Theatre of the macabre

Despite the tragic death of British designer Alexander McQueen in 2010, his brilliance still casts a huge shadow over the world of fashion, writes Rachel Marie Walsh

IN FEBRUARY of last year, Lee Alexander McQueen took his own life. His abrupt departure, like his explosive fashion shows, prompted an outpouring of emotion. Letting him go was no resolution, even in a business that reinvents itself biannually.

After 19 years of consuming his challenging creations, few were willing to be cut off. Alexander McQueen the brand continues under the creative directorship of Sarah Burton. This month, the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition celebrating his life’s work. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty will run until July 31. For those unable to attend, curator Andrew Bolton has created a companion book of 250 exquisite images.

To balance the exuberance of McQueen’s clothes with the authority of a museum catalogue, models were painted with body make-up to resemble mannequins. Photographer Sølve Sundsbø then photoshopped the archived clothes onto their figures, abstracting bodies from faces.

The book includes a biography of McQueen, and an interview with Sarah Burton. Personal quotes feature opposite McQueen’s deeply personal fashion, creating a remarkable approximation of an autobiography.

McQueen was a bona fide East Ender, sketching his first dress on bare wall exposed by the peeling décor of his family’s council flat. The youngest of six, his adoration for his three sisters nurtured the aggressive sexuality of his work: “I always wanted to be able to protect them. They would call me up to their room and I’d help them pick out clothes for work. I was always trying to make them look strong and sheltered.”

He left school at 16 and took a job as an apprentice on Savile Row, learning time-honoured techniques he later subverted with anarchic glee. “His tailoring is very non-traditional,” says Bolton. “He knew the traditional aspects of tailoring so well that he was able to marry them with aspects of dressmaking. There’s always something about it that is playful, like a collapsed lapel. That’s where the singularity of his designs really emerges from.” McQueen later boasted that he’d sewn the words “I am a c**t” into the lining of a suit meant for Prince Charles.

At the age of 20, McQueen flew to Milan to work for Romeo Gigli, a brand popular throughout the late 1980s for soft, romantic silhouettes. McQueen spent less than a year there, but observing how Gigli courted the media taught him how they could elevate a designer’s success. He returned to London to study for an MA at Central St Martin’s College.

The charismatic stylist Isabella Blow bought his entire graduation collection and invited him to stay in her Belgravia townhouse, where Irish hat designer Philip Treacy resided on the first floor. Blow persuaded McQueen to trade under his more aristocratic middle name, Alexander.

McQueen’s early collections were fuelled by an anger that belied his natural shyness. “This aggression came from growing up on the streets of London,” says Bolton. “He also colluded with the press, in a way, to create this image for himself as the bad boy of fashion.”

The scandalous “bumster” trousers, which made an erogenous zone of the coccyx, were an early signature style. He also had a penchant for using organic materials, including feathers, shells and human hair. This proclivity persisted in various forms throughout his career. The glass slides down the back of one of the gowns are actually microscope slides, stained red to remind us of blood beneath every layer of skin.

His autumn 1995 collection, Highland Rape, gained international attention. “Did it piss you off? It should have done, that was the idea,” McQueen told journalists, after models staggered out in ravaged tartan and lace. He insisted that he was not glamorising violence but honouring his Scottish heritage by portraying the devastation inflicted upon his ancestors during the 18th-century Jacobite Risings. This anger resurfaced in 2006 for The Widows of Culloden, a romantic sequel inspired by the final defeat of the Jacobite cause.

His gumption and talent impressed Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury conglomerate LVMH, who appointed him creative director of Givenchy in 1996. McQueen grew openly unhappy working for a company he complained constrained his creativity.

He later likened the experience to being “thrown to the lions” and described his first couture collection as “crap”.

McQueen’s own shows went from extreme to extreme. He made a 1996 presentation in an east London church and seated a skeleton in the front row. Models walked the aisles wearing black lace mantillas and clothes printed with war photography. These were early evidence of his preoccupation with the macabre. “I think it’s important to look at death. It’s part of life; it shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet. I think it’s a very melancholic thing but also a very romantic thing.”

He continued to shake things up by caging models in manacles for a 1998 show. The reviews were mixed but the beauty of the clothes beneath the metal was difficult to dispute. McQueen also exposed his models to the “elements”. They were caught in a gold-flecked downpour, walked a lava runway that exploded into flames and braved a synthetic snowstorm. During one memorable finale, Shalom Harlow stood on a turnstile while two giant paint guns blasted her dress.

In 2000, McQueen sold a 51% stake in his company to the Gucci Group, funding his international expansion. His contract with Givenchy finished soon afterwards. Free to show in Paris under his own name, his drama reached new heights. His presentations were effectively art installations, where models played pieces on a giant chessboard or were trapped in a glass case of butterflies. In 2003, he received the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for best international designer and Elizabeth II honoured him with a CBE for services to his industry.

McQueen was less available to the press in recent years, letting shows be his medium. After the Kate Moss cocaine scandal, he displayed her holographic image above his catwalk and wore a t-shirt that read “We Love You Kate”. When Isabella Blow died, he dedicated a show to her memory and filled it with pieces fashion she adored: pencil skirts, power shoulders and extravagant hats.

The last show of his life, Plato’s Atlantis, was the first live streaming of an Alexander McQueen event. For 15 minutes, McQueen claimed fashion victims around the world as they watched models march in his insanely beautiful Armadillo heels.

“There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible,” he said five months before his death, years after he’d made good on the promise.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty is available from


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