Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Balenciaga: Spanish Master

by Mark Neighbour

This is a review of an exhibition I attended – Balenciaga: Spanish Master – at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute in New York during a recent trip. I have never written about Balenciaga and so have gone off on several tangents of interest to me – if not you as readers. The thoughts I present are my own and open to discussion. I love an exhibition as much as anyone and my thoughts are based upon my own expectations and observations.

The building in which the Spanish Institute resides had once been, I suppose, a private residence, so due to the floor plan the works are split over two levels and in three completely unattached rooms. Here Hamish Bowles – American Vogue’s European Editor at Large and the exhibition curator – has separated the clothes thus; into those inspired by the religious and monastic and those influenced by the flamenco and the bull-ring. The exhibition checklist further breaks these down into Royal Court, Religious Life, Spanish Art, Regional Dress, Dance and the Bullfight. The third room shows no clothes, but offers supporting design ephemera, collection footage, and some glorious original (I assume) mirrors from the Paris maison. Obviously Mr. Bowles had to make the most of the environment he was given and while generally successful, the separation does give the experience an uneven feeling. It will be interesting to see how his bigger Balenciaga exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco fares this (northern) spring.  


In the exhibition brochure, Mr Bowles quotes Diana Vreeland as noting that Balenciaga “remained forever a Spaniard… his inspiration came from the bullrings, the flamenco dancers, the fisherman in their boots and loose blouses, the glories of the Church and the cool of the cloisters and monasteries. He took their colors, their cuts, then festooned them to his own tastes…” Here it appears Mr. Bowles has chosen to edit Mrs. Vreelend’s quote for the sake of the exhibition. In Lesley Ellis Miller’s book Balenciaga this quote reads differently and takes on a slightly patronising tone in its entirety. “…he took these models and colors and, adapting them to his own tastes, literally dressed those who cared about such things for thirty years.” I doubt whether Mrs. Vreeland meant to sound as negative as my interpretation of her quote, but nevertheless hers more appropriately reflects my own experience of the exhibition, as I am never one to get excited about a themed collection, let alone a themed exhibition. Either way, the influence of the Spanish experience upon Balenciaga provides the underlying focus of the exhibition.

It is perhaps generally ignored – or maybe just overlooked – that Balenciaga had already been a successful designer is Spain for twenty years before the Spanish civil war forced him to flee to Paris. The influence of his homeland continued throughout his career although Mr. Bowles argues it became less “overt” and became more “oblique, but no less powerful.” In her review of the exhibition, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times also follows this train of thought and notes that as an older Spaniard working in Paris, a combination of maturity – he was already 42 when he first showed in Paris – and distance amounted to “incredible refinement,” in his design choices. “The influence of regional dress is there in his clothes – and it isn’t.” I like this idea, as it explains that he managed to produce clothes that aren’t costume, but contain the very essence of their inspiration. 

As a sidenote, I also attended the Initiatives in Art and Culture Fashion Conference – Vintage: Value, Values, and Enduring Design; at which Mr. Bowles spoke about his extensive research into the work of Balenciaga under the title of Enduring Design. Talking about the exhibition, it was of course Mr Bowles’ job to point out the Spanish influences and he did so with gusto. His 45 minute timeslot during the conference extended into 75 presenting so many examples that it prompted one guest to ask if they were in fact confirmed as direct influences by the Master himself. Mr Bowles had to admit that he could not say for certain that they were direct references, but the connections where plausible. He did share several interesting stories about putting together the exhibition – one of realising that a hat from his own collection was coincidentally designed for one of the pieces in the show and the fact that the interlining of the 1939 “Infanta” dress from the Balenciaga archive was determined by pencil marks showing fitting notations to be the original toile of the style.

Spain was of course in Balenciaga’s blood, providing him with a huge inherent repertoire of exotic influences. What struck me however, was the general lack of joy in the clothes and their presentation. I have never seen Balenciaga as a particularly joyous designer, but in many instances even the technical aspects of his work can’t override a certain dourness. This is not to say that all on display is dull, but the general gloominess of the spaces and the predominance of black clothes certainly didn’t help. There are several pretty items, but generally the exhibition lacked pizzazz – enough anyway to sell the idea that there is as at least something bubbling below the surface if not popping in your face. It was the same feeling I had reading the book Balenciaga and His Legacy: Haute Couture from the Texas Fashion Collection by Myra Walker. Never a sadder bunch of designer clothes had I ever seen published. I have since noticed that many garments from the exhibition are on loan from the same collection.

