Most awful shock from fashion's king of edge
Alexander McQueen's suicide has robbed us of a genius who had so much more to offer, says fashion editor Constance Harris
Published 14/02/2010 | 05:00
SHOCKED, shocked, shocked. Those are the only words to describe how the fashion industry feels about the appalling news that 'Lee' Alexander McQueen died last week at the age of 40, the day before his mother was due to be buried. And just three years after the sad death of his friend and mentor, Isabella Blow, also in her 40s.
McQueen was a genius and his death is not just a loss, it is a deprivation of a vital element, like blood, to our well-being.
Like Jonathan Philbin Bowman, another genius who died tragically young, McQueen was brilliant and challenging and uncomfortable, awesome and intimidating and wonderfully exciting. His existence seemed to be a constant expression of the tension and struggle of the human experience, and the soul's desire for creation. Because his medium was fashion, we all got to witness that struggle -- his clothing designs and his fashion shows taught the rest of the world that for all their sophistication, their imaginations were limited, their attitude passive.
I truly wonder had it not been for McQueen's first dramatic, highly conceptual, provoking fashion shows in London in the mid-Nineties, when he was only in his mid-20s, would the awesome fin-de-siecle extravaganzas that came out of Paris in the years 1997 to 2002 have actually happened?
Would the film Moulin Rouge have been conceptualised? Would we have known to reach for fantasy and darkness and love in our fashion and our lives?
McQueen's vision was like Byron, Mary Shelley, Delacroix and Dante's Inferno, all in one.
Born in London, the youngest of six children, he grew up in a tower block.
Aged 16, he went to Saville Row and trained as a tailor. His brilliance was recognised by several employers, but he found his way to Central St Martins School of Art and Design, and though he had only one O-level he was persuaded to do the masters course. St Martins took him in and in its unique, gruelling, way, helped a rough stone reveal that its true form was a diamond.
It was there that he was spotted by Bjork and Isabella Blow, the great mentor and stylist for, amongst others, 'The Sunday Times Style Magazine' -- in those days one of the most important fashion and culture publications around.
Blow had an affinity with troubled talent. Seemingly contradictorily, her own delicate nature appeared to ground and stabilise those she took under her wing. She was brilliant at showing tentative, incoherent, highly sensitive talents what they had, and different ways of seeing what their brilliance could do. Though there were many she helped -- in fact, it was an entire generation in the Nineties -- it was Philip Treacy and Lee McQueen who were her babies. Following her death, the two men joined forces in creating a show at Paris Fashion Week to honour her, and it seemed to all who saw Philip and Alexander take the catwalk, that they were OK about their loss.
Back in the mid-Nineties, when McQueen first identified himself, the world was coming out of a long recession. Fashion was celebrating and was in the midst of a Boho love affair -- all clashing colour, blowy blouses, embellishment, feathers and rock-chick frou-frou. It was a massively soft, sensual but unstructured trend that seemed to go on for years.
In 1995, a new name, Alexander McQueen, then just 25, came kicking the entire industry in the teeth with hard-edged tailoring, the relentless use of black, punk f***-you disrespect and the most gothic, dramatic, sexually incorrect, blood-thirsty fashion shows imaginable.
To me, a young woman forming her own crusade against fashion's sizism, and, in the mid-Nineties, its newly emerging ageism, though I could admire McQueen's talent, I hated the attitude he exhibited towards women and femininity. He called his shows things such as Highland Rape; he cut trousers so butt cracks were revealed, and the word 'bumster' entered our vocabulary. He spilled blood on garments, dressed them with blades, chains and metal, and used models with no limbs, which was shocking in those days.
I thought he was a misogynist, and the fact that he was so popular -- paving the way for other young designers to portray equally aggressive, angry and violent attitudes towards women in the clothing they were supposedly making for us -- led me to take a stance against the dominant view and popularity for McQueen.
