing tattoos, gigantic eagle claw and beak gothic jewelry, and black leather cap — began inadvertently with a journalist’s fascination with his biker gear.

“It was several years ago, and I rode my motorbike to an interview,” he said in breathy, hushed tones, sipping tea on his Southampton veranda. “I was so late that I didn’t have time to change, so I just went in dressed in my leathers.”

The result, he said, was that his attire got more coverage in the article than his buildings. “So, my wife suggested I run with it.” 

Jane Trapnell, Mr. Marino’s wife of 35 years, was a Hollywood costume designer until the 1990s, and her advice proved to be sound. In the often predictable, Armani-suited world of architects, Mr. Marino’s flamboyant “leather daddy” look is as idiosyncratic as the stores he creates. It has also landed him on the cover of Italian Vogue, in the front row of major fashion shows, and several product collaborations such as a leather chair with Poltrona Frau, the Italian furniture maker, a Venini black-glass vase, and a limited-edition pen by Caran d’Ache, the Swiss manufacturer of writing instruments. Echoing Mr. Marino’s obsession with outré garments, the pen’s stem is covered in handmade leather lacing while on top sits a silver and rhodium-plated skull with black onyx eyes.

The blurring of disciplines and juxtapositions of styles and passions began early. He grew up in a middle-class household in Douglaston, Queens, where he graduated from high school as a music and art student. He received a scholarship to attend Cornell University, which he chose because he wanted to study sculpture, but eventually he switched to architecture. 

After working for I.M. Pei and other firms in New York City, in 1966 Mr. Marino was commissioned by Andy Warhol to renovate his East 66th Street townhouse. Payment came by way of Warhol paintings, some of which Mr. Marino was forced to sell because he needed the money. Others are in the Southampton Arts Center show and bear a personalized inscription from artist to architect. Italy’s Agnelli family, of the Fiat empire, and Yves Saint Laurent followed suit in the 1970s, hiring the young architect to reinvent their Manhattan homes. 

Fred Pressman of Barneys was the first to hire him for a commercial space, as the department store looked to elevate from discount to luxury. “No one knows more about stores than I do,” the retailer told Mr. Marino. “You just take care of the look.” And so, on an unremarkable block on Seventh Avenue between 16th and 17th streets, Mr. Marino created the iconic Barneys flagship store. Some say that with it he introduced the concept of a department store bathed in natural light. In 1985, he returned for a redesign.

Today, thousands of global emporiums later, his empire employs about 160 people, of which around 40 are architects. Residential projects account for one-third of the company’s business, the retail haute monde for another third, and large hotels and condominiums such as the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan and the Peninsula in London and Yangon, Myanmar, make up the rest. 

Despite the charming, gracious man he is in person, and who seems to tear up when he speaks of his daughter, who recently married, reports of lawsuits against him for sexism, racism, and misconduct in the workplace have surfaced. Given these pending allegations, the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter recently opted to rescind a 2018 Design Award it gave the architect. In 2004, The New York Times called him “tyrannical,” to which he simply replied, “My name is on the door, and I care very much about the design that gets put out. I’m sorry, but it has to be my way.”

His way is indeed evident throughout the magical 12 acres of his Southampton Village estate. An abhorrence for mixing colors led to his developing a “color wheel” — a vast network of leafy rooms separated by hue. Flowerbeds are deep, sumptuous things. “I hate skinny little borders of plants,” he said. 

Dotted among all this abundance are 42 surreal sculptures by Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne. The French husband-and-wife duo are close friends with the Marinos, and he commissioned them to create unique sculptures, such as a love seat for his daughter. 

It’s impossible not to be moved by such natural beauty, and one can understand completely when Mr. Marino casts a loving eye over his Eden and says softly, “No, I don’t really take vacations. This is my vacation.”

François-Xavier Lalanne’s sheep with a faux garden background are part of the Southampton Arts Center’s exhibition “Counterpoint.” BFA/Southampton Arts Center