Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Alexander McQueen.
It’s hard to sum up the collective impact of Alexander McQueen in mere words. The inspiration for his clothing, and the presentation of his designs, came from the depths of his innermost being, colored by an introspective and idiosyncratic nature that imbued his work with the emotional weight of fine art. His goal was to assault the room with a theme and a message (and not always a pretty or nice one) that would elicit reactions and make people feel—whether positively or negatively—often using his own personal growth and journeys as source material, which led his collections to be extremely autobiographical. At the heart of it all, he was also exceptionally talented as a designer and craftsman.
“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.”
Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London in 1969. He dropped out of school at age 16, and after encouragement from his mother (one of his biggest role models) he applied for a job on Savile Row and got an apprenticeship with Anderson & Sheppard, tailors for the British Royal Family at the time. He then moved down “The Row” to Gieves & Hawkes, where he learned military tailoring, before taking a position as a theatrical costumer. In London, he worked for Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno before moving to Rome to work for Romeo Gigli.
Without any formal training besides his esteemed apprenticeships, he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1992, and his graduate collection—based on the character of Jack the Ripper—was purchased in its entirety by stylist Isabella Blow, who eventually became McQueen’s unofficial PR spokesperson, muse, and one of his closest friends. It has been said that her suicide in 2007, along with his mother’s death on February 2, 2010, pushed McQueen into such a dark place that he took his own life nine days later.
Throughout his career, Alexander McQueen was named British Designer of the Year four times (1996, 1997, 2001, and 2003). Also in 2003, he was named Commander of the British Empire, and won CFDA’s International Designer of the Year award. He cut his own patterns and was known for designing in 3D—draping, cutting, and fitting the fabric on a model or mannequin before scanning the pattern into a computer. The extreme theatricality of his famed runway shows, which featured models walking through rain, snow, fire, and often required them to act rather than just strut down a runway, led him to garner a reputation as a performance artist-cum-fashion designer. He also chose to work with nontraditional, organic, and technologically advanced “fabrics” including clam shells, burlap sacks, flowers, feathers, hair, animal skins, bubble wrap made from synthetic silk, and neoprene, to name but a few.
His retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, features 100 ensembles and 70 accessories that encapsulate his 19-year career as designer of his own label, as well as featured pieces from his stint as head designer at Givenchy. The exhibit, curated by Andrew Bolton, explores his ongoing courtship with Romanticism and the Sublime through six sections.
“The Romantic Mind” focuses on his methods of cutting and construction, heavily influenced by his training as a tailor. “Romantic Gothic” reveals the contrasting themes of light and dark/life and death, which were continuously explored in his designs. “Romantic Nationalism” highlights his obsession with his Scottish heritage and the British Empire, and “Romantic Exoticism” focuses on the pieces that were inspired by “exotic” faraway places or the national dress of other regions around the world, like the kimono, for example. “Romantic Naturalism” dives into McQueen’s preoccupation with organic forms and materials, while “Romantic Primitivism” focuses on the raw aspect of nature, perhaps seen most obviously in his final collection: Plato’s Atlantis S/S 2010, inspired by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
An addendum section, “Cabinet of Curiosities,” features video highlights of several of his runway shows and presents hats designed in collaboration with milliners Philip Treacy and Dai Rees, as well as accessories designed by Shaun Lee, Erik Halley, and Sarah Harmarnee.
The exhibition broke the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s attendance records with 5,500 visitors on opening day (the previous record holder was a Vincent van Gogh exhibition in 2005), and the exhibition’s run has been extended through August 7th to meet popular demand. Find out about special viewings on Mondays here.
If you go, expect to wait in line at least 45 minutes and navigate your way through throngs of people to see the clothing and accessories up close. That being said, the experience of being in the presence of such craftsmanship, shocking beauty, and graceful tragedy is definitely worth the wait. If you’re not able to attend the retrospective, we’ve highlighted some major moments in Alexander McQueen’s career and a selection of quotations that explain his ingenuity, undying passion, and eternal presence and influence on the fashion world.
Taxi Driver A/W 93-94: The “Bumster” trouser
Photo courtesy of Style.com
Remember the low rise jean trend of the 90s? It was in fact spurred by McQueen with the “bumster” trouser—created in order to elongate the torso, not showcase the buttox.
“[I design from the side,] that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cut and a proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.”
Highland Rape A/W 95-56
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce
This collection, which spoke on England’s “rape” of Scotland, established McQueen’s career, featuring torn lace, sheer fabrics, and Scottish tartan.
“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.”
No. 13 S/S 1999
The finale of this collection featured two robotic arms spraying a spinning model with black and yellow paint. A staging of this moment has been recreated in Savage Beauty.
“People find my things sometimes agressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.”
It’s Only A Game S/S 2005
Inspired by the chess scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, models were arranged on a giant life-size chess board juxtaposing the East (Japan) against the West (America).
“Fashion should never be politically correct, otherwise it wouldn’t be revolutionary.”
Widows Of Culloden A/W 06-07
Supermodel Kate Moss, one of McQueen’s close personal friends, appeared outfitted in organza as a ghastly hologram. A reproduction of this hologram is also featured in the exhibition.
“I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
Platos Atlantis S/S 2010
Lady Gaga wears several outfits from this collection, the last one before McQueen’s death, in her video for “Bad Romance,” including the infamous “Armadillo” shoe. This collection was the first to be live-streamed over the internet.
“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I’m dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Editor’s note: The quotations and biographical information in this article have been pulled from the exhibit’s accompanying book Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty also by Andrew Bolton. Unless credited otherwise, all photos are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.