Alexander McQueen: A Legacy

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British designer Alexander McQueen was well-known for extreme, hard-edged and often politically motivated designs. His innovative materials, anarchistic reputation and provocative runway shows made him a memorable figure in more recent fashion history. This post is by no means meant to be the last word on the designer, nor is it intended to be a comprehensive history. It is a tribute to a designer at the top of his game who is gone too soon.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17th 1969. His extensive fashion background included early experience working with tailors on Saville Row, theatrical costumiers, and designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigili. After completing a Masters program at St. Martin’s, stylist and icon Isabella Blow purchased his entire graduate collection. McQueen then opened his own studio in East London.[1] In 1996, McQueen became Chief Designer at Givenchy, a position he maintained until March 2001,[2] moving to focus on his own label.

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His most famous clients have been “rock ‘n’ roll” royalty including: David Bowie, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, [3] Gwen Staffani,[4] Bjork, and Lady Gaga (among many others). Actress Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith lead-singer, Steven Tyler, is also a McQueen client. At the opening for Return of the King in 2003, she wore a black McQueen gown and commented that, “his tailoring is sensational,” and that his designs make you “feel pretty and womanly.”[5]

Bjork in McQueen’s red slide dress

When Bjork wore McQueen’s “tinkling, red, glass microscope slide dress on stage,” she turned it into a “percussion object as she danced.”[6] It’s a collaboration they would continue for sometime. In more recent days, Lady Gaga has been a fan of his designs, wearing several signature pieces from his Spring 2010 collection in her video, Bad Romance.

Lady Gaga in McQueen from her video, Bad Romance.

Often referred to as a “design maverick,”[8] McQueen had an image that was only slightly superseded by his design ability. British Vogue once commented, “McQueen’s carefully propagated image as the raspberrying bad boy of fashion. . . made him a star in his own right,” [9] His design aesthetic, runway antics and personality all appealed to customers interested in volatile fashion, both in the literal and figural sense. In one instance, McQueen turned down an invitation from the Queen to meet the Emperor of Japan, saying “I couldn’t be bothered.”[10] While still an apprentice tailor on Saville Row, “McQueen famously inscribed the words ‘I am a cunt’ in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.”[11] Further contributing to his image as a bad boy, when asked about his design fantasizes in a Web chat on photographer Nick Knight’s site SHOWstudio.com in 2004, “McQueen mentioned dressing Carreras in denim and cowboy boots and putting Luciano Pavarotti in a jockstrap.”[12] While this kind of anti-establishment snobbery gave him a presence as a fashion personality, it was the “statement-making clothing that give McQueen his reputation for being dangerous”[13]

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McQueen’s signature designs, as he noted them in 2003 were, “the bumster, the frock coat, [and] anything tromp-l’oil.”[14] Bumsters were “trousers with a waistband so low that anyone brave enough to wear them would parade their buttocks for all to see.”[15] His favorite designs have been his “wooden fan kilts from Spring-Summer 1999, the red slide dress from Spring-Summer 2001, and the Jellyfish dress from Autumn-Winter 2002.”[16]

David Bowie's Alexander McQueen frock coat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006.

Materials & Design

Australian designer Tina Kalivas, who worked with McQueen from 1998 to 2001, described her experience working with his materials: “I would sit up all night, physically making the showpiece using McQueen’s signature materials – glass, leather, feathers, boning etc., . . the only light relief came from his English bull terriers jumping on all [of] this exquisite fabric first thing in the morning.”[17] In the past, his choice of materials has run the gamut of conceivable combination’s but with a hard edge. He has used natural and synthetic, as well as conventional and innovative materials.

Marleen Berkova in Alexander McQueen's Fall 2001 ready-to-wear show

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" Fall 1997

The natural materials used by McQueen add an unexpected element to the designs, and reflect his interest in Nature. On Knight’s webchat McQueen remarked that his use of animal skins was “Not so p.c., but there’s nothing better than nature. Nature is a fabric itself”[18] He created garments using python lace, [19] as well as other hides and leathers in addition to gazelle horns.[20] He  “almost fetishized materials [such as] feathers, brocade, shells…”[21] and wood. He once made an entire dresses “of cuttle-fish and mussel shells,” and clothed models “from neck to ankles in a sheath of razor shells.”[22]

Erin O'Connor in dress made of shells by Alexander McQueen, Spring 2001

Interestingly, in 1997, the London Times reported that McQueen was under investigation for using human bones, teeth and other body parts in his designs.[23] His most recent menswear collection referenced bone and skin extensively, though in pattern rather than actual object.

McQueen’s menswear for Fall 2010 (Milan) titled ‘An bailitheoir cnámh‘ (Gaelic phrase that means “the bone collector)

McQueen’s other designs have featured more expected materials such as cotton and Polyester organza,[24] but with an interest in innovation. His “Grey Lady ballgown, hand patchworked to form an intricate jigsaw of different Harris Tweeds [is] mixed with distressed mohair.”[25] He also showed a continual interest in fabric technology. Referring to his Spring-Summer 1999 collections, McQueen explained that he had an interest in “the hard edge of technology of textiles,”[26], which included molded leather body corsets, white lace, wooden fan skirts, and striped silk.