I sometimes have the feeling that when Balenciaga is presented to an audience  they are expected to “get” the relevance of his work. I think the general public and even lovers of fashion and its charms don’t always appreciate the technique that makes his work worthy of display and research. And they aren’t helped out here as the somewhat contrived mystique of the house of Balenciaga is perpetuated by Mr. Bowles himself. Plastered over one wall in the “salon” room are quotes boasting of his technical mastery and obsession with detail with the use of phrases like “his hypercritical eye” and “impatiently taking the scissors from the fitter and slashing the dress up the front in the most terrifying manner.” The silliest one comes from Gloria Guinness who claims that “working on the cut of a sleeve, he would neglect all else and go without food or sleep for days and nights.” I certainly appreciate the possibility that this is a true statement, but these quotes appear to be presented as examples of his genius and not reasons for it. Where are the descriptions of the subtle methods by which he could reduce darting, yet still manipulate fabric to hug the figure seductively, or how he could create volume without the underlying bulk of a similar Dior gown?

Cristobal Balenciaga
 One reason for this neglectful state of affairs is perhaps the fact that Balenciaga never gave an interview during his career and only gave one three years after his retirement to English fashion journalist Prudence Glynn in 1971. He justified his reticence by claiming he found it impossible to explain how he worked and that inevitably any discussion of his process would lead to possible comparisons with other designers. Chanel had no such issues and cultivated her own mystique of hard work and obsession with detail and construction. There is a story of her refitting a jacket sleeve seventeen times before she was happy with its hang. I have always seen this however as a sign of slight ineptitude rather than an obsession with construction. It is people who don’t understand the process who are impressed by such statements and Chanel – a genius of marketing – knew this as well as anyone. Even she recognised  Balenciaga’s true talent and stated “Balenciaga alone is a couturier in the truest sense of the word. The others are simply fashion designers.” Dior, in his book, Dior by Dior, charmingly explained every aspect of his creative process, but Dior was a stylist and not a hands-on technician. He also wrote flatteringly of Balenciaga; “Haute couture is like an orchestra, whose conductor is Balenciaga. We other couturiers are the musicians and we follow the directions he gives.”

While these flattering quotes from his peers certainly provided good press, Balenciaga didn’t need the publicity as his collections were commercially successful from the outset. His decision not to sell himself as a brand was further maintained by several other factors. The fact that he chose to show his collections a month after the other Paris designers; that his collections evolved season by season rather than being revolutionary and that he didn’t give his collections titles or individual garments charming names all meant that the fashion press took control of that part of the job for him. As already mentioned, the mystique that developed around the house and the designer himself came from impressions gleaned from clients who rarely had any contact with him and editors who only had limited access and possibly understanding of his creative process – as well as magazines to sell. It was one-time editor of American Vogue, Bettina Ballard, who wrote dramatically of him slashing the garment during a fitting – even though it is a rather standard technique for anyone who drapes on the model.

I would argue that because of this disconnection between the couturier and the press, so much of what Balenciaga created throughout his lifetime became public property upon its unveiling and so was prone to uneducated or lazy interpretation; with his “Spanishness” providing the most obvious point of reference. Despite this, the visual language he decreed was so modern and appropriate to the times in which it was created it is hard to separate it from what clothing has since become. It is perhaps sometimes out of “fashion” but it is never out of place. This is the reason I believe Balenciaga should be hailed a genius. The fact that we can look at his clothes and take them for granted – be almost unimpressed by them. This goes some way in explaining why I think I was unimpressed with Mr. Bowles’ curation. 

In any exhibition of his work, I believe it is up to the curator to find a way for us to be dazzled by the work of Balenciaga. Using the theme of the influence of Spain on his work should have provided us with an experience similar to the same inherent connection between Christian Lacroix and the Camargue or Vivienne Westwood and the history of Britain where a sense of passion and joy is never far from the equation. The exhibition had a solemnity which I suppose was meant to represent reverence, but what Mr Bowles needed to create was an atmosphere in which black meant life, ruffles inspired you to dance, lace spoke of both sex and innocence and where luxury was a promise, not a dream. And to this end, I think he failed.

