Widows of Culloden (2006)
"Scotland for me is a harsh, cold and bitter place. It was even worse when my great, great grandfather used to live there. . . . The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.” — McQueen
Inside an empty glass pyramid, a mysterious puff of white smoke appeared from nowhere and spun in midair, slowly resolving itself into the moving, twisting shape of a woman enveloped in the billowing folds of a white dress. It was Kate Moss, her blonde hair and pale arms trailing in a dream-like apparition of fragility and beauty that danced for a few seconds, then shrank and dematerialized into the ether.
This vision was in fact a state-of-the-art hologram—a piece by the video maker Baillie Walsh, art-directed by McQueen. The gown, a pale cascade of multiple organza ruffles, wasn't just an optical effect, though. It subsequently reappeared in the collection's victory line up, which wound its way around the glass box as the audience was still reverberating with wonder at witnessing this incredible event.
The quality of the performance—and the extraordinary workmanship in the clothes that preceded it—was a timely reconfirmation of McQueen's unique powers as a showman-designer, and a far cry from the more straightforward presentations he¿s given the last few seasons. For this collection, he delved into his past, revisiting his Scottish family roots and refining the contents of the rampaging tartan "Highland Rape" show with which he began his career in London in the early nineties. Shorn of its original rawness and anger, the result was a poetic and technically accomplished tale that involved romantic images of Scottish fantasy heroines wandering glens and castle halls in vaguely Victorian tartan crinolines, bird-wing or antler-and-lace headdresses, feathered gowns, and pieces made from brocades that might have been dragged down from ancient wall-hangings.
Some of McQueen's references—like the ones that influenced his sinuous black velvet dresses—appeared to be culled from pre-Raphaelite paintings of Lady Macbeth; others, like a fierce, bell-skirted warrior-woman plaid dress with lace armlets, seemed to owe more to punk. On the down-to-earth side, there was plenty of McQueen's sharp and salable tailoring on show, and some great coats, like a herringbone fur chesterfield. At the end, though, the ecstatic applause was primarily in honor of the experience—a memory that will go down as one of fashion's all-time highs.
Alexander McQueen's show was nothing short of monumental. The audience sat around a mirrored cube, which, when lit from inside, revealed itself to be a mental-hospital holding cell. Demented girls, wearing hospital headbands and everything from extraordinary mussel-shell skirts to impossibly chic pearl-colored cocktail dresses, slithered and strutted while uselessly attempting to fly over the cuckoo's nest.
McQueen was at his very best: There were gothic, theatrical pieces, like a dress with a miniature castle and rat posing as a shoulder pad; a top made out of a jigsaw puzzle; and a huge feathered creation with stuffed eagles suspended over the model's head, poised to attack à la Hitchcock. But amidst all the insanity, there was a cornucopia of startlingly elegant—and wearable—pantsuits, flouncy party dresses, and even a spectator pump or two.
How to top off such a climactic presentation? After everyone thought it was all over, another cube within the psychiatric ward-cum-runway opened up to reveal a portly nude woman, her face covered by a mask, breathing through a tube, surrounded by fluttering moths. It was a truly shocking and enthralling tableau: Francis Bacon via Leigh Bowery and Lucien Freud. In a word, sublime.
The Girl Who Lived in a Tree (2008)
The one element that has gone missing in the collections is the spine-tingling, eye-welling emotion of a show so exceptional to witness that—despite all exhaustion, cynicism, and workaday pressures—it suddenly transforms being involved in fashion into a magical privilege. Just when it seemed like that feeling was virtually extinct, Alexander McQueen handed his audience a self-imagined fantasy of crinolined princesses and British-colonial romance of such beauty, it arguably surpassed anything he's achieved in 14 years.
"I've got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden," he said, "and I made up this story of a girl who lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and become a queen." After a trip to India, the designer worked like a fiend for months in his studio, with images of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and the Indian Empire running through his mind. They were transformed into ballerina-length multi-flounced dance dresses, each more insanely exquisite than the last: A miraculous red-feather-fronted number turned to burst into a froth of creamy frills in back; another came covered in baby-fine knitted lace; a third had a pair of peacocks—again fashioned from cutout black lace—with their tail feathers fanning out over ivory tulle petticoats.