In his spring/summer 1996 collection McQueen used a stainless steel spattered synthetic material for a dress design. Spattering, according to Sarah E Bradock and Marie O’Mahony, is the “application of minute particles of metallic dust to the surface of a fibre or fabric using a vacuum method of coating.” [27] The technique was created by Masayuki Suzuki in Japan.[28] McQueen’s use of the material created a “space-age look” by combining “the fluidity of silk with the look of metal.” [29] McQueen seems to have had an affinity for metallic substances, and space, using them often in his collections.

Designer Sophie Roet had also worked for McQueen. She “laminates woven nylon, wool, and silk fabrics with thin aluminum sheets, achieving paper-like body in the new material.”[31] McQueens interest in technology is also evident in a more general sense. As noted by Suzy Menkes, McQueen has also been intrigued by the effect computers can create and has often used “digital mechanics for inspiration.”[32]

The 12 inch shoes McQueen showed in his Spring 2010 show

Philosophy

In the Web chat with Nick Knight’s site SHOWstudio.com, McQueen explained his overall view of fashion, “It’s like any entertainment industry. It’s fickle. I’ve always seen it in the same light: shallow.”[33] Despite his own comments, McQueen’s collections have often addressed political and cultural issues.[34] For example, the “Highland Rape” show in 1995 was a politicized visual representation of the volatile relationship between Scotland and England. McQueen has also said, “I use things that people want to hide in their heads. War, religion, sex: things we all think about but don’t bring to the forefront. But I do and I force them to watch it.” [35] His designs commented on the world around him, and provide examples of what was considered culturally taboo. “In part due to his reputation for outlandish shows . . . he chose to show garments on custom made Lucite mannequins which were lit from within.”[37] In 1999, he chose to show his menswear in “a short film he directed.”[38] McQueen’s spring 2004 show, while not completely subdued, featured a “macabre dance marathon.”[39] Titled, “New Beginnings,” it was based on the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.”

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Alexander McQueen stated that his design philosophy was “To make a piece that can transcend any trend and will still hold as much presence in 100 years time when you find it an antique store as when you bought it in my store yesterday.” [36] McQueen, at least for a time, did consider the importance of his designs to the fashion world, suggesting that he was interested in preserving a legacy. Unfortunately, that need has come much to soon.

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*Opening image is ‘the ship-wreck dress‘ from Spring 2003.

Bibliography

Alexander McQueen

Bradock, Sarah E and Marie O’Mahony. Techno Textiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Entwistle, Joanne and Elizabeth Wilson.  Body Dressing (Dress, Body, Culture). New York: Berg, 2001.

Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. (requested via ILL)

Frankel, Susannah. Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (Victoria and Albert Museum Studies). London: V & A Publications; Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 2001.

Fukai, Akiko. ed. Fashion: The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Koln: Taschen, 2002.

Jones, Terry & Avril Mair (eds.). Fashion Now: i-D Selects the World’s 150 Most Important Designers (Taschen 25), Koln: Taschen, 2003.

Tucker, Andrew. The London Fashion Book. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Wilcox, Claire.Radical Fashion (Victoria and Albert Museum Studies), V&A Publications; Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, n.d.

Articles:

“McQueen, Alexander,” Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W. Wilson. v. 63 (2002) 2003 p. 373-376

Hoggard, Liz. “Cut Above the Rest.” Crafts, (London, England) no185 48-51 N/D 2003.

Rubin, Cynthia Elyce. “Harris Tweed: The Fabric of Island Life Harris Tweed: The Fabric of Island Life.” Fiberarts: 27 no5 Mr/Ap 2001: 41-5.

Tolukas, Maria.“Fabrics of Fashion: Museum of Art and Design,” Surface Design Journal: 26 no1 Fall 2001: 50-1.


[1] “Who is Who: Alexander McQueen,” Vogue.co.uk, 2004. http://www.vogue.co.uk/whos_who/Alexander_McQueen/default.html

 

[2] www.alexandermcqueen.net

[3] “Who is Who: Alexander McQueen,” Vogue.co.uk, 2004. http://www.vogue.co.uk/whos_who/Alexander_McQueen/default.html

[4] “Best in Show,” People Magazine 15 Mar. 2004: 52-62.

[5] W Magazine, March 2004: 318.

[6] Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003) 3.

[7] Andrew Tucker, The London Fashion Book (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998) 36.

[8] Cathy Horyn, “Sticking with London and Himself,” The New York Times 2 Mar. 2004: B10.

[9] “Who is Who: Alexander McQueen,” Vogue.co.uk, 2004. http://www.vogue.co.uk/whos_who/Alexander_McQueen/default.html

[10] Cathy Horyn, “Sticking With London, and Himself,” New York Times 2 Mar. 2004: B10.

[11] Susannah Frankel, Visionaries: Interviews with Fashion Designers (London: V& A Publications, interviews originally published in The Independent and The Guardian, New York: Abrams, 2001) 16.

