Alexan­der the great

Eight years on from Alexan­der McQueen’s pass­ing, fashion critic God­frey Deeny re­flects on the de­signer’s legacy.

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Fashion is full of hy­per­bole. So this will sound like a very tall state­ment. Be­fore be­fore Alexan­der ‘Lee’ McQueen ex­ploded into fashion, de­sign­ers were seen to have oc­ca­sional artis­tic mo­ments; af­ter him, the truly great cre­ators are rea­son­ably re­garded as fine artists.

Prior to McQueen, great de­sign­ers like Coco Chanel or Yves Saint Lau­rent col­lab­o­rated with great artists like Pi­casso or Jean Cocteau. But af­ter McQueen had en­thralled, en­raged and ex­hil­a­rated the world with his shows and clothes that ref­er­enced war, de­struc­tion, sur­re­al­ism and sex­ual per­ver­sity, de­sign­ers were left with lit­tle choice. Their shows have to be artis­tic state­ments: any­thing less is re­garded as purely mer­chan­dis­ing.

In our in­stant in­ter­net era, when wannabe blog­gers in stand­ing put live feeds on In­sta­gram, it’s hard to ap­pre­ci­ate how much in­flu­ence and power McQueen once wielded. But for some 15 years, his were the most an­tic­i­pated shows on the in­ter­na­tional cal­en­dar. Huge crowds would ap­pear at ob­scure lo­ca­tions – his favourite site in Paris was a dirty un­der­ground box­ing ring – with scores of fans break­ing into tears when they failed to cadge their way in.

I first met him back­stage at a late-90s show, staged in a garbage dis­posal plant on the Thames, and we bonded via our Celtic roots, be­gin­ning a se­ries of drink­ing ses­sions and meals over the next decade in var­i­ous fashion cap­i­tals all the way to his fi­nal re­mark­able Paris show in Oc­to­ber 2009, named Plato’s At­lantis, though look­ing more like an in­ter­ga­lac­tic space trip. In the show, H.R. Giger im­agery com­bined with photography of the Great Bar­rier Reef – in fab­rics that looked bi­o­log­i­cally grown in some lab. Pray­ing man­tis crawl­ing across a se­ries of re­mark­able dresses, be­fore a Nick Knight film of a woman mor­ph­ing into a bizarre aquatic crea­ture. A gi­ant caged an­i­mal growled on the soundtrack as the speak­ers hissed and sparkled. All looks an­chored by lob­ster-shaped footwear – biotech­nol­ogy chic.

The fi­nal ap­plause was al­ways deaf­en­ing. I re­call one par­tic­u­larly vivid stand­ing ova­tion for his Barry Lyn­don show in the great Paris cir­cus, Cirque d’hiver, with a cham­ber or­ches­tra and harp­si­chordist punch­ing out Han­del’s Sara­bande, the soundtrack of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 1975 film. McQueen’s abil­ity to ri­fle through lit­er­ally cen­turies of fashion and in­stil each piece with his own sig­na­ture was un­canny. Whether it was a Re­gency vixen, so­phis­ti­cated 30s so­cialite or Vic­to­rian grand dame lace, McQueen’s per­verse dark side was essen­tially trans­par­ent.

Ul­ti­mately, Lee’s great­est source of plea­sure and in­spi­ra­tion was na­ture – jum­bled up with tech­nol­ogy. His Creation­ist col­lec­tion in Oc­to­ber 2009 came af­ter he read Dar­win’s Voy­age of the Bea­gle. He built a menagerie of wild stuffed an­i­mals for his set and blew the au­di­ence’s mind when Lily Don­ald­son ap­peared in a mesh-cov­ered cock­tail dress of a pot­pourri of fab­ric flow­ers. In ef­fect, he led the whole fashion move­ment into po­etic ro­man­ti­cism and fashion es­capism as the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis bit. It was best ex­pressed by Lee’s bro­ken di­a­mond and glass-print cock­tails or sten­cil­cut corsets, cli­max­ing with a glass bead jump­suit into which model Jourdan Dunn must have been poured. He made sneak­ers for Adi­das in the shape of a black pan­ther hu­man cat; his high-tech and gothic lug­gage for Sam­sonite in black croc­o­dile was moulded from a real hu­man torso.

He had an er­ratic ca­reer: soar­ing to promi­nence right out of Cen­tral Saint Martins when Is­abella Blow bought his en­tire first col­lec­tion in 1992; de­sign­ing David Bowie’s leg­endary Union Jack tour coat; and land­ing the plum job of Givenchy cou­turier in 1996, aged just 27. How­ever, he stormed out of Givenchy af­ter a huge row with its own­ers, LVMH – and some poi­sonous re­views by the French press – and then stunned the in­dus­try by sell­ing 51 per cent of his house to ri­val con­glom­er­ate Ker­ing, en­ticed over by Tom Ford, who re­garded Lee as the world’s most in­ven­tive de­signer.

And he did have his demons. Lee would go on wild binges with his crew, down­ing ec­stasy, MDMA and worse. Fashion of­ten kills its young. In May 2007, it claimed Lee’s great cham­pion Is­abella Blow. In July this year came the sad news of the death of Annabelle Neil­son, his best pal.

Born the son of a Lon­don taxi driver, Lee loved an ex­otic va­ca­tion, div­ing in the Mal­dives or ski­ing in Val-d’Isère, where he spent his last Christ­mas with Neil­son.

McQueen was al­ways more fo­cused on the Celtic pe­riph­ery than English cen­tre. From his 1995 High­land Rape show to his 2010 men’s show with an Ir­ish ti­tle, An Bailitheoir Cnamh, in­spired by whalers and sea­far­ers. That proved to be his last bow. The Sun­day night be­fore, Jan­uary 17, 2010, I had din­ner with Lee in Mi­lan’s Four Sea­sons, his last in­ter­view.

He was in an iras­ci­ble mood, com­plain­ing bit­terly about be­ing dumped by a lover. “The bas­tard who went back to Aus­tralia, and I was left look­ing at his name,” he gri­maced, point­ing to a name tat­tooed on his right arm. But he de­lighted in de­scrib­ing his home, PG Wode­house’s Vic­to­rian house in May­fair, and how he had put gi­ant flat-screen TVs in ev­ery room, so he could watch na­ture doc­u­men­taries con­tin­u­ally. In per­son, he man­aged to com­bine a salty tongue with a gen­tle man­ner. He could ‘f’ and blind like a Neapoli­tan gang­ster, called de­sign­ers he didn’t like “stitch bitches”, yet had courtly man­ners. His most fa­mous look was a bum­ster, but he wore quite clas­sic dark suits.

Quite frankly, since Lee’s death, no-one has re­ally re­placed him. But one sees his in­flu­ence in an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers – from Jonathan An­der­son and Demna Gvasalia to Ric­cardo Tisci and Ro­mance Was Born, to name just a few. Sadly, like Icarus, Lee flew too close to the sun. McQueen the doc­u­men­tary is in cin­e­mas Septem­ber 6.

4.1. McQueen with Mag­dalena Frack­owiak be­fore his spring/ sum­mer ’10 show. 2. Erin O’Con­nor back­stage at Alexan­der McQueen spring/sum­mer ’01. 3. The de­signer in Lon­don, 2000. 4. McQueen with Kate Moss for spring/sum­mer ’01.

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