To make vintage fashion relevant to a modern audience, a certain sense of spectacle has to come into play. It is not simply enough to say that this jacket looks like a suit of lights as worn by a matador, or that the carnation print of a dress represents the national flower of Spain. It has to be so much more than that. I felt the exhibition lacked the context in which the clothing originally appeared and the impression it would have made on the women of the day. 

Balenciaga Edition
 Perhaps I would have gone back for a second look and been more forgiving had I not had to pay $15 to see the show. I did however return several times to Barneys where I had floors of fabulous clothes at my fingertips; including Balenciaga Edition. This secondary line recreates – indeed replicates – garments from the 600 piece Balenciaga archive in the same fabrics and using precisely the construction techniques used in the original couture pieces. Rather than stand behind a glass wall, these clothes could be felt and handled and the secrets of their construction revealed to me without so much as a peep from the sales associates. The context of modern clothing is provided by the store itself, the fashion shows, the myriad ways in which the media presents the garments for public consumption, magazines, television, the internet and the like. Competing against this “free” context, the fashion exhibition has to create its own. Mr Bowles used coloured screens and some photomurals to help in this regard. The church mural was is particularly striking and worked in setting the appropriate scene as well as opening up the visual space within the room. The smaller ones showing art works, matadors, a bullfight and such are also effective, but it was not enough. 


My favourite room is what I have called the “salon” room. It is stark and bright white, clean and simple and quiet. Even the video of the collections playing is silent. Two large reproductions of Balenciaga advertisements feature and one complete wall is papered with a photograph of the Balenciaga salon. Three large photos of two drawings and a model shot of my favourite garment from the show are also featured. The black silk gazar dress, inspired by the abstract paintings of Miró, is perhaps the most “oblique” of the garments in the exhibition and truly shows Balenciaga’s mastery of technique utilising a fabric he had created for him by fabric supplier Abraham. I first saw this dress over twenty years ago at the National Gallery of Victoria and was still startled by its strength and beauty. 

The salon room offers a tiny insight into the creative process and just because Balenciaga didn’t speak about his work, doesn’t mean that secrets can’t be teased out. They are there though, in every seam and every ruffle – or marked inside the garments themselves in pencil as with the “Infanta” dress. The garments are his work and his legacy. Perhaps Mr. Bowles does some teasing in the book that accompanies the exhibition. I didn’t buy the book – later to find it was only available from the Institute – so will give him the benefit of the doubt, but based upon the exhibition itself and the lecture he gave, I doubt it. My advice for someone wanting to get into the heart of Balenciaga is to read Lesley Ellis Miller’s Balenciaga, a truly enlightening read. Her observations on the psychological influence of Spain on his work are much more thought provoking than the simple aesthetic associations of Mr. Bowles. Ultimately however what Balenciaga – Spanish Master does is remind us that, despite our desire to pigeonhole and patronise, haute couture can only exist in a world sans frontières. As novelist Celia Bertin wrote in her book Paris a la Mode of the institution of Balenciaga in 1956:
           “A religious, vaguely oriental atmosphere permeates the apartment. The customers, young or old, have to adapt themselves to a form of elegance which remains foreign to Parisians, even though it is close to whatever it may be that gives Paris its simplicity and restraint. Balenciaga creates for the Paris scene, and his haute couture for the rest of the world consists of clothes which delight women by robbing them of their national traits.”

Balenciaga – Spanish Master continues through February 19, 2011

Mark Neighbour is the first guest writer we've had one yves & piet, a trend we hope to continue. Mark is a Queensland University of Technology Fashion Studio Lecturer and Technician, QUT Masters Graduate and fashion designer with over 20 years industry experience. His design work and research explores the process of fashion design through the potential that exists between the designer, their material and the processes of making. This means he likes people who can make stuff as well as design it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Seeing New York: Part II

by Nadia Buick

 Abingdon Square, New York

72nd Street

Saks 5th Avenue

Subway Moon, 19th Street

W25th St Flea Market

W25th St Flea Market

 Bergdorf Goodman

On the Bowery

Lower East Side

WIndow Collage near 2nd Ave

Monday, August 23, 2010

Seeing New York : Part I

by Nadia Buick

 72nd & Broadway

Macy's Department Store

Dry Cleaner's shop window

Clearview cinema, Chelsea

West Village Clock Shop

The Highline, Chelsea

 The Meatpacking District

American Apparel window display, 19th street

Hell's Kitchen Flea Market

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Body Art

By Louise Martin Chew

Michael Zavros, Phoebe is dead/Mcqueen (2010)

Installation view of Charles Robb’s Total Theory (Vertical) at Dianne Tanzer’s stand at the Melbourne Art Fair. Painting behind is Juan Ford.

