In life, there have and will always be, great debates. No matter how black and white the issue, the argument between what things are and what they are not will always rage on among mankind. Some arguments are fought for everyday. They are a matter of life and death: gay marriage and abortion, while others are much more trivial: is cheerleading a sport? One such debate that I have found myself stuck between lately is, is fashion art? It is not enough to simply say that it depends on one’s level of appreciation and understanding, for Grace Coddington herself, Creative Director at Vogue has said “I think it’s sometimes very creative, but I’m not sure I would call it art; that’s pushing it a bit. I certainly don’t think fashion photography is art, because if it is art, it’s probably not doing its job.” But for every shallow, uncreative, snob who flocks to fashion shows with the sole intention of draping themselves in the latest thing for status sake, there are designers who push their garments over the line into the visual arts. Designers who are less interested in the sales, practicality and appeasement of legendary fashion houses. And as far as I’m concerned, the epitome of such designer will always be, Alexander McQueen.
Born Lee Alexander McQueen, in 1969, to a low income family in London’s East End (his father was a cabbie), McQueen was never one for school and struggled to find direction in his teenage years. When his mother suggested that he may find work at the tailor shops along Savile Row, (as many members of their family had been tailors) he decided to give it a go. He learned quickly and soon gained a reputation for his expertise in the craft, garnering clients such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles. He quickly grew bored with the monotonous routine and left to find greater stimulation. He decided to go to the famous Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design, not in search of an education (for he knew he wouldn’t get in), but instead he thought he would ask for a job among the faculty. When they saw his work coupled with how young he was, they insisted that he apply to their masters program. He did and was accepted. He received his MFA degree from the greatest fashion school in the world.
Fate was in McQueen’s favor the evening of his senior fashion show, as the legendary Isabella Blow was in attendance. Do you know who Isabella Blow is? It’s okay if you don’t. I didn’t either but after watching the documentary, McQueen and Me (Full documentary posted at the bottom of the entry!!), I feel like everyone who gives a care about fashion should know a little something about the marvelous Isabella Blow, for she made designers happen. The ultimate in fashion PR, Blow lived one of those legendary lives of a successful networker, anarchist and fashion journalist. She had a tumultuous past, hailing from an aristocratic family whose fortune was lost in a scandal when her grandfather was accused of adultery and killed himself. She felt cheated from her fortune and the life she should have led, so she pretended she still had all that she had lost. She lived a life of glamor through diving into the world of fashion. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Warhol and Basquiat, and worked as Anna Wintour (American Vogue Editor) and later Andre Leon Talley’s (Vogue’s Editor at Large) assistants. Her talent was discovering talent, and when she saw McQueen’s work, she knew she had to have the collection in its entirety. She bought the lot for ₤5,000 and paid it off in weekly installments of ₤100. The rest is legendary, fashion history.
When Blow met McQueen, he was merely a rebellious kid, albeit an extremely talented one. She said she immediately saw a new sense of modernism in his work. “It’s about sabotage and tradition,” the crux of the 90’s. McQueen still had no money, so he found a run down studio in his old neighborhood in the East End. He lived in his studio and supported his small staff through social service benefits. He hired unknown models with more attitude than experience, and forced his growing fashion followers to flock to undesirable locations to catch a glimpse of his shows. It had a gritty, raw, energy. It was about the clothes, not the celebrity. It was real and honest because these garments were created sans expectations from the commercial fashion world.
With Isabella’s suggestion, McQueen dropped his first name, Lee, and began to go by his middle name, Alexander. She said this way, he would be much more marketable. “Alexander the Great.” And market him she did. She talked him up to all of her contacts, she invited him for weekends at her estate and showered him with inspiration, and she always had a beautiful line to feed the press about her new discovery.
Yet with all the accolades, also came harsh criticism, especially when McQueen’s rebellious, controversial side would emerge. It was 1995 when the public first caught site of McQueen’s darker side, as he unveiled his collection, Highland Rape. The models staggered down the runway, half dressed, clothes ripped, tampon strings hanging out, a heavy sense of anger and agony filled the runway. The following day the press was a buzz blasting McQueen for being cruel, insensitive and misogynistic. But in my mind, what McQueen had accomplished was quite the opposite. McQueen was an artist who transcended fashion. To him, it had to be more than just the creations of perfectly tailored, enchantingly beautiful clothes. The fashion critics should have been singing his praises because for the first time, he elevated fashion above the superficial and into the intellectual. It had not been about degrading women, but instead about expressing his anger and promoting awareness to the mistreatment of women. In the end, McQueen came out on top as he garnered much needed publicity for himself and had successfully created his own brand of shock which he often revisited in various forms. Below is a video from the opening visual of one of his 1997 runway shows in which he was obviously blasted for his reference to slavery. He claimed he was interested in the way the shackles made her move. The fashion press responded that perhaps he was more of a, “showman than a fashion designer;” the acknowledgment of the fine line. The delicate barrier that stands between fashion and art.