To my great sadness, I got to see only one of his shows live. I believe word of my attitude towards his work led me to being denied tickets -- and after one humiliating instance, I stopped asking. I didn't blame him or his organisation. He knew his worth.
But McQueen conquered London and the international press very fast. He realised the limitations of a city that, in fashion terms, was brilliant but not wealthy. He took the bold move of leaving a place he could do no wrong to head up a troubled house of haute couture, Givenchy.
There he was viewed as an interloper, an upstart, an abomination. Though his time there was not necessarily viewed as a commercial success, he turned the reputation of that fuddy-duddy house into a name to be reckoned with today.
In Paris, McQueen met genius craftsmen and craftswomen. Givenchy had turned into a poisoned chalice so he left and to keep going, keep designing, keep creating; he sold his name to the Gucci group to finance his ambitions. People in the industry thought it was a too-desperate move for a genius not yet 30. In selling his name, it meant that if he fell out with the Gucci group, as Jil Sander did with Prada, he would have to walk away and leave his name behind.
But though roughly outspoken and blunt, McQueen never commented negatively about the deal. He did what he always did, which was follow his creative need -- and it wanted to do amazing things in Paris, where the skills were to execute his creativity and ambitions.
At the fin de siecle, Paris, a city that had lost sight of itself since the Second World War, was reborn and became the centre of the fashion universe. It was Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Jean-Paul Gaultier who delighted and taunted and amazed us with their shows and brilliance and marked the end of the millennium with optimism and brilliance as we stepped into the next. For the first time ever, fashion was seen by the whole world, and not just by fashion people, as being something truly amazing, artistic and culturally important.
I feel truly privileged that I lived through this era in fashion, for we shall not see its like again. I highly recommend you spend some time on the net looking over his shows from 1997 through to 2002.
But the post-millennium years were a severe anti-climax for designers.
McQueen spotted that people had enough of excess. He did a hugely surprising thing -- he went commercial (and many serious fashion mavens did not forgive him). He did, in fact, what I had wanted him to do in the Nineties -- he created body-loving clothes. It was he that really brought the Hitchcock femme-fatale look back into our fashion vocabulary. But not with the matchy-matchyness of say Prada's tweedy, bejeweled, two-piece suits, or the sanitised sexuality of Roland Mouret's galaxy dresses. Like Hitchcock, McQueen brought his sexually ambivalent attitude with him and put it out there so the clothes as ever, were mad, bad and dangerous to know.
But commerciality does not earn you the kind of column inches you get when you are shocking people. So though still massively important, McQueen seemed to go quiet. Also the prevalence of the Boho look that had from its early origins, in the last decade, evolved into 'Sex And The City' inane frou-frou, rendered a guy like him with his scalpel sharp shoulder lines and cleaver-like long coats, as persona non gratis in a fashion world determined to be little girls dressing out of a theatre box.
His business carried on, and stores such as Brown Thomas in Dublin knew that he had a loyal following and that his tailoring couldn't be beaten. And unlike the Yves St Laurents and Pradas, whose prices seemed to triple in a five-year period, McQueen kept his collections very affordable by his contemporaries' standards. Three years ago, he launched McQ, his only diffusion line, which was the first real challenger to Vivien Westwood's grip on hip diffusion lines with a punk edge.
Last year, as I watched closely fashion's slow but sure return to tailoring and black, I felt that it was time for a McQueen revival. I felt sure he was incubating something. He could not be quiet for too long, especially in times that required a good kick in the pants for passivity, fatality and blandness.
And at 39, he was still not even halfway through his expected life span. Despite the wonders of Alexander McQueen in the Nineties and in the last decade, I truly, truly, believed, expected, depended on, Alexander McQueen's second coming.
Now I know we shall never see it. My pal, Gaby Rooney, texted me on Thursday night, the day we learnt McQueen died and said it best: "Long live the King McQueen. Shocking sad news. At least the angels in heaven and the cool kids in hell are gonna be sharper dressed. May he beautifully shock in peace."