Martin Browne Fine Art at Melbourne Art Fair, 2010, with Linde Ivimey’s Bunny in foreground right

Our human relationship with our bodies is unique. Fraught, subject to millions of words, films, studies, it is endlessly psycho-busted, the bane of our cerebral existence. It is the Mercedes Benz Fashion Festival in Brisbane (7-13 August 2010), and clothes, décor for our bodies, are the order of the day, as outfits, shoes and bags are selected. What we wear, how and why, is being discussed and presented with its intrinsically moving personal memories, from now and from history, and what represents style is analysed, researched and dissected. A good, bad, or mediocre day can be utterly dictated (for so many women at the very least), by the reading on the scales in the morning. How we look shapes how we feel and present to ourselves - and others.

The body has also defined visual art since the beginning of time, being the first subject, never exhausted. Today, Michael Zavros’s Phoebe is dead/Mcqueen (2010) took out the Doug Moran Portraiture Prize, Australia’s richest at $150,000, with a painting of his daughter that imagines the worst event that may befall a parent. This highly successful work expresses the body’s ultimate betrayal, an emotional tour de force that, in its execution and its conceptual depth, transcends the personal. (See Art Monthly September 2010) http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2010/08/10/2979325.htm?site=brisbane 

Last week the Melbourne Art Fair began with Bill Henson’s keynote address – his first public comments since the scandal that erupted with his 2008 exhibition at Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney. This scandal was, at its heart, about societal discomfort with the body, stimulated by the teenagers that Henson uses as models in his work. This discomfort is about fear - of nudity, nakedness and sexuality. On one level it renders humans faintly ridiculous. I have the odd surreal moment when I imagine my dog, chickens, and other animals (who observe us as we do them) discussing human necessity for obfuscation about base bodily tendencies.
The standout art works at the Melbourne Art Fair 2010 were also rooted in our complex relationships with the body in their expression of tendencies that are repressed, feared and marvelled at. As rigid as they were claustrophobic were Charles Robb’s new sculptural works in Dianne Tanzer’s stand. These life size figures self portraits dressed in protective suits were made of acrylic resin / hydrocal. The standing figure, Total Theory (Vertical), was encased in a bag drawn tight around the body with the bag open only a few centimetres around the mouth. Another, lying on the floor, was buckled in a frozen spasm, agonised, discomfited and discomfiting.

TrepanierBaer Gallery, from Canada, was one of a handful of international participants, and showed Evan Penny’s superreal, oversized silicon heads. These have a superficial similarity to Ron Mueck’s work, but their sliver thin distortion, only visible as you move around them, took them beyond simple spectacle into a realm of difference. And finally, with moving acknowledgement of the fragility of our bodies, is Linde Ivimey’s Bunny. This figure is also sculptural, constructed with a crafted bone exoskeleton. Her head has ears, a face without defined features but nonetheless portraying humility and acceptance, and she proffered up a liver in an open hand. This work is about bodily betrayal, the unknown that may steal within our organs and strike at our vitality. Yet Bunny seems patiently forgiving, acknowledging the body’s power. Intriguingly, all three of these works are self portraits.

There was quality and diversity in the art, and all the (usual) fun of the fair. But importantly, after a difficult year in the visual arts, there was also a real sense of vitality in its reception, with sales beginning with the Vernissage and continuing steadily throughout the four days. Perhaps this was influenced to some extent by the political vow from all parties, during an election, to overturn the recommendation of the Cooper Review to ban art for self-managed superannuation funds. Or perhaps it was as much GFC fatigue. Art in Australia has an audience and a devoted group is weary of negatives and keen to commit.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Valentino: a grand entrance?

by Nadia Buick

I was lucky enough today to get a first look at Valentino, Retrospective: Past/Present/Future at the Gallery of Modern Art. It was the media preview and we were welcomed by Tony Ellwood, the Gallery's director, along with QLD Premier Anna Bligh and Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator at Les Arts Decoratifs, where the exhibition originally showed in Paris. Golbin gave an impressively quiet speech about meeting 'Mr.Valentino' and embarking on the large task of curating her hugely successful and considerably larger exhibition, Valentino: Themes and Variations, in 2008. While much smaller, the selection we're seeing in Brisbane is still a big one: 100 dresses that take up the entire lower floor of GoMA. 