Interspersed were rigorously cut military tailcoats with taut pants detailed with military frogging, and slim brocade and cloque pantsuits with crisp white high-necked shirts. Then there was a stately parade of imperial-red and velvet jackets bedecked with millions of dollars' worth of antique Indian diadems and diamond neckpieces, and yet more incredible rich Empire-line saris and wispy dishabille transparencies. These were followed by a sequence of gold-encrusted, ermine-coated glory, echoing the heyday of Norman Hartnell and Hardy Aimes' fifties British couture as worn by Elizabeth II.
Whatever had triggered this new lease of inspired design, it went further than the mere rendition of fanciful costume for the sake of telling a story. Importantly, McQueen finally found it in himself to quash the confining, uptight carapace that had held back former collections, replacing it with a new sense of lightness and femininity. Meanwhile, for all the transporting spectacle and extravagance, the narrative never submerged the sense that, within this wonder, there's plenty to wear, too. No coincidence, then, that McQueen today announced that his company has gone into profit for the first time. It was a day when his brilliance had never shone more brightly.
Lee Alexander McQueen, CBE (17 March 1969 – 11 February 2010) was a British fashion designer and couturier. He is known for having worked as chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001 and for founding his own Alexander McQueen label. His achievements in fashion earned him four British Designer of the Year awards (1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003), as well as the CFDA's International Designer of the Year award in 2003.
Born on 17 March 1969 in Lewisham, London, to Scottish taxi driver Ronald and social science teacher Joyce, McQueen was the youngest of six children. While he reportedly grew up in a council flat, the McQueens had lived in a terraced house in Stratford since McQueen was less than a year old. He attended Carpenters Road Primary School, started making dresses for his three sisters at a young age, and announced his intention to become a fashion designer.
McQueen later attended Rokeby School and left aged 16 in 1985 with one O-level in art, going on to serve an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, before joining Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans The skills he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert in creating an impeccably tailored look.
Career While on Savile Row, McQueen's clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles. At the age of 20, he spent a period of time working for Koji Tatsuno before travelling to Milan, Italy and working for Romeo Gigli.
McQueen returned to London in 1994 and applied to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, to work as a pattern cutter tutor. Because of the strength of his portfolio he was persuaded by Bobby Hillson, the Head of the Masters course, to enroll in the course as a student. He received his masters degree in fashion design and his graduation collection was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who was said to have persuaded McQueen to become known as Alexander (his middle name) when he subsequently launched his fashion career.
It was during this period that McQueen relocated to Hoxton, which housed other new designers, including Hussein Chalayan and Pauric Sweeney. It was shortly after creating his second collection,“McQueen's Theatre of Cruelty", that McQueen met Katy England, his soon to be "right hand woman", when outside of a "high profile fashion show" trying to "blag her way in". He promptly asked her to join him for his third collection, "The Birds" at Kings Cross, as "creative director". Katy England continued to work with McQueen thereafter, greatly influencing his work – his "second opinion".
McQueen designed wardrobe for David Bowie's tours in 1996-1997, as well as the Union Jack coat worn by Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album Earthling. Icelandic singer Björk sought McQueen's work for the cover of her album Homogenic in 1997. McQueen also directed the music video for her song "Alarm Call" from the same album and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video for "Pagan Poetry".
McQueen's early runway collections developed his reputation for controversy and shock tactics (earning the title "l'enfant terrible" and "the hooligan of English fashion"), with trousers aptly named "bumsters" and a collection titled "Highland Rape". In 2004, journalist Caroline Evans also wrote of McQueen's "theatrical staging of cruelty", in 032c magazine, referring to his dark and tortured renderings of Scottish history. McQueen was known for his lavish, unconventional runway shows: a recreation of a shipwreck for his spring 2003 collection; spring 2005's human chess game; and his fall 2006 show "Widows of Culloden", which featured a life-sized hologram of supermodel Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric.
