When David Collins Studio accepted a commission from Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen in 2011, it was the meeting of two great design houses. With the support of investment from Kering Group, McQueen had an ambitious worldwide roll out strategy that would take them from four stores to twenty-six and beyond, with a roll-out total of fifty stores by the in-house team. Both being British companies that appreciate attention to detail, value craftsmanship and enjoy working with artisans, it is easy to understand why the relationship worked so well.
The collaboration culminated in the prestigious flagship Paris store, which stands proud today as legacy to two of Britain’s most influential tastemakers. It is a magical mix of spirit, detail and drama. Long live McQueen.
Paul Hunwick talks to Lewis Taylor, Design Director at David Collins Studio and the man who led the design and delivery of this worldwide retail expansion program.
Where did you take inspiration from?
David Collins immersed himself and the [David Collins] Studio in the McQueen brand values. Dark versus light, soft versus hard, masculine versus feminine and contrast—these were our starting points. David wanted it to be innate that you are in McQueen store without being able to pinpoint exactly what it was that made you know this. We examined the exaggerated proportions that are a common theme throughout many of the collections, such as pinched waists in the female form. We studied a book collection called Bizarre, which is a series of fetish volumes that Lee McQueen often referenced—it had a lot of macabre, interesting details, such as rib cages and skeletons. David came up with the idea of incorporating elements of a traditional panelled room after seeing it in Lee’s final show in Paris, Angels & Demons [Autumn/Winter 2010]. From afar, our panels look quite traditional but as you get up close, the McQueen details slowly reveal themselves. We took a long time researching what could be hidden within these panels, things such as skulls, sea creatures, wings and feathers. We also looked at the work of Horst P. Horst and how he took photos and manipulated them, which we knew had been a strong reference point for McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis collection [Spring/Summer 2010].
Which was the first store completed by David Collins Studio? Was there an initial concept or prototype store?
Bal Harbour was the first one we did. It was very much a concept store that captured many of the design ideas. It was a something of a testbed. We put a lot in there and stripped away as we went through the process. At the point of creating Bal Harbour we knew we had a minimum of five stores to design. We knew we needed to replicate any ideas sufficiently that all the stores felt part of one family but we wanted each one to have elements of individuality as well. Otherwise you end up with a cookie-cutter design that’s the same in New York as it is in London. We inherited a lot of interesting architecture which informed the design of each store. New York had double height space so we used more plaster mouldings and columns but Tokyo was a new build that gave us the opportunity to create the back lit carved marble façade which was something new to us and McQueen and let us push the marble supplier to try something new.
What were the most significant decorative elements used in every store?
The decorative plaster panels and the ‘smashed’ floor. The floor was inspired by the Horn of Plenty show [Autumn/Winter 2009] which had a runway made of what appears to be broken mirror. We wanted to recreate it in black marble. We started off trying to smash marble but realised pretty quickly you can’t control it and end up with fragments—instead we settled on cutting it into a ‘smashed’ pattern. We started in Bal Harbour, New York slightly changed, London became a white version and by the time we reached Paris, we did it in timber. Material choices evolved but the ‘smashed’ concept was constant.
What inspired the carvings and the wall panels?
We looked at shells and the signature McQueen armadillo shoe to see how we could tie these shapes into the panels. We also took the pinched waisted detail as inspiration and added floral elements. David [Collins] and I printed out all of these reference points and decoupaged them to see what worked well together. We took it as far we could in-house then handed it over to the incredible illustrators at McQueen who refined them into something very beautiful. We used a sculptor in Stoke Newington called Solomon & Wu (since rebranded as Foresso) to make full size wax prototypes. They were made from very malleable moulding wax and perfecting them was a collaborative process. Sarah and David were both up ladders cutting bits off. We wanted it to look artisan and handmade, like some of the McQueen pieces, so we left in some unevenness and thumbprints. Because we had in our mind that these panels were going to be the continuity of all the stores, we developed a technique where we could make a silicone mould. This meant, instead of making the panels here and shipping them around the world, the moulds could be rolled up, shipped internationally and a local contractor could cast the plaster. It was very efficient. Finally, some of the elements, such as the skulls, we gilded by hand on site.
How was the colour palette developed?
Because you never know what colour the collection might feature from season to season, we wanted the background colour of the store to be neutral and we asked Sarah to pick two signature accent colours. She chose a deep red for menswear and a soft lavender for womenswear. Her colour choices originated from cuts of fabric from the McQueen workshop. We spent a long time choosing the right white background colour, testing it in different lighting conditions. We purposely went for a warm white as we intended it to feel residential so people would want to spend more time in the space.
How did you approach the furniture and joinery?
Fixtures and joinery are as important as the store architecture. In some stores, where you are creating a store within a store, such as the concession in Harrods, you don’t have any walls to work with and you have to get brand personality across solely on fixtures and furniture. The test that David always had was, ‘If you take the logo away, would you still know it’s McQueen?’ You need to set the scene from the first touchpoint so things like door handles are incredibly important. Handles were first made in wax, then cast in bronze. We chose animal feet for the furniture. Claw-and-ball feet are classically British and are usually birds, but we reinterpreted them by using lion’s feet, which we felt was more McQueen in spirit. Even smaller items, such as counter-top mirrors had to feel McQueen—they are macabre but tongue in cheek. Tables were finished in scagliola [imitation marble made of plaster mixed with glue and dyes which is then painted or polished.] The cabinets were based on references from Sarah of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which displays the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford. It’s very McQueen. The New York store has an Escher like staircase
What are your favourite details?
I loved the ‘smashed’ floor and being able to reinterpret it for each site. The contractors in Paris were incredible. They loved the challenge. They wanted to manufacture it themselves which initially terrified me, but the floor has retained its gloss. I visited a few months ago and it still looks incredible. The details we put into the Paris store, which was our ultimate flagship, made it something of a climax for us. The family of fixtures we used and the materials were all very McQueen. For example, the églomisé on the inside of the cabinets. The Paris store actually won the prestigious Prix Versailles award for Commercial Architecture in 2016.
We created a marble facade in Toyko. It’s in small panels because the earthquake codes are quite restrictive. We wanted something that looked like one thing but would then reveal itself to be something else, so we carved out the back of the marble and embedded LEDs. At night, as the light comes through, it slowly comes to life.
In the Bond Street store, we cut a large hole in the floor connecting the first floor to the basement. They’d historically had a problem getting people to go downstairs because it lacked visibility. By using warm lighting and marble set furniture, we made it feel more like a private apartment and it became a very popular area of the store.
The plaster panels and in particular the way in which the concept could be transported and rolled out internationally was practical and clever.
How many stores did you do in total?
Twenty-six. McQueen have their own internal design team that took care of the smaller shop-in-shops and standalone stores from a design handbook we created for them, which were rolled out around the globe. We focused on the flagships, where we could best add value and push the concept. We had a very collaborative relationship and still keep in touch.
How long did the working relationship last?
We worked with the McQueen team for about seven years. If you consider that the average lifespan of a store concept is around five. We’re incredibly proud of both the relationship and the work. To have been part of the ‘world of McQueen’ and their incredible heritage is an important part of the Studio’s history.