Video from McQueen’s controversial 1997 runway show
As his reputation began to precede himself, McQueen knew he had to remind the public of his true talents. So in 1996, McQueen wowed the public with his winter collection, which he debuted at London’s Spitalfields. He silenced the crowd with a somber, quiet, beauty. The collection was ethereal. Finally the critics were praising his artistry over his antics. Shortly after he won the 1996 British Designer of the Year award, and soon after, he was asked to become head designer of Givenchy. This new position led to tension on multiple fronts. First at the House of Givenchy, the Parisians were not pleased to have an English designer as a boss. The French were couture fashion after all, but were having trouble making the transition into the grungy 90’s. They needed the British flare for cool to help them make it. But it didn’t mean they had to like it. Another party that was feeling rather shut out was Isabella Blow. After having befriending and discovering McQueen, she naturally thought he would create a spot for her at his new position. When that job did not come, Blow was incredibly hurt.
Video from McQueen’s AW 1996 collection
At his first 1997 Givenchy Couture show, McQueen’s designs were panned by the French press. They claimed the models looked like drag queens and showgirls, and that his tailoring was not up to par. For the first time, McQueen was criticized for his craft. It was clear that the bitter French were not going to accept their new British boss easily. Determined to win them over, McQueen decided to reinvent classic Givenchy form. He made it more youthful, he made it more on trend. It was a success. Meanwhile, Isabella had landed a new job as fashion director of the Sunday Times. The two made up and posed in David Lachapelle’s iconic Vanity Fair photo.
Just as McQueen had arrived to save French couture, the French style was inadvertently rubbing of on McQueen. His designs began to mature. They were elevated above the anger and aggression of his earlier collections, and were becoming softer and more sophisticated. McQueen was now producing ten collections a year, designing for Givenchy while also keeping his own personal line afloat.
While his clothes began to evolve into acceptable Persian couture, his shows began to resemble performance art. For the 2001 collection, McQueen sat the audience around a large glass cube. It looked to be a mirror as the audience sat, starring back at themselves against the glass. Suddenly the lights went out and the cube became transparent. Inside were models who seemed to be crazed. They were stumbling around, slamming against the glass walls. And in the middle of the cube was another box. At the end of the show, the four walls of the inner box fell, shattering glass everywhere and revealing a slew of moths which had been trapped inside. Also inside the box lay a nude model, reclined, wearing a gas mask. It was an extremely surreal, intensely dark show, harkening back to his earlier depiction of women. (Video of the show can be viewed in the below) Eventually, after many years of artistic struggle, McQueen left Givenchy in 2001 and moved to Gucci who promised him artistic freedom as long as he produced clothes that would ultimately sell in the stores.
Video from McQueen’s 2001 collection for Givenchy
While McQueen was finding success at Gucci, Isabella was experiencing more struggles. She was fired from the Times for becoming too avant garde. Her marriage was falling apart. She was in trouble financially. She was falling into a great depression and attempted to commit suicide five times with no avail. McQueen wanted her to be well but became frustrated with her and began avoiding Blow’s attempts to make contact. Although McQueen was in the middle of great success, his new job at Gucci was proving to be more work than he could handle. Gucci was a global brand and McQueen had been thrown into not only designing the multiple clothing lines, but also accessories, shoes, etc. The never ending workload and pressure to push the envelope time in and time out began to be too much for him to handle. Then, in 2007, Isabella finally succeeded in taking her life.
McQueen was devastated and guilt ridden. Five months later, he and designer Phillip Treacy organized a show in her honor. But the show must go on and McQueen had no choice. His brand was growing and he was opening shops all around the globe. In 2009, McQueen’s October show led to rave reviews from the press. But the greater the success, the greater the pressure was to be even better. In February of 2010, McQueen’s mother passed away. McQueen’s biggest supporter from the beginning, the death of his mother seemed to be the last straw in his struggle to keep up with expectations. On the night before her funeral, McQueen was found in his closet. He had hung himself, leaving only a note that read, “Please look after my dogs. Sorry. I love you.”
McQueen lives on as a legend in the fashion world. His brand has survived and has continued to be successful through his assistant and now head designer, Sarah Burton. The year after his death, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored his legacy with the 2011 exhibition, Savage Beauty. I bet anyone who walked those galleries and stood among his creations, would agree that McQueen’s designs were more than just garments, they were works of art. The story of Lee Alexander McQueen is not only tragic, but a sobering reminder of the pressures that exist in the modern day fashion industry. The constant need for more, newer, better, faster, can easily push a genius such as McQueen to their limits. Is having it all worth losing such great talent?
Documentary, McQueen and I
*Most information gathered from the documentary, McQueen and I