In a sense, McQueen’s story is made all the more incredible by the fact that he was a born into a working class family in East London, yet from this humble and seemingly quite tough background he grew into one of the most talented designers ever seen, operating at the very highest level: no cultured bourgeois upbringing, or ‘dressing up in all of mother’s haute couture’ for McQueen. For American readers even bringing this up might seem bizarre, but in the UK where social class is still a very prevalent issue, and we nearly all make judgments, unconsciously or otherwise, about people’s class, McQueen’s ascent from local authority housing in the East End is a very sobering lesson for anyone tempted to jump to class-based assumptions about vision and talent. It also makes one wonder how many other extraordinary talents there might be trapped out there.
Later, it was in a wonderful clash of worlds that McQueen was launched onto the global fashion scene, thanks to the aristocratic fashion editor Isabella Blow. Blow was so impressed by McQueen’s graduation collection that she bought the whole lot for £5,000; she had to pay in weekly installments, and McQueen delivered it to her in black rubbish sacks. Blow was teased by her upper class friends for supporting the son of a taxi driver (who had only been persuaded to take the prestigious St Martin’s fashion course after applying for a lesser course but astounding the admissions tutor with his portfolio), but Isabella Blow was unstoppable and unrepentant: after all, this was a woman who was late for work almost every day while working as Anna Wintour’s assistant (because getting elaborately dressed each morning took her so long), and she had come to the attention of Andy Warhol for wearing a mismatched pair of Manolo Blahniks.
Having graduated from St Martin’s in 1995, McQueen was installed as the creative director at Givenchy just a year later, where he wasted no time in shaking things up and shocking the Parisian establishment. He stayed at Givenchy until 2001, before quitting, to invest all his energy in his own brand which, thanks to a deal facilitated by Isabella Blow, was backed by the support of the PPR (Gucci) Group.
Alexander McQueen for Givenchy:
(all images in this section from WWD)
Givenchy spring/summer 1997 haute couture.
Givenchy SS97 ready-to-wear (left) and FW97 (right).
Givenchy spring/summer 1998 ready-to-wear.
Naomi Campbell (left) in Givenchy by Alexander McQueen (note sure of date) and (right) Givenchy FW98 haute couture (hello SS09 Margiela hair coat). I wish I could find more pictures from the collection of the Naomi pic... I recall seeing a picture in a design book presumably from the same collection with a model with a bull's ring through her nose.
The ephemeral beauty of McQueen’s fall/winter 2000 Givenchy haute couture.
Alexander McQueen for his own brand:
(image credits at the end of the post, unless specified individually)
Extraordinary techniques for spring/summer 1994.
The Highland Rape collection of fall/winter 1995 was controversial, and many interpreted it as some kind of misogynist statement, glamourising the abuse of women; in fact, McQueen’s influence was the violent Highland Clearances of the late 1700s, in which inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands were forcibly expelled by the English. This collection had a real power and aggressive energy to it; it was historically influenced but was then (and still is now) very modern looking.
For spring/summer 1997, the models walked on water:
This is just fantastic… videos of McQueen shows are so good, because pictures alone never give a good sense of the subtleties of his shows: the music, the light effects, how the models were told to walk…
Tough, sexy, leather-clad (rather Helmut Netwon-esque) cow girl for fall/winter 1997. The references went deeper than that though: there was a men’s coat with an image of the Crucifixion on the back.
Rain fell on the runway for the spring/summer 1998 collection, which was called Golden Shower, in a typically mischievous McQueen way. The clothes again were just fantastic, especially the tailoring, and McQueen proved this season that he was just as adept at doing quite a minimal aesthetic.
Fall/winter 1998 was the Joan of the Arc inspired collection, which was very tough, very sexy… the setting was incredibly atmospheric, and the show ended with the amazing ring of fire.
In spring/summer 1999, McQueen caused a sensation by ending his show with model Shalom Harlow standing in a white dress on a rotating platform, being spray painted by robotic arms adapted from a car factory. It was an extraordinary statement: a most beautiful moment, but menacing too… vandalism almost; and it spoke volumes about the relationship between man and machine, between fashion and mass production… the seeming contradiction of automated machines creating something truly one-off, before the very eyes of the audience. Never mind this was just a part of a mere fashion show, it could easily have passed off as an art installation in its own right, as Modernist ‘mechanical ballet’ performances and the like sprang to mind.
Video below **watch this** (the start features part of the FW99 show)
McQueen showed his fall/winter 1999 collection, The Overlook, in an artificially created winter wonderland, complete with snow and ice, on which some models skated. It wasn’t all fantasy though: the collection was inspired by 1980s psychological horror film, The Shining.
The terrifying setting of McQueen’s spring/summer 2000 collection.
The techniques and craftsmanship were beyond stunning in McQueen’s tribal-inspired fall/winter 2000 collection. This collection was just wonderful, and again just look at the setting! This sort of level totally shames pretty much everything that’s been shown in New York Fashion Week so far these last few days, it’s just mind-blowing.