But the speeches came after we were allowed to enter the exhibition. When the doors of the gallery space opened and we were ushered in, things looked promising. A red strapless dress from Valentino's first couture collection, in 1959, stands dramatically in-front of several panelled mirrors. The effect was beautifully dramatic; just what I had hoped for. Before I say anything else, I want to say how amazing it is to see these garments. They are spectacular. Not having them behind glass (as they were in Paris) makes details so visible that you get a real sense of how these garments were made, and what they might feel like to wear. This is, in my opinion, a great thing for the audience, who can feel distanced from exhibitions of fashion that separate the viewer from the clothes themselves.

In her speech, Pamela Golbin said that when she met Valentino to discuss her curation of an exhibition of his work, he basically said "You're a curator, and I'm a designer. You do your job, and I do mine." He left her alone to select the garments she felt best represented his work. Quite a gesture for such a star of the fashion world (and a slap in the face to critics who say that you can't have single name designer exhibitions without them compromising curatorial integrity). But it brings me to something I want to say about fashion curation. The selection of garments, for me, is only part of the job. Personally, exhibition design is as important to me as a curator, and is something I work on simultaneously to other curatorial tasks. It's a shame that the exhibition design of Valentino was seemingly non existent, because I can't imagine a better time to go all-out.

For those of you who saw GoMA's Easton Pearson exhibition, you may notice a pattern emerging. In that show, Easton Pearson's brightly coloured garments were contrasted against a sea of light grey walls and mannequins. This worked quite well to highlight the pattern, colour and detail of Easton Pearson's work. In the case of Valentino, the walls are predominantly a very dark charcoal, at times seeming close to black. What was perhaps dramatic in the Paris exhibition seems blank in the large, open space of GoMA. I felt like I was in a void, and rather than showcasing the opulence and excitement of the clothes themselves, I felt many of them had to fight to resist being sucked into the darkness. The sections that worked the best were those set against white, including Valentino's famous 'White Collection' from the late 1960s, which was a highlight for me. Also, the white section in the middle of the main room was incredibly striking and showcased the garments so well.

Tonight I went to the official opening and started to feel like perhaps I was being too harsh a critic; everyone kept raving about how beautiful it all was. But what is beautiful is the clothes themselves, and they tell us something about the entire world that creates them. The house of Valentino (and everyone that helps to realise these entirely hand-made garments) is driven by the desire to make women beautiful. Valentino says this about his work continually. Beauty is important. It's valuable, and it makes an impact. Beautiful things thrive when displayed in beautiful settings, whether on the runway, in a showroom...  or in an art gallery.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Alexander McQueen: fearless beauty

by Nadia Buick

On the 21st of July I gave a talk about Alexander McQueen with Kathleen Horton at the QUT Art Museum, Brisbane. What follows is a copy of my part of the talk, along with some images I displayed. Alison also managed to grab a few photos of the attendees, which I'll post at the end. Hopefully this will give a bit of an insight into the night for those who couldn't make it.

Alexander McQueen, S/S 2003

The suicide of Lee Alexander McQueen in February this year was an immense shock to me, and I think probably to many others as well, and in light of this it could be quite easy to make this talk an exaggerated celebration of the designer’s so called ‘genius’. Indeed, we have seen a lot of this kind of thing since his death. Personally I try to avoid contributing to these kinds of narratives, but it should be matter-of-factly stated that McQueen was a very significant designer whose work had an immense impact on the fashion industry, and fashion history. Furthermore, the circumstances of his death will inevitably forever colour the way his legacy is discussed. Many of you probably know that McQueen chose to take his own life following the death of his mother, Joyce, to cancer, nine days earlier. McQueen died on the 11th of February, aged only 40. The details of his death are easy enough to find, but I’ll leave that to you, if you wish to know. It was an horrific ending to a career which was based on a kind of horrific beauty.

I’m prefacing this talk with this sad ending, but it’s not really what I want to discuss tonight, because before the sadness of McQueen’s death took hold, he was always known as a kind of provocateur, a conjurer of spectacles and beauty, a kind of precocious, if freakishly talented, child. Someone who shocked and constantly created a particular vision of women which I think has been incredibly influential. But I think it’s also important to remember that for a long time there was a lot of hostility towards McQueen’s vision, particularly among those who saw McQueen’s representations of women as highly problematic, even misogynistic. 

