Representing the creative future

McQueen: Inside the spaces that house fashion

Alexander McQueen's architect William Russell speaks about their most exciting collaborations.

Considering the various challenges posed by the industry, it’s one thing to establish a fashion brand and run it successfully; it is a whole other ballgame to eventually be able to open up a shop to sell those preciously-made goods, and build a small house for those pieces. Alexander McQueen’s retail dreams were arguably realised most successfully when he decided to partner with the Gucci Group, who acquired a majority stake of his brand in 2000, marking the start of a store expansion. Architect William Russell met McQueen at the onset of this deal, and in the months that followed, the duo worked together on developing a great number of stores worldwide, only two of which have survived to this day. “I don’t really know why he chose me at the end of the day,” William recently reflected in a talk with Trino Verkade (CEO of Mary Katrantzou) and editor David Michon about the conception of the stores. “I think it was because he was looking for someone he could collaborate with rather than having some star architect who would impose their vision on him. That just seems the most logical reason!” We have taken note of the conversation’s highlights, focusing predominantly on his London and LA stores.

Choosing the right vision and location
“Lee found inspiration from everything around him. His creative process was to collect images, and I remember a wide variety of pictures from when I was working with him, that symbolised briefly the way he worked himself – his creative waves. Something that’s fascinating to see, is that there was poetry and writing inscribed, modern mixed up with these old traditional textures. Again, the way he worked was to find opposing ideas and concepts and use them; try to resize and create something new. He was looking for a space that wasn’t really looking like anything else out there. I remember going Bond Street and Sloane Street with him and he said: “don’t want it like that, don’t want it like that.” It became quite obvious and clear that he wanted to differentiate himself out there in that world.”

The concept, inspired by an indigenous village
“Not long ago before that, I had been on a trip to this small Ethiopian village called Lalibela. They create architecture in a completely different way than we do it here. They basically cut a big trench around what they are going to make into a building, and then hollow it out. So their architecture became an exercise in a kind of subtraction, rather than accumulation. Here (in the West), we put bricks on bricks, and it occurred to me that maybe this (the subtraction) is a clue to conceive the store. To come up with something different, I suppose. Imagine the space filled to the ceiling with white homogenous material. That was a really great starting point; there was this contract between a smooth space and sharp edges. It means that the ceilings and the walls can morph into each other. The fixtures could be almost like stalactites floating off the floor.

We had about six months to test it, and then – incredibly quickly – a building in Tokyo had some space in the basement where we could work, which came through the Gucci Group, and we were given 6 weeks to finalise the concept and come up with a complete scheme. It was just a mad headlong rush but it was brilliant. And I have never done a high-fashion shop, so the whole thing was massive learning curve. Luckily the Gucci group at that time had an architecture team in London, based in Dover Street. They tried to guide me through the whole process and were amazingly supportive. They never said: “you can’t do that,” just because it felt like we were experimenting.

The execution of the Mothership
Trino: Lee had wanted the store to be a membrane. The idea was to be like a stretched skin at high tension and pushing boxes through, which gives that spaceship feeling. He had particularly wanted to use this floor with shells in it, which is very natural.

William: With chips of mother of pearl in it, which was the colour of a wet sand. It was almost like a beach that the tide had just got on. There was that moment when he took his Marlboro Light packet off the table and shifted it through his t-shirt to demonstrate this idea of a box and sharp edges with this curve coming out of it. The centrepiece of this store was what became known as ‘the mothership’: this egg-shaped space which was kind of fitted in the middle.

LA: the sculpture that went through the roof
William: My favourite store was LA. It was a garage space unit with this big billboard over the top. It was the first one which had the architecture form; the building that we needed to have. What we did, was to move all of the accommodation right at the pavement edge and opened up a private courtyard at the back. There were two entrances, one of them was towards Melrose Avenue. The concept was quite odd. Typical Lee insisted that he planted a tree right in front of the window.
There was this amazing 3 meter tall sculpture that he commissioned, by a London based artist called Robert Bryce Muir. When you enter, this is what you see. It became known as “the angel”; it’s actually half in and half out of the store. The sculpture is broken and the legs would be pulled from underneath, and the top is placed on top. Robert came out to install it, he was out there on the roof for days trying to get that done. The builder himself refused to put it up. He was too worried about viability. This is a big disc of acrylic and we had to buy it on our credit cards, because the builder refused to have anything to do with it. He made the hole and said: “That’s it, you’re on your own.” That was quite an exciting thing.

Trino: It was Lee’s way of doing things. Everything was so cultural and Lee was mad sure he brought that to the area!