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