“Creativity is a very fragile thing, and [Alexander McQueen] was very fragile,” -Philip Treacy.
Tuesday 20 April 2004, Joyce McQueen interviews her son, fashion designer Alexander McQueen, for the Guardian:
Joyce McQueen: What is your most terrifying fear?
Alexander McQueen: Dying before you.
Joyce McQueen: Thank you, son.
Alexander McQueen’s death was announced on the afternoon of 11 February 2010, nine days after the death of his mother, Joyce, 75, from cancer. Considered one of the world’s most influential fashion designers, McQueen took his life at the age of 40, and the death caused a wave of shock and grief in the fashion and entertainment industry. Stars like Lady Gaga, Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss, and Sarah Jessica Parker paid tribute to the icon. The man who had brought theatricality, spectacle, menace and wonder to the catwalks with his fantastic creations, brilliant imagination, and incredible genius was gone.
Born March 17th 1969 in Lewisham, a district in South London, England, McQueen was the son of a London cabbie and the youngest of six children. Self-proclaimed “pink sheep” of the family, he had always embraced his sexuality and was unforgiving about his larger than life personality and bad boy image. He’s said to have famously wrote: “I am a cunt” and “McQueen was here” in the lining of a jacket designed for the Prince of Wales. Making no excuses or apologies for who he was effortlessly carried over into his career.
In the industry, he was known as “L’Enfant Terrible” and “the hooligan of English fashion”
In 1997 at the age of 27, he was employed by couture house Givenchy. Givenchy’s brief statement spoke of McQueen’s “brilliant creativity, combined with his technical mastery”, which would “ensure the ongoing evolution of Givenchy’s tradition of elegance”. McQueen, however, publicly dismissed the label’s founder, Hubert de Givenchy, as ‘irrelevant’ and called the first collection ‘crap’. Although he had to tone down his designs at Givenchy, he continued to push the envelope, i.e. in Autumn 1998, he had double amputee Aimee Mullins walk the runway on carved wooden legs. For his Spring/Summer 1999 show a single model, graced the runway in a strapless white dress and was rotated slowly on a revolving section of the catwalk while being spray-painted by robotic guns.
At 16, McQueen started as an apprentice on Savile Row – the home of bespoke British men’s tailoring. It was this education that helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert tailor. As Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue explains: “He was incredibly clever at cutting clothes.” The combination of precision in tailoring and patternmaking with spontaneity and improvisations is what underlies McQueen’s singularity.
‘When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off. You have to have a lot of balls to talk to a woman wearing my clothes.’ – Alexander McQueen
The “bumsters”, which appeared in 1996, arguably launched McQueen’s career, propelling him to the mainstream and spawning the trend of extremely low-rise jeans. It also defined him as a rule-breaker.
His most celebrated and dramatic catwalk show was his 2001 Spring Summer collection, named VOSS. McQueen seated the audience around a giant mirrored cube. The show was late (on purpose) and the audience was forced to stare at their reflection until finally the cube lit up revealing a mental-hospital setting.
“Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.” – Alexander McQueen
Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor were trapped inside the cube, as was a naked Michelle Olley who lay nude on a couch with a gas mask contraption covering her face. The inspiration was Joel Peter Witkin’s image Sanatorium.
McQueen had to have seen life cinematically in order to come up with the things he did. He relentlessly promoted freedom of expression and championed the importance of the imagination. He was the archetype of the hero-artist, the artist who followed his inspiration and completely honored his Muse.
In May 2011 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, commemorated McQueen’s work for an exhibition: SAVAGE BEAUTY. Organized by The Costume Institute they showcased his Central Saint Martins postgraduate collection of 1992 to his final runway presentation. In total, the exhibition featured approximately one hundred ensembles and seventy accessories from McQueen’s nineteen-year career.
There are many underlying themes that define McQueen’s work as art – the most prevalent are historicism and primitivism.
While McQueen’s historical references are far-reaching, he was particularly inspired by the nineteenth century, especially the Victorian Gothic. “There’s something . . . kind of Edgar Allan Poe, kind of deep and kind of melancholic about my collections,” McQueen noted. Indeed, the “shadowy fancies” that Poe writes about in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) are vividly present in the majority of McQueen’s collections, most notably Dante (autumn/winter 1996–97), Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (autumn/winter 2002–3), and the posthumous, unofficially entitled Angels and Demons (autumn/winter 2010–11). Like the Victorian Gothic, which combines elements of horror and romance, McQueen’s collections often reflect opposites such as life and death, lightness and darkness. Indeed, the emotional intensity of his runway presentations was frequently the consequence of the interplay between dialectical oppositions. The relationship between victim and aggressor was especially apparent, particularly in his accessories. He once remarked, “I . . . like the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect.”
Throughout his career, McQueen returned to the theme of primitivism, which drew upon the ideal of the noble savage living in harmony with the natural world. It was the focus of his first runway collection after graduating, Nihilism (spring/summer 1994). He said of the collection,“It was a reaction to designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, like a Masai-inspired dress made of materials the Masai could never afford.” It famously included a latex dress with locusts, McQueen’s statement on famine. Many of the pieces were coated with mud, a conceit the designer repeated in Eshu (autumn/winter 2000–2001), a collection inspired by the well-known deity in the Yoruba religion. The clothes, including a coat of black synthetic hair and a dress of black horsehair embroidered with yellow glass beads, came close to fetishizing materials. This fetishization also occurred in It’s a Jungle Out There (autumn/winter 1997–98), which was inspired by the Thomson’s gazelle. The collection was a meditation on the dynamics of power—in particular, the relationship between predator and prey. Indeed, McQueen’s reflections on primitivism were frequently represented in paradoxical combinations, contrasting “modern” and “primitive,” “civilized” and “uncivilized.” The storyline of Irere (spring/summer 2003) involved a shipwreck at sea and was peopled with pirates, conquistadors, and Amazonian Indians. Typically, McQueen’s narrative glorified the state of nature and tipped the moral balance in favor of the “natural man” or “nature’s gentleman” unfettered by the artificial constructs of civilization.
— Metropolitan Museum of Art
McQueen often showed a dark streak in his collections, and used fashion to comment on humanity and global issues and what he saw as the idiocy of the fashion world. “The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.” Although he was passionate, bold, headstrong, and incredibly successful, those close to him realized he was going through a very difficult time around the period of his death. Not only had he lost his best friend three years prior, but he also had to deal with the loss of his mother alongside the pressures of work.
Joyce McQueen: What makes your heart miss a beat?
Alexander McQueen: Love.
Joyce McQueen: Love for children? Love for adults? Love for animals?
Alexander McQueen: Falling in Love.
All pictures from the “Savage Beauty” – Mcqueen Film Documentary is out in theaters! Make sure to see it for more insight on the fashion maverick.