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NEW YORK — Alexander McQueen is never one to shy away from his love of the dramatic.
The designer’s show settings over the years have ranged from Gothic insane asylums to sinister circus tents to, most recently, a Red Riding Hood forest that even featured live wolves. Now his unique vision has a larger stage in the form of a sleek, space-age boutique. The store, which was unveiled Wednesday at 419 West 14th Street in the meatpacking district, is McQueen’s second flagship to open under his new majority owner Gucci Group and his first in the U.S. While a retail space might seem too permanent an environ for McQueen’s ever-changing histrionics, the designer wants all his stores to be “ethereal.”
But McQueen’s view of the heavens naturally goes beyond what most mortals would conjure. “I wanted something completely different, so I went for this spaceship-type feel like in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’” said McQueen, his whittled-down frame clad in a white tank top and artfully baggy chinos. While sitting outside of a café on 14th Street, amiably smoking cigarettes in the sweltering heat, McQueen went on in cockneyed tones about his new store, “where everything sort of levitates off the floor with this mother ship in the middle and all of these satellites sprouting from the top.”The 3,600-square-foot store reflects McQueen’s penchant for the other-worldly and macabre, with its curved walls devoid of angles, intersecting vaulted ceilings and gray terrazzo floors with bits of Tahitian oyster shells. Burnished, carved busts hang throughout the store resembling floating corpses of sorts — they were made of resin in order to give the effect of bone.The circular theme makes its way through the entire store with both shelving and cubicle displays sporting rounded edges. The center “mother ship” portion of the store is a large mushroom shaped cylindrical pillar which houses the dressing rooms. The mirrored enclave gives way to chamber-like dressing rooms, which McQueen describes as having a “Savile Row-type feeling in their sophistication and intimacy.” Upon first stepping into one, however, there is a distinct feeling that one might be spirited away into the netherworld.While the space is certainly design-conscious, for McQueen, the clothes come first. “I didn’t want the shop to overshadow the clothes. I wanted it to work in unison. We change the concept [for the collection] every season, and I wanted the shop to be like a backdrop, like a blank page every time. Also, kind of ethereal, almost like walking into a church, the idea of calmness where you’re not faced with too much design theory.” The store’s dove gray walls provide a complementary backdrop for the soothing hues of McQueen’s clothes, which for fall range from black to gray to burgundy and pink. The apparel is merchandised according to groups from McQueen’s fall show: the front right of the boutique belongs to “antique evening,” “schoolmistress” is in the middle, “denim” rounds out the back of the store and then curves into “schoolgirl.” Signature looks from the collection — like a black lace bandage dress, ruched silk chiffon blouses, miniskirts with cross-stitching, a soft pink leather trench, and a swirly, leather and silk chiffon gown — artfully hang throughout the space. Some of McQueen’s most elaborate creations line the left wall, which will eventually house pieces from his bespoke men’s wear collection that will be launched this fall.Retail prices range from $595 to $1,495 for trousers, $280 to $1,405 for blouses, $690 to $1,330 for day dresses and $2,985 to $10,895 for evening gowns. The unconventional nature of the space’s setup, with oddly shaped cubicles housing a shoe or bag interspersed throughout the store, leaves an element of surprise for customers. “Some shops, you know exactly where everything is going to be,” said McQueen. “I want it to be more of an event show. I want people to be interested.” To his credit, it goads shoppers into exploring every crevice, lest they should miss a fabulous item hidden in a cubby hole.The store’s location, just a few doors down from Jeffrey, was a natural fit for the designer. It’s also near to where Gucci-owned Stella McCartney plans to open its first flagship store this fall. “Jeffrey is just there. Rei Kawakubo is up a bit. I just thought there was some room for me here as well. I don’t like all that other stuff uptown, that’s not really me. I like “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” said McQueen, referring to Peter Greenaway’s art-house film starring Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren. The utter carnivorous, lusty themes of the film are clearly apt for both the neighborhood and the designer himself. “I like that sort of thing.”McQueen used architect William Russell, a longtime friend who helped design one of McQueen’s former homes in London, to help with his conception of the store. “I wanted something I could really put my stamp on. I didn’t want the architect to take over and put his stamp on my life, ‘cause it was really about me,” said McQueen.A version of the new store design was first previewed in McQueen’s flagship in Tokyo, which opened last year. It now will be used as a blueprint for future stores in London and Milan, both of which will open in 2003. In addition, the company is looking at prospective sites in Los Angeles and Paris. In common with other Gucci subsidiaries, the company declined to give figures regarding its volume or a forecast for the store’s first-year sales. However, real-estate sources estimated rents in the area were about $65 to $100 per square foot, indicating sales at the store, if profitable, should range from $2 million to $4 million annually.With retailers buying heavily into his latest collections, McQueen expects the store to further clarify his vision. “I’ve always had a following here, but no one has ever bought the full story. And if you don’t buy the whole story, you can’t understand what I’m about. This is the best way to do it, to open your own shop. Then the buyers see the shop and understand the way it should be. It influences them when they buy in the next season,” the designer said. Retailers in the U.S. carrying McQueen include Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.“I just want people to like it and look at it as a different experience. It’s not meant to change your life, just make it easier. Let’s call it nonaggressive retailing,” McQueen said, laughing.