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

1 comment:

Joanne said...

Wow, I wish I could have seen this talk-- but I am grateful that you posted it here! Thank you, really thoughtful and provocative. Great read.