St John’s Presbyterian Church on Oxford Street, Paddington, had been standing idly before Parlour X restored colour to its hollows—a proud face of gusty beauty and superb bone structure. The church was built by early Australian convicts between 1855 and 1859, almost entirely out of sandstone, on a winding path that shared proximity to the Barracks and, evidently, a source of transcendent divine power. The architect Henry Robertson had defended the Picturesque Gothic style as a “simple but not inelegant” way to house a flock of three hundred, until the strains and seductions of civic life and local enterprise had severely depleted the head count. The church was converted into a multipurpose hall in the late 1970s, and remained vacant from the end of the century. Eva Galambos, the founder and director of Parlour X, took up tenancy in August 2015.
I met her communications manager, Sophia Kondilis, last week for a store tour. The cosmos were working in my favour: spring had solicited a furiously blue sky. The boutique’s main signage—an inky mass of dragged brushwork ending with an “X” that reminded me of a disgraced crucifix—hung over the arched doorway. In the front display windows were the collections of Isabel Marant and Stella McCartney, whose girly grit consorts quite affably with the bouncy designs of Ellery, Romance Was Born, Toni Maticevksi, and Christopher Esber, who “seasonally create exclusive capsule collections especially for Parlour X.” Inside, I was shown a wedding dress by Valentino composed of tiered, trembling pleats. “I think it’s something like $16,000,” Ms Kondilis confessed, faintly apologetic. I knew I had willingly walked into the nebulous battleground between fashion and religion: of bearing witness to a beauty that, due to its price or its purity, is almost always vicarious.
Parlour X’s rectangular floor space is demarcated by two racks that run along either side, where the clothes seem to back away from the pools of light that enter through the leadlight windows. “Prescribed on the windows are the ten commandments, which you don’t really see unless you pay attention,” Ms Kondilis said. (“Thou shalt not covet” loses its weight.) The central space, behind the point of sale booth sliced into demilune benches, is the focal mezzanine—a cloud-like vault seemingly suspended between two stellar grids of light, commissioned to iGuzzini. There, upstairs, Parlour X runs the communications, buying, and digital arms of the business. They also host meetings with editors, shoot their campaign images, and peer down at passersby who gravitate to the store’s glorious anomaly. “We’ve had people come in to ask about the space,” Ms Kondilis told me. “They ask, ‘When did this happen?’ and want to know how it all came to life.”
There isn’t much life in Parlour X: all the animals are dead. The roof (the only part of the church that has been entirely renovated) conjures the image of an ark, and its biblical inhabitants seem to have succumbed to paralysing fogs of terrestrial light. Gangs of leopards, who appear almost serpentine in their crouches, belong to Stella McCartney; foxes are etched onto silk, by Céline (retail scripture dictates that Céline cannot be sold online, Ms Kondilis told me); angels’ plumes, threaded with gossamer, adorn Valentino dresses—their beauty is begrudging, as if tormented by the context of having to remain static. One tunic, by Céline, is covered in limp threads that feel rich and pilose. Stella McCartney’s faux hides strain toward the surrounding chic: a shirt covered in spots, like follicles, and a tote of chaste plum “vegan leather” that poses stoically next to more carnal indulgences, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. In the display cabinets are clusters of rings that might have been plucked from the hands of saints. The top of the racks are covered with silvery gel, perhaps silicon, that suffocates any unholy screech that might profane the air. During my appointment, a customer in a star-spangled chiffon dress was asked to leave her dog outside: the boutique is unequipped to handle its natural animation.
Eva Galambos, who I’m told is agnostic, aspired to art curation before launching Parlour X in 2001. The church harmonises all the rhetorics of exquisite art—shape, colour, line, light, direction, speed, and ideology—in a precinct that will soon host a bar or an eatery. It was nearing twilight when I left, a time that Ms Kondilis tells me holds spectral power for the church. The extraordinarily pellucid windows allow light to rush in before three or four in the afternoon, which sets the sandstone ablaze, and the church appears to glow from within like a cosmic lantern. Then, as the sun makes its final burst before the onset of darkness, the reverse holds true: the light outside appears its brightest, but illumination within the church appears to dismount. It’s that trick—of turning magic into matter, or the reverse—Ms Galambos shares with her architects at Tobias Partners that constitutes not celestial inspiration but grand theft. Heaven can’t compete. It might as well have taken the day off.