For his spring/summer 2001 collection, McQueen seated the audience around a giant mirrored box, making members of the audience brilliantly uncomfortable as they had to sit confronting their own reflections for some time before the show started (a very apt statement, surely, about the mindless vanity displayed by some areas of the fashion world). The discomfort for the audience members only got worse, however, when the show began and the box turned transparent, revealing a troubling ‘padded cell’ mental asylum set inside. Models walked inside the box, including Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor, showing off a truly extraordinary collection with a strong avian theme (inspiration seemed to come from Hitchcock’s The Birds). There were more wearable pieces courtesy of McQueen’s razor-sharp, flawless tailoring, and there were some incredible thigh-high boots, fashioned to look like bandaged or mummified legs. Other pieces suggested bandaging and hospital wear… it was all deeply disturbing and subversive, but incredibly beautiful too. The show ended with the shocking tableau of a large, naked model, reclining on a couch with a breathing tube sticking out of the mouth of her masked face:
It is actually sobering how little I know about fashion: this collection, which until now I was only vaguely aware of, has just become one of my top collections ever.
There is some footage here:
Fall/winter 2001’s roundabout carousel set, with sinister clowns.
Amazing construction on a dress from the bullfighting inspired spring/summer 2002 collection.
In Fall/Winter 2002, McQueen showed an eerie collection in an ancient dungeon in Paris, complete with real wolves howling.
Spring/Summer 2003… going through all these collections, literally every single one has left me amazed in some way or another. There are very few other designers who consistently have this effect.
In the wind-tunnel for fall/winter 2003.
The entire spring/summer 2004 collection was shown on dancers.
At the end of McQueen’s spring/summer 2005 show, the models became human chess pieces, whose moves were directed by a disembodied computerised voice. As each ‘piece’ was knocked out of the game, the corresponding model left the stage:
A vision of Kate Moss appeared as a hologram at the end of McQueen’s spring/summer 2006 show. The collection itself was executed to a practically haute-couture level… stunning and beautiful.
Spring/summer 2007… dreamy.
McQueen dedicated his spring/summer 2008 collection to Isabella Blow, who had commited suicide not long before; he filled the air of the venue with Blow’s signature scent, so that guests would be reminded of her.
More breathtaking craftsmanship for fall/winter 2008.
With the taxidermy stage set, spring/summer 2009 was the season of the spectacular prints (see Hapsical post here). McQueen took his bow at the end wearing a bunny suit.
I didn’t like this collection much at the time, I think because I tried to contextualise it too much (in light of the recession and general uncertainty in fashion), but looking at it now it is rather brilliant: it’s hard to resist the drama of it all, the rubbish tip set is fun and subversive, and the execution again looks to be at an haute-couture level.
The spring/summer 2010 collection will always have a certain poignancy to it as the last women’s collection McQueen ever showed, but what a way to end, what a collection! I almost cried again watching the video of this. I can’t do justice to this collection in words right now, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last four months you’ll already know how truly mind-blowing it is.
The Spring/Summer 2010 campaign by Nick Knight is just fantastic too… it makes me feel seriously uncomfortable (I think I might just have developed a phobia of snakes thanks to it), but it is incredible:
And let’s not forget Alexander McQueen’s menswear which, while never subject to utterly fantastical shows like the womenswear, was always quite something too:
(all images in this section from GQ.com)
Fall/winter 2006. On the left is the skull sweater, which I own in black. It may be nearly 4 years old, but it is testament to the incredible quality of McQueen’s clothes: it is the most amazing quality knit, and it could still pass off as new even now. It hasn’t even ‘bobbled’ at all, like most knitwear does after a time. By comparison, Uniqlo knits I bought two months ago are already self-destructing, while other designer knitwear I’ve had (Paul Smith, Kenzo) has lasted about 3-4 years, before going a bit lumpy and getting a developing a few holes. McQueen's is still going strong.
Spring/summer 2007’s sublime tailoring.
The fall/winter 2007 collection had plenty of subversive touches: the hair and make-up which made some of the models look like plastic G.I. Joe figures, the use of transparent coloured plastics, and the strong silhouettes.
Spring/summer 2008 was a sort of 80s beach fest, with bleached hair and sunburn to match…
Strong ethnic, folksy influences for fall/winter 2008.
Super-sharp tailoring with op-art designs for spring/summer 2009.
For fall/winter 2009, McQueen unleashed the high-camp Dickensian villain, complete with fur, top hat and cane.
Men got in on the print action for spring/summer 2010.
The last ever collection which McQueen showed was his men’s fall/winter 2010 collection, which was also perhaps his strongest men’s collection to date. The tailoring was just incredible and, combined with the complex prints, the whole thing was just mind-blowing.
R.I.P McQueen, you genius... fashion will never be quite as interesting again.
Good WWD Reports on McQueen's life and work here and here.
Fashion Spot McQueen 1994-1996 archive thread here.*
Fashion Spot McQueen 1996-2000 archive thread here.*
Style.com Alexander McQueen page (for collections 2001-) here.*
GQ.com Alexander McQueen page (for men's collections 2005-) here.
*Unless otherwise specified, all 1994-1996 and 1996-2000 images are from The Fashion Spot (links above - click to see more images from collections from those periods), while all post 2000 runway pictures are from Style.com (again, link above).