McQueen's "bumsters" spawned a trend in low rise jeans; on their debut they attracted many comments and debate. Michael Oliveira-Salac, the director of Blow PR and a friend of McQueen's said, "The bumster for me is what defined McQueen." McQueen also became known for using skulls in his designs. A scarf bearing the motif became a celebrity must-have and was copied around the world.
McQueen has been credited with bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk. He used new technology and innovation to add a different twist to his shows and often shocked and surprised audiences. The silhouettes that he created have been credited for adding a sense of fantasy and rebellion to fashion. McQueen became one of the first designers to use Indian models in London.
The president of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, caused a stir when he appointed McQueen head designer at Givenchy in 1996, succeeding John Galliano. Upon arrival at Givenchy, McQueen insulted the founder by calling him "irrelevant". His first couture collection with Givenchy was unsuccessful, with even McQueen telling Vogue in October 1997 that the collection was "crap". McQueen toned down his designs at Givenchy, but continued to indulge his rebellious streak, causing controversy in autumn 1998 with a show which included double amputee model Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs. This year also saw McQueen complete one of his most famous runway shows previewing Spring/Summer 1999, where a single model, Shalom Harlow graced the runway in a strapless white dress, before being rotated slowly on a revolving section of the catwalk whilst being sprayed with paint by two robotic guns. Givenchy designs released by Vogue Patterns during this period may be credited to the late designer. McQueen stayed with Givenchy until March 2001, when the contract he said was "constraining his creativity" ended.
McQueen's most celebrated and dramatic catwalk show was his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, named VOSS. The centre piece tableau that dominated the room was an enormous glass box. But because the room outside the box was lit and the inside of the box was unlit, the glass walls appeared as large mirrors, so that the seated audience saw only their own reflection. Finally, after an hour, and when the show began, lights came on in inside the enormous glass case and revealed the interior to be filled with moths and, at the centre, a naked model on a chaise longue with her face obscured by a gas mask. The glass walls then fell away and smashed on the ground.
The model chosen by McQueen to be the centre of the show was the British writer Michelle Olley. (The show also featured Kate Moss and Erin O'Connor). McQueen said that the tableau was based on the Joel Peter Witkin image Sanitorium. The British fashion photographer Nick Knight later said of the VOSS show on his SHOWstudio.com blog:
"The girl in the box was Michelle Olley. She modelled for me in a story I did called Sister Honey... She was a writer and I remember she wrote a great piece on being the Butterfly Girl in the middle of that (McQueen) Glass Box show. I was sat on the front row, inbetween Alexandra Schulman and Gwyneth Paltrow. It was is probably one of the best pieces of Fashion Theatre I have ever witnessed."
Alexander McQueen later described his thoughts on the idea used during VOSS of forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection in the mirrored walls for over an hour:
"Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.”
In Spring 2011, Michelle Olley was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to contribute to their Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty. She was interviewed by The Met about VOSS for the audio guide to the show. Olley's detailed diary/journal of modelling for McQueen – written between 18–27 September as the show was being planned and staged – was included in the Met Museum website coverage of the Savage Beauty exhibition. The VOSS diary relates details of the show and encounters with McQueen, ending with how Olley returned home after the show to find:
"...a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers has arrived, with a note [from McQueen] saying, 'Thank you for everything – you were beautiful! – Lee xxx' "
Some of McQueen's accomplishments included being one of the youngest designers to achieve the title "British Designer of the Year", which he won four times between 1996 and 2003; he was also awarded the CBE and named International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers in 2003.
December 2000 saw a new partnership for McQueen, with the Gucci Group's acquiring 51% of his company and McQueen's serving as Creative Director. Plans for expansion included the opening of stores in London, Milan, and New York, and the launch of his perfumes Kingdom and, most recently, My Queen. In 2005, McQueen collaborated with Puma to create a special line of trainers for the shoe brand. In 2006, he launched McQ, a younger, more renegade lower-priced line for men and women.
McQueen became the first designer to participate in MAC's promotion of cosmetic releases created by fashion designers. The collection, McQueen, was released on 11 October 2007 and reflected the looks used on the Autumn/Winter McQueen catwalk. The inspiration for the collection was the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra, and thus the models sported intense blue, green, and teal eyes with strong black liner extended Egyptian-style. McQueen handpicked the makeup.