[12] “The Month in Fashion” W Magazine, March 2004, 154.

[13] Tucker, 36.

[14] Terry Jones and Avril Mair, eds. Fashion Now (Hohenzollernring: Taschen, 2003) 331.

[15] Frankel, 16.

[16] Jones and Mair, 331.

[17] Stephen Crafti, “Master Class,” 13 Aug. 2003. http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/08/12/1060588387989.html?from=storyrhs

[18] “The Month in Fashion” W Magazine, March 2004, 154.

[19] Bridget Foley, “Fashion Front,” W Magazine Oct. 1999: 235.

[20] Evans, 153.

[21] Evans, 95.

[22] Evans, 95.

[23] Sunday Times of London 7 July 1997: 7.

[24] “Garden Variety,” W Magazine, Oct. 1999.

[25] Cynthia Elyce Rubin, “Harris Tweed: The Fabric of Island Life Harris Tweed: The Fabric of Island Life.” Fiberarts: 27 no5 Mr/Ap 2001: 41-5.

[26] Evans, 177.

[27] Sarah E. Bradock and Marie O’Mahony. Technotextiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998) 91.

[28] Sarah E. Bradock and Marie O’Mahony. Technotextiles: Revolutionary Fabrics for Fashion and Design. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998) 91.

[29] Bradock and O’Mahony, 91.

[30] Bradock and O’Mahony, 91.

[31] Maria Tolukas, “Fabrics of Fashion: Museum of Art and Design,” Surface Design Journal: 26 no1 Fall 2001: 50-1.

[32] Suzy Menkes, “Intelligent Clothing,” International Herald Tribune, http://www.iht.com/IHT/SR/120399/sr120399w.html

[33] “The Month in Fashion” W Magazine Mar. 2004, 154

[34] Liz Hoggard, “Cut above the rest.” Crafts, (London, England) no185 48-51 N/D 2003.

[35]Terry Jones and Avril Mair, eds. Fashion Now (Hohenzollernring: Taschen, 2003) 324.

[36] Jones and Mair, 331.

[37] Bridget Foley, “Fashion Front,” W Magazine Oct 1999: 234-235.

[38] Socha, Miles. “Male Order:With Gohn Galliano and  Alexander McQueen behind the wheel, men’s wear is running at full throttle,” W Magazine April 2004: 98.

[39] Socha, Miles. “Male Order:With Gohn Galliano and  Alexander McQueen behind the wheel, men’s wear is running at full throttle,” W Magazine April 2004: 98.

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9 Comments

  • Audrey @ Necrophashion February 12, 2010 11.21 am

    This is a lovely and thorough retrospective of McQueen’s work. I can say no more than what has already been said by the many affected by his death, except to reiterate what a great loss it is. Thank you for posting this piece!

     
  • Sarah Scaturro February 12, 2010 12.01 pm

    Heather,

    Excellent post – I especially loved your use of footnotes. However, do you have any citations for the images? I find that one of the most problematic things about blogs in general is the use of images without citing the sources.

    Thanks!
    Sarah

     
  • Heather Vaughan February 12, 2010 12.07 pm

    Sarah, Thanks so much for reading! For this post I used only images already available online (and if you right click on the images and ‘copy image location’ they will take you to the original source). I have a much larger cash of photos on my home computer, but sadly I failed to write down the names of the publications I took them from. The majority of these images came from the collection archives at style.com; Bjorks website, and several other blogs who had written on McQueen. Hope that is helpful!

    Heather

     
  • Lydia, Clueless Crafter February 12, 2010 12.13 pm

    He exposed thing that people want to “keep in their heads.” Profound and unnerving. Rather than using clothes as a protective barrier secondarily as a mode of expression, he turned them into visible, easily manipulated displays of the inward self. He took away the lifeline of safety. High art that falls to its basest.

     
  • Sarah Scaturro February 12, 2010 02.00 pm

    thanks Heather! Again, great job. I always enjoy reading your posts and following you on twitter!

     
  • Caryn Elizabeth Koch-Esterline February 12, 2010 03.10 pm

    Thank you, Heather, for that thorough retrospective. I was not aware of relationship with Lady Gaga and had not seen her video, so this was quite informative. He blurred the lines between costume and apparel and I believe will give us many points of reference for years to come. I just found your blog. It is fabulous.

     
  • Terry Pitts February 13, 2010 02.44 pm

    Thanks for the excellent overview of his amazing work. Great selection of videos. I enjoy Worn Through.

     
  • Stu Nicholson October 28, 2010 12.18 pm

    Oh My Gods! I am absolutley in LOVE with Alexander McQueen. I can’t wait to talk to such an amazing designer such as him.

    Yes, I am aware that he is Deceased. Such a tragedy.

     
  • aradhana rai March 19, 2014 10.39 am

    I have just started to peek unit the fashion field as a student. My first impression on ALexandra MCQueen will stay as long as I live-EXCELLENT. Thank you for the research you did on the genius of a generation.

     

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