Alexander McQueen, S/S 2001

What I want to do tonight is give you a very brief overview of his career and also highlight some of his key aesthetic directions as I see them. I also want to discuss some of the main criticisms that he consistently encountered. This overview will give way for an exploration of the cut in Western fashion by Kath Horton. Kath and I are delivering this talk in two parts. Mine is a fairly standard biographical approach, but hopefully not a reductionist one. I’ll be showing a lot of images and trying to give you a sense of the aesthetic strands that can be linked throughout his collections. Kath has taken a more philosophical approach to her half of the talk. We hope both of these will complement each other and welcome your comments or questions.

Born Lee Alexander McQueen in 1969, in East London, a lot has been made of McQueen’s working class background. He was himself a very hard worker, but this is not necessarily down to his origins, and he often stated that he basically always wanted to be some kind of fashion designer or tailor, and from a very young age knew this would be his life direction. He went to an all boy’s school and would often tell stories of constantly drawing and designing, while the other boys just left him alone to do so. And while this was clearly a dream, it would be impossible for McQueen to imagine just how successful he would become. Certainly in his own country, McQueen was the most famous and well known fashion designer of his time. His rise to fame was very quick, but then again he began at a remarkably young age. He left high school at 16, and went to Saville Row to become an apprentice after his mother, Joyce, saw a news item about the dire lack of apprentices and the uncertain future of the famous tailoring district. McQueen went down there with no experience and began working as an apprentice for four years. At this time he also worked for theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans and continued to hone his pattern making skills. At the age of 20, he went to work with Koji Tatsuno, before literally hopping on a plane to Milan with the intention of working for Romeo Gigli, one of the biggest names in fashion during the 1980s. He apparently went to the designer’s office with his self-described ‘worst’ portfolio (full of costume design) and left without a job, only to be chased down the street by the secretary who said Romeo wanted to see him, and was hired. This job lasted about two years before he headed back to London, now with a considerable repertoire of skills and a considerably better portfolio.

 Isabella Blow

When told, the McQueen history is generally begun with his 1992 graduate collection from the famous Central Saint Martins college in London, but it’s amazing to think that prior to his admission to their Masters Course, McQueen had already been working in fashion for close to eight years, even though he was only 23. In fact, when he went to Central Saint Martins it was to look for some teaching work, but instead he was encouraged to enrol in their Masters program. He had no formal qualifications, but his talent and remarkable drive were clearly apparent. From then on, his path seemed quite set. His graduate collection was purchased in its entirety by Isabella Blow, a stylist and fashion director for Tatler, who really took it upon herself to promote McQueen as a future heavyweight. Blow herself developed a reputation for spotting talent after discovering model Sophie Dahl and milliner Phillip Treacy. The story of Blow buying McQueen’s entire collection sounds very glamorous, but in fact Blow paid off the £5000 for the collection in weekly instalments of £100. But from then on, McQueen and Blow became a formidable force, and her influence undoubtedly helped to secure a lot of attention for McQueen. They remained close friends, with Blow becoming a kind of muse to McQueen. She also took her own life, committing suicide in 2007.

Givenchy Haute Couture, 1997

In 1996, aged only 27, McQueen was appointed head designer at the historically iconic French Haute Couture label, Givenchy. While at Givenchy, he also continued to produce collections under his own Alexander McQueen label. It’s not surprising then that McQueen’s position as one of the most influential designers of his time was arrived at so quickly. He remained at Givenchy until 2001. In 2000, the Gucci Group purchased 51% of the McQueen company, with McQueen himself remaining as creative director. This injection of a major financial fashion brand meant that the McQueen brand could expand, with McQueen stores opening in London, New York and Milan. By that time, the McQueen label was producing women’s and men’s ready to wear collections, plus eyewear and fragrance. McQueen also launched his McQ label in 2006, aimed at a younger market and at a lower price point. Suffice to say, his workload was enormous.

It’s easy now to think that McQueen was always a highly respected designer, but that simply isn’t the case. This kind of re-writing of history often takes place when an artist or designer dies. His first collection for Givenchy was universally slammed by the fashion industry. And even under his own label, acceptance was hard won over a period of years in which he endured consistent criticisms of misogyny and other damning insults.

