Approach Alexander McQueen's new flagship store in London and the first thing you'll see is a vast curtain embroidered with colourful, glittering insects.
Running across the double-storey glass windows, this fishnet veil is a reference to Sarah Burton’s celebrated “bug dress” – and a rare gesture of modesty on Old Bond Street, where most of the neighbours use their brightly lit windows to thrust profitable bags, shoes and jewellery under shoppers’ noses. But it suits the unassuming Burton, who became creative director of the brand following her friend Lee McQueen’s death in 2010, and who is only now redefining its stores.
“In the studio, I could see that Sarah is always playing. I told her, if you want to show your work, start with a curtain like the window of a house – but the window is huge,” says Smiljan Radic, the architect responsible for bringing the new store concept to life. “That has been my great experience with Alexander McQueen and with Sarah, especially, because we could play a game together.”
Continuity is an important theme in the design concept, and translates in the floors, walls and ceilings, which are all clad in continuous light oak and dark walnut wood. Menswear and womenswear mingle in the layout, with jewelled satchels and four-ring clutch bags set on enormous blocks of quartz sculpted by Radic's wife, Marcella Correa. Large glass cylinders punch through the three levels, and are used to house staircases and dressing rooms encased in heavy handwoven tapestries covered in the brand's signature prints. Highly unusual wood sculptures, also by Correa, give the appearance of long, spindly roots growing through the space. "We wanted to do more than exhibit the product. The architecture by me and the works by Sarah have to be communicating in the same space," Radic says.
In another shockingly uncommercial decision for this prime piece of real estate, the second floor is given over to a space highlighting the creative process behind the clothes. “On the ground floor you have the season history, with mannequins changing every season, and you could have students on the top just seeing the clothes,” Radic says with some satisfaction.
He reveals that Burton called him after seeing a house that he had created in Chile in a book. "At the beginning, there was no real brief," he says. "It was a conversation about her work and what she thinks about my work, and the ambience that was coming from that house. The best way is to talk about things, not to talk about ideas in the abstract."
Radic's authentic approach seems to have suited Burton, and together they have come up with a strong and experimental store concept that will be rolled out around the world. The second Alexander McQueen store to adopt the new design concept is in The Dubai Mall's Fashion Avenue extension – a 2,600 square foot, high-ceilinged space that offers menswear, womenswear and accessories.
An eight-metre-high shopfront sets the tone for a space that feels organic and inviting. There is the same interplay of light and dark woods found in the London flagship, and the same glass cylinders housing dressing rooms sheathed in colourful handwoven tapestries. There are 18 mannequins dotted through the store, so it almost feels like you are witnessing an Alexander McQueen runway show. An addition for the Dubai store is a VIP changing area.
"The clothes of Sarah have a happiness inside," says Radic. "You can feel she enjoyed creating them, and if you go to the older stores it's still a little bit serious. That is not the 'alma'"… (he checks the translation with a Spanish-speaking publicist. The core, she says, or the soul)… "the soul that I saw in Sarah. It's the key of the work to mix materials and to use new shapes and to experiment; that comes from the history of McQueen. But inside this space, I hope that you will feel something more free and more special, and with this idea of happiness."