Alexander the great
"Empowered, frightening, sexual" - Alexander McQueen's vision of how women should look makes him an enduring influence writes DEIRDRE McQUILLAN
There have been three designers whose work changed the way women looked and whose influence has continued: Coco Chanel, Yves St Laurent and Lee Alexander McQueen. That’s the view of fashion historian Judith Watt, author of a new book on McQueen, one of several on the designer published this season. McQueen took his own life nearly three years ago at the age of 40.
Watt’s book, though not a biography, concentrates on the designer’s life and work. It provides fascinating insights into his early training as a tailor, with first-hand accounts from people who worked with him, and chronicles the background and inspiration behind each of his collections from the first ones in London right up to the final runway shows in Paris.
McQueen’s roots in bespoke tailoring, in English iconoclasm and gay subculture were central to his development and his approach to fashion. His designs, argues Watt, unlocked the fantasy in clothing. He saw fashion as craft, theatre and as a transformative experience. His concepts stretched boundaries like no other designer and his following was not just confined to the fashion world, writes Watt. The posthumous exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year broke attendance records, attracting more than 660,000 visitors.
He was a complex, talented designer whose scale of ideas and collaboration with artists was, Watt argues, phenomenal. His vision of how women should look – “empowered, frightening, sexual” – was controversial and his dark, uncompromising portrayals earned him the title McCabre McQueen. He once told GQ, referring to his tailoring background: “I am here to demolish the rules but to keep the traditions”. Frock coats were a signature throughout his career, but structured with finesse and imagination.
The book covers the formative years in Savile Row and Central St Martins, his time in Givenchy and finally the years at Gucci culminating in the last collections and his legacy. The illustrations are lavish and demonstrate the breadth and scale of his work from its earliest beginnings to the memorable, confrontational, later collections in Paris. In addition to some of the more familiar imagery, there are many photographs and drawings that have not been seen before.
McQueen’s Scottish roots were, he once said, “everything” to him and informed one of his first collections called Banshee (he was a great fan of Sinéad O’Connor) to one of his last called Highland Rape. His cinematic sense of the spectacle made invitations to his shows in Paris the most sought after in the French fashion week. He launched low-rise bumster trousers, reintroduced tailoring for women and experimented with silhouette, proportion and spiral cutting around the body. Today, his name lives on under the gifted hand of Sarah Burton whose approach is gentler, “the shocks and jaw-dropping brilliance have dimmed”, but is a thriving business that last year had sales of £41 million in the UK, Italy and the US and £5 million profits.