Alexander McQueen, S/S 1994

McQueen’s early collections, despite the support of significant figures like Blow, were attacked. The Independent labelled his second collection ‘McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty,’ and pointed to ‘violent lives and battered women’. In fact the collection was in keeping with a sophisticated aesthetic that has since become the McQueen trademark. The themes and ideas of McQueen’s collections were consistent throughout his career, with regular motifs that I suppose could be loosely termed ‘gothic’. He made use of imagery surrounding the natural world and death, including reference to animals such as butterflies and birds, as well as deer (often the victims of hunting) and later he used images of the skull, which has now been so appropriated it is almost shorthand for McQueen. There is also a kind of grand, or ‘royal’ look to a lot of his collections, along with a number of approaches over the years to armour, and the use of colours such as red, gold, black and white. It’s not surprising that most of his influences came from outside of fashion, in anatomical drawings; with their precision and finely cut rendering of the human body, along with the work of artists such as photographer Joel Peter Witkin, whose religious tableaux often use human corpses to create a shocking vision. With time, some fashion writers began to understand the layering of historical references with McQueen’s own interest in darkness and complex interpretations of beauty; but in the early days he was accused time and time again of misogyny. The hostility aimed towards McQueen continued as his aesthetic remained consistently powerful, and his shows highly spectacular. Probably the most notorious example of this came in 1995, with his fifth collection, titled Highland Rape. Fashion theorist Caroline Evans describes the collection which ‘mixed military jackets with torn and brutally ravaged lace dresses and ripped skirts. On a runway strewn with heather bracken McQueen’s staggering and blood-spattered models appeared wild and distraught, their breasts and bottoms exposed by tattered laces and torn suedes, jackets with missing sleeves, and skin-tight rubber trousers and skirts cut so low at the hip they seemed to defy gravity.’

Alexander McQueen, The 'Highland Rape' collection, 1995

Along with McQueen’s track record as a provocateur and the word ‘rape’ in the title, he had opened himself up to an absolute outpouring of criticism which ignored the intention of the collection entirely. The rape that McQueen was referencing was in fact an historical and political one; that of Scotland at the hands of Britain. McQueen stated that ‘I wanted to show that the war between the Scottish and the English was basically genocide.’  What early collections like this establish is McQueen’s take on history and beauty: he was not the kind of designer to pursue romantic revisions of the past for the sake of fashion like, for example, his contemporary John Galliano. McQueen’s aesthetic drew on a history of humanity as one of cruelty and violence, and it’s not surprising that the press didn’t know what to make of this. The fashion industry had always been about beautiful women in different versions of beautiful clothes. The challenge of what McQueen presented was its complexity, and harshness. Unable to dismiss his work due to its clear technical brilliance, but at the same time completely shocked by its brutality, most journalists simply saw his vision, for a long time, as one of hostility towards women. But McQueen himself repeatedly stated that it was his intention to create women who were so strong and almost terrifying that men wouldn’t dare to touch them. This attitude was undoubtedly informed by a childhood incident in which McQueen witnessed his sister being severely beaten by her husband. It is not surprising then that the term ‘misogynist’ was particularly difficult for him to take.

Alexander McQueen, A/W 2003

But as the trauma and power of McQueen’s aesthetic became more and more at home in the world of fashion in which he was reigning, the attitude towards his work began to shift. I think it’s interesting to note that his old collections no longer appear terribly shocking, but many of them do look very contemporary. The attitude to his work did eventually change; I don’t know that it’s because fashion journalists finally ‘got it’; it could be that, while terrifying, McQueen’s work was still overwhelmingly beautiful. It was a different kind of beauty, and one that took some time to get used to, but its unsettling strength pervaded. It was a beauty that was both fearful, and fearless. And as the years went on, McQueen’s use of the spectacular in his runway shows became more and more dramatic.  In what were to become his last runway shows, the level of spectacle reached an almost mythical proportion. 

Alexander McQueen, A/W 2009

His last collection of womenswear was being finished at the time of his suicide, and was shown in a beautiful setting a month later; a small salon in Paris with only a very small group of editors present. It was a very sad ending to what had always seemed like such a strong drive forward. While this introduction has been brief, what I wanted to achieve was perhaps a slight rebalance in the way we remember McQueen’s career. He wasn’t a romantic designer, so I don’t think we should romanticise his career, or his work… but to say something is beautiful doesn’t have to mean it’s somehow less challenging, or less provocative. McQueen, for me, managed both.

