Two new books capture the dark brilliance of Alexander McQueen

From Alexander McQueen’s S/S ’99 catwalk show

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It’s a testament to Alexander McQueen’s distinctive genius that five years after his death, writers and curators continue to pore over the dazzling catwalk collections he left behind in an attempt to explain how an awkward, argumentative, scruffy son of a cab-driver from London’s East End raised the bar for self-expression through the design of clothes.

There’s plenty to analyse. McQueen was always clear that his collections were deeply autobiographical — “my heart is in my work” he once said” — but like any great artistic oeuvre, they were also contradictory, open-ended and constantly mutating. How can the same person who came up with the ethereal image of a holographic Kate Moss dancing in air above a catwalk as layers and layers of ivory organza billowed around her also be responsible for transparent corsets filled with live worms?

McQueen was celebrated in life, with four British Designer of the Year awards, an International Designer of the Year Award and a CBE, but since his untimely passing at the age of just 40, his work has been cherished and examined like never before. An exhibition dedicated to the designer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Savage Beauty, drew record crowds and critical acclaim in 2011. If there were any doubts thatMcQueen’s eponymous fashion house would falter without him, they were answered two weeks before the show opened, when Kate Middleton married Prince William in a trailing, lace-and-satin wedding gown designed by Sarah Burton, McQueen’s replacement as creative director of the company. There are currently stores selling Alexander McQueenready-to-wear and clothing from McQ, the house’s diffusion line for a more street-savvy clientele, in 15 countries around the world; the UAE, China and the UK are the only places you can find both.

This year, the tributes to McQueen continue. Savage Beauty will go on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in March, and this month, two books are published that address the designer’s life and legacy: ‘Alexander McQueen,’ by the British journalist and veteran biographer Andrew Wilson, and ‘Gods and Kings’ by American fashion writer Dana Thomas, which looks at the intertwining fates of McQueen and his great rival, John Galliano.

Both books combine original research with a narrative that is already familiar to fans:McQueen’s tumultuous working-class upbringing as the youngest of six siblings, his stints working as a pattern cutter on Savile Row and as an apprentice at the atelier of master couturier Romeo Gigli in Milan, his acceptance into the Fashion MA programme at the London art school Central St Martin’s, and his subsequent rise to head of the iconic Parisian fashion house Givenchy.

From the A/W '14 collection

From the A/W ’14 collection

Each biography, however, martials this information to tell a different story. Thomas focuses on McQueen the artist, placing him in the context of a rapidly commercialising fashion business and showing how his ascent coincided with a golden age in which designers were not only capable of sparking a media frenzy; they were also given the freedom to explore the wildest ideas their imaginations could muster. Wilson’s subject, on the other hand, is the man known by those close to him by his legal first name, Lee. The author uses in-depth interviews with family members to explore the darkness that haunted McQueen and informed his designs. In Thomas’s account, it was fashion that destroyed McQueen; in Wilson’s, it was his past.

Clothes were always an obsession for McQueen. At the age of three, as both books tell us, he was drawing fairytale princesses in shimmering gowns on the wall of his council house in Stratford, and a few years later he was advising his sisters about how to put together a cohesive look. He hated school, where he’d do nothing but doodle designs for dresses, and he left with just one O Level, in art.

The education he went on to receive in esteemed tailor’s establishments, European ateliers and art school was a testament to his unwavering obsession with style. When it was time to put together his graduation show at Saint Martin’s, he knew how to cut and tailor a piece perfectly, but what made him stand out was his idiosyncratic and deeply personal artistic voice. He spoke through his clothes, according to Wilson, who reminds us that McQueen once said that “the shows are about what’s buried in people’s psyches.”

What was buried in McQueen’s psyche, Wilson finds, was the pain that came not only from having a terse father who didn’t understand his sensitive son, but also from the violent, abusive husband of his sister Janet, at whose hands both siblings suffered.

It was because of these early experiences, the writer suggests, that McQueen’s work often incorporated imagery associated with death and decay, and that he wanted the women he dressed to look powerful. Although he made plenty of breathtakingly beautiful gowns during his career, McQueen’s models assembled warriors, aliens and threatening human-animal hybrids more often than they did princesses. “I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naive,” he once said. “I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”

From S/S '08 collection

From S/S ’08 collection

McQueen’s Central Saint Martin Master’s show was titled Jack The Ripper Stalks his Victims, and featured thorn prints on pink silk and calico skirts with burn marks on them. It was the beginning of a therapeutic exploration of angst and beauty that would reach its apex in later catwalk shows, featuring models in head bandages trapped in a room of one-way mirrors, hobbled by shackles attached at the knee and elbow, smeared in scary clown make-up or wearing mouthpieces with tusk-like spikes that curved up to the eyes and down to the chin.

The tone of Wilson’s bio can be gossipy, dwelling on relationships, spats and bad behaviour, but it offers depth when it comes to McQueen’s close relationship with his mother, Joyce, and with the aristocratic stylist Isabella Blow, who became McQueen’s most vociferous champion and closest friend after buying the entirety of his graduation collection.

Thomas’s tone is more measured and intellectual, and she has a knowledge of couture that’s both deep and broad. While she outlines the personal histories of both McQueenand Galliano, what interests her is fitting them into the sweep of fashion history, and telling a cautionary tale about what’s happening to the industry.

When McQueen was graduating in the mid-Nineties, she points out, vaunted French and Italian fashion houses were just beginning to shift away from their roots as family-run businesses catering to a niche elite, and turning into billion-dollar companies owned by tycoons. The big money was in scents, handbags and shoes, and catwalk shows were simply a way to promote the brand, as were eccentric bosses who drew a media spotlight.

McQueen initially flourished in this environment, but eventually the pressure of having to churn out half a dozen shows a year grew too much, Thomas thinks, and she describes him as being “sacrificed in the name of capitalism.” While she praises Burton’s continuation of McQueen’s legacy, she says that the designer’s death ended a 16-year “magical moment” in fashion.

With shows that often crossed over into performance-art status — think rain falling from the ceiling, perspex runways slowly filling with black liquid and robots spray-painting the dress of a model on stage — fashion has seen few designers that could make clothing into a vessel for ideas about man’s interaction with the natural world, the afterlife, and his own deepest fears and desires. It’s hard to argue with McQueen’s own, typically unabashed claim, that “when I’m dead and gone, people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.” It will be some time before he’s forgotten.

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