“I like blowing people’s minds. It’s a buzz. Like a fix, for 20 minutes. I like the spontaneity of doing it there and then. We broke the mold by not using the fashion-show-production people. I found Sam Gainsbury, who’d been doing pop video. So it became more cinematic.” -- Alexander McQueen
Lee Alexander McQueen was the quintessential bad boy made good. He had brains and brawn, having survived over ten years as a solo designer and being brought into the Gucci Group stable, which bought a 51 per cent stake in his company 2002.
Born in 1970 in the East End of London - the son of a taxi driver and one of six children. He left school at 16, with one O-level in art, and trained on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard, whose clients included Prince Charles and Mikhail Gorbachev, after he saw a television program about the apprentice shortage in traditional tailoring. He reportedly once embroidered a suit for the Prince of Wales with the words "I am a cunt" (in the lining). He went on to work for Gieves & Hawkes, theatre’s famous Angels & Bermans costumiers, and then worked in Japan and Italy, and returned to London in 1994, hoping to work as a pattern cutter tutor at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins fashion school. Thanks to the strength of his portfolio, he was persuaded to enrol on the course himself.
In 1994 his entire degree show was bought by influential stylist Isabella Blow, whose later suicide in 2007 led to him dedicating his entire spring/summer 2008 collection to her memory. He earned his master's degree in fashion design from London's Central Saint Martins (formerly Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) in 1995.
His “Highland Rape” Collection was about the "rape" of Scotland by the British, self-referential retrospective to the experiences that have shaped his own ethnic-cultural location and identity. For the actual showroom, McQueen transformed a loft-like industrial space into a brooding battleground of mayhem to symbolize 1746's Battle of Culloden in which his actual ancestors, the Jacobite Highland-Scots, were defeated and then subsequently ousted by the British troops under the Duke of Cumberland, “the Butcher.”
Moreover, he insisted that his attitude towards women is informed by his having witnessed as a child scenes of violence involving his sister: "Everything I've done since then was for the purpose of making women look stronger, not naïve," he was quoted in The Independent Fashion Magazine in 2000, "models are there to showcase what I'm about, nothing else. It's nothing to do with misogyny." The show introduced the “Bumster” trousers and immediately made him one of the most talked about faces in the industry.
“It was an art thing, to change the way women looked, just by cut, to make a longer torso. But I was taking it to an extreme. The girls looked quite menacing, because there was so much top and so little bottom, because of the length of legs. That was the concept, nothing to do with a ‘builder’s bum.’” -- Alexander McQueen, on the “Bumster” Trousers
The president of LVMH , Bernard Arnault, controversially installed McQueen as John Galliano's successor at Givenchy in 1996. A rebellious nature saw him quoted as saying the founder of the famous house was “irrelevant”. McQueen told Vogue in October 1997 that his debut couture offering for the label was "crap", but he stayed with the house until March 2001 - continuing to create challenging collections, including one featuring car-robots spraying paint over white cotton dresses, and double amputee model Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs - until the contract which he said was "constraining his creativity" was ended.
In the fall of 1998, McQueen presented a collection called "Joan" within the confines of an abandoned industrial trash depot. Green warehouse lanterns began to sway ominously over an army of chain-mail clad, head shaven models with blood red eyes. The clothes, operated within a strict color palette of black, ashen grey, and a menacing scarlet red. Metallic black patent leather waistcoats paired with sadomasochistic red lace voyeur masks suggested a humorously sobering hardcore aesthetic not geared toward the faint of heart. The somber crackling of burning wood chips over the speakers was quickly offset by a red backdrop that tore open like a gothic portal to reveal a model navigating the asphalt slab runway. The finale of the show was marked by a blaze of fire that encircled a bondage-clad representation of Joan of Arc’s ghost in order to celebrate the power of femininity against the institutionalized machismo of both French military leadership and modern dayreligious institution. While the set reflected the ecclesiastical cell of Joan of Arc and the clothes themselves were given a medieval context, it was apparent that McQueen is contained and operates in a suspended past space as a way to process structural inequalities on the social and economic level.
The Fall/Winter 1999-2000 collection Overlook was based on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shinning. The collection explored the psychological manifestations of haunting set in a simulated tundra. With an actual snowstorm taking place, McQueen’s eerie mannequins maneuvered an arctic plane while Kubrick’s twins, who were murdered by their father in the film adaptation, stared wrathfully at the crowd of onlookers.
“Oh, there have been some right old moments! That show, I had Miguel Adrover chucking more and more snow into the wind machine, with me shouting, ‘More snow, more, more! I want it to be like a snow-shaker!’” -- Alexander McQueen on the Overlook collection
For the Spring/Summer 2001 Asylum collection the audience sat around a mirrored cube forced to stare at themselves for a whole hour. When finally lit from inside, the cube revealed itself to be a mental-hospital holding cell. Demented girls, wearing hospital headbands and everything from extraordinary mussel-shell skirts to impossibly chic pearl-colored cocktail dresses, slithered and strutted while uselessly attempting to fly over the cuckoo's nest. There were gothic, theatrical pieces, like a dress with a miniature castle and rat posing as a shoulder pad; a top made out of a jigsaw puzzle; and a huge feathered creation with stuffed eagles suspended over the model's head, poised to attack à la Hitchcock. But amidst all the insanity, there was a cornucopia of startlingly elegant—and wearable—pantsuits, flouncy party dresses, and even a spectator pump or two.
How to top off such a climactic presentation? After everyone thought it was all over, another cube within the psychiatric ward-cum-runway opened up to reveal a nude Michelle Olley, her face covered by a mask, breathing through a tube, surrounded by fluttering moths. It was a truly shocking and enthralling tableau: Francis Bacon via Leigh Bowery and Lucien Freud. In a word, sublime.
“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.” -- McQueen on forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection for over an hour.
For Autumn/Winter 2002 Supercalifragilistic collection McQueen showed in the eerie medieval hall of the Conciergerie, the place where Marie Antoinette spent her last days, brought out many of the props that have made his shows so theatrical, including torture chamber neck-braces and Clockwork Orange bowler hats, and added a pack of caged wolves, and a stage designed by Director Tim Burton, to set the macabre mood.
“It was kind of Tim Burton, about little girls, a macabre Walt Disney kind of thing. And I had Little Lilac Riding Hood, with the wolves, but the wolves were her pets! Were they wolves? Ha! Mixed breed, I think. Half wolf, half mongrel.” -- Alexander McQueen on the wolves in Supercalifragilistic
The Spring/Summer 2010 collection Plato's Atlantis, was live-streamed on Nick Knight's SHOWstudio.com, intercut with the photographer's premade video footage. That was the plan anyway, but SHOWstudio crashed. Which may have replicated, in a whole new audience, the sensation of a young hopeful stuck outside a McQueen presentation, waving a standing ticket and being unable to get in. McQueen, according to an internal logic detailed in a press release, was casting an apocalyptic forecast of the future ecological meltdown of the world: Humankind is made up of creatures that evolved from the sea, and we may be heading back to an underwater future as the ice cap dissolves. There was a sparkling, illuminated runway in which two sinister, robotic movie cameras on gigantic black booms ran back and forth, while a screen played Knight's video of Raquel Zimmermann, lying on sand, naked, with snakes writhing across her body. Then the models came out, dressed in short, reptile-patterned, digitally printed dresses, their gangly legs sunk in grotesque shoes that looked like the armored heads of a fantastical breed of antediluvian sea monster.
"I didn't plan out my life like that, when people recognize and respect what you do, that's nice, but I don't think you ever do this to be famous. Fame should be left to the film stars. We're just offering a service."