Alexander McQueen, A/W 2010 - The 'final collection'.

I want to finish my part of the talk by simply and quietly showing you a body of images from McQueen’s runway collections over the last fifteen years. I have two reasons for this; one, because I see it as a kind of respectful gesture, and two because I think it is the work itself which speaks the loudest and clearest about his incredibly powerful aesthetic vision. I’ll finish this with some images of his last collection of womenswear; for me its his most beautiful.

Some photos from the night - 

Ingrid Richards and Mark Neighbour

Alison Kubler & Christie Nicolaides

 Christie Nicolaides, Ingrid Richards and Nadia Buick

Looking at Material  Memories: restaging the eCHO project

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Conversation with Akira Isogawa

There's a new date for my conversation with the wonderful Akira Isogawa, it's now during MBFF. Take a look a and book now, seating is limited!

Fleet of foot

by Louise Martin-Chew

20 July 2010
Last night I watched a woman unmask in public. She swooned, swayed, danced, sang, hummed, bopped, stamped her (bare) foot, feigned, and looked alternately brooding, evil (aka the bad Big Baby in Toy Story 3), animalistic and ecstatic. Her demeanour was variously intense, casual, relaxed, engaged – as was the audience who went with her on this uncharted, uninhibited journey. However it wasn’t Pink or Lady Gaga or any other popular music luminary. Nor was this event at a mass entertainment venue. Instead the instrument was a violin and the place the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. The Barefoot Fiddler (Australian Chamber Orchestra, Brisbane, 19 July 2010) was Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a 33 year old Moldovan violinist, who says, “I don’t feel the heavy weight of tradition; I’m not in a corset! I use the tradition to find the inspiration of creation. It’s not a cage.” (ACO 2010 Barefoot Fiddler program) http://www.aco.com.au/Default.aspx?url=/kopatchinskaja

Patricia Kopatchinskaja

This was contemporary artistry in an environment more often served by convention: Kopatchinskaja handled her violin like a virtuoso, making sounds that Vivaldi may not have intended with her violin, yet they channeled the spirit of his music across the centuries. This artistry had exhilarating edginess, bearing an unexpected gift. From an experience like these passions are born, revisited, and bound into new fabric.

Three individuals with artistic passions that have been generously shared with a greater public were recognized at a function at the Gold Coast Arts Centre on July 17. Patrick and Barbara Corrigan and Mrs Win Schubert were honoured for their commitment to contemporary Australian visual art. The dinner with friends, a tribute film by Alex Chomicz, and their collecting legacies remain visible in the Gold Coast City Art Collection (and many others).

Alex Chomicz, Benefactors Dinner for Patrick and Barbara Corrigan and Mrs Win Schubert. Patrick Corrigan with Mrs Schubert

However this was not an ending to the rewarding partnerships – indeed Pat Corrigan has had more manifestations as a collector than most cats have had lives – but an acknowledgement that benefaction in Australia is precious, although as a phenomenon it is growing. The gifts from these three individuals to their local gallery have enriched the experience of the community and visitors. The Gold Coast City Art Collection punches above its weight. http://www.theartscentregc.com.au/pages/support-us.php

Alex Chomicz, Benefactors Dinner for Patrick and Barbara Corrigan and Mrs Win Schubert. 82 Friends and supporters

It’s notable though that in recent years individuals have not simply donated works to public institutions, with more private museums showing personal collections springing up around Australia. Since 2000 we have seen the uber-stylish Tarrawarra Museum of Art outside Melbourne, the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney and, due to open at the end of 2010, is the heavyweight of them all – the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. And there are others.

The reasons for opening the doors yourself to the public instead of passing the objects into the hands of Australia’s state and national institutions may relate more to changes in government policy (philanthropic measures announced in March 1999) than to burgeoning gallerists, although it is an adventure that may be difficult to resist. Impassioned collectors are completed by the sharing of them – with a discerning audience. And there are inspirational international precedents – my personal favourite is Peggy Guggenheim’s house museum in Venice. http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/default.html

Peggy Guggenheim

The size of the collection of European and American art is neatly accommodated within domestic scaled spaces, the quality is breathtaking, and the ability to spend time in Peggy’s favoured home (Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal), with her beloved dogs buried under tombstones in the garden, gives a real sense of her own life rhythms, and the passion that stalks humanity looking for something other.