By the end of 2007, Alexander McQueen had boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and Las Vegas. Celebrity patrons, including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rihanna, and J-pop queens, such as Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro, and Koda Kumi, have frequently been spotted wearing Alexander McQueen clothing to events. Björk, Ayumi Hamasaki and Lady Gaga have often incorporated Alexander McQueen pieces in their music videos.
Angels and Demons (2010)
Alexander McQueen's last works were given final honors by his trusted team in a hushed and dignified showing that went to his core as a designer who scaled the heights of couture accomplishment. Sarah Burton, his right hand, described how, in beginning this collection, McQueen had turned away from the world of the Internet, which he had so powerfully harnessed in his last show. "He wanted to get back to the handcraft he loved, and the things that are being lost in the making of fashion," she said. "He was looking at the art of the Dark Ages, but finding light and beauty in it. He was coming in every day, draping and cutting pieces on the stand." The 16 outfits shown had been 80 percent finished at the time of his death.
What McQueen was preparing had a poetic, medieval beauty that dealt with religious iconography while recapturing memories of his own past collections. He had ordered fabric that translated digital photographs of paintings of high-church angels and Bosch demons into hand-loomed jacquards, then taken the materials and cut stately caped gowns and short draped dresses. In its ornate surface narrative, that might read as a kick against the plain and restrained direction fashion is taking, but in their own way, the fluted, attenuated lines of his long dresses suggested a calm and simplicity. Instead of aggression, they transmitted the grace of the medieval Madonnas and Byzantine empresses McQueen had been studying.
For anyone who had watched his development through the years, the references to milestone collections were apparent. The bandage-bound heads, some with feathered coxcombs, simultaneously called up the designer's rebel-British background and his landmark Asylum collection while also catching a likeness to the modest head coverings seen in Northern European medieval portraiture. When a high-collared, formfitting cutaway jacket made entirely from golden feathers appeared, it read as a direct retrieval of McQueen's first step into haute couture in his Icarus collection, after he took the helm of Givenchy in 1996 at the age of 27. This time, though, it was realized with even more skill, with a multilayered white tulle skirt sprinkled at the hem with delicate gilded embroidery.
Somehow, that one outfit encapsulated everything about McQueen: both the tailoring and the romanticism. Perhaps he wouldn't have chosen to show it in such a simple and intimate way—in a small, ornate room to privately invited groups of editors—because that left out the full realization of concept and showmanship that equally drove his creativity. But the circumstances, sad as they are, allowed his friends and colleagues to share a long and poignant moment to look at what the man achieved, and to grieve for him.
Horn of Plenty (2009)
Alexander McQueen may be the last designer standing who is brave or foolhardy enough to present a collection that is an unadulterated piece of hard and ballsy showmanship. The heated arguments that broke out afterward were testament to that. There were those who found his picture of women with sex-doll lips and sometimes painfully theatrical costumes ugly and misogynistic. Others—mainly young spectators who haven't been thrilled by the season's many sensible pitches to middle-aged working women—were energized by the sheer spectacle, as well as the couture-level drama in the execution of the clothes.
It was certainly meant as a last-stand fin de siècle blast against the predicament in which fashion, and possibly consumerism as a whole, finds itself. The set was a scrap heap of debris from the stages of McQueen's own past shows, surrounded by a shattered glass runway. The clothes were, for the most part, high-drama satires of twentieth-century landmark fashion: parodies of Christian Dior houndstooth New Look and Chanel tweed suits, moving through harsh orange and black harlequinade looks to revisited showstoppers from McQueen's own archive.
The romantic side of McQueen's character, which rises intermittently in deliriously beautiful shows like his recent tribute to the Victorian empire, was emphatically in abeyance. This is a designer who has drawn so much poetry out of the past, yet this time his backward look appeared to be in something like anger, defiance, or possibly gallows humor. Some of the pieces, like a couple of swag-sided coats, seemed to be made of trash bags, accessorized with aluminum cans wrapped in plastic as headgear.
Nevertheless, however frustrated McQueen may be by the state of commercial fashion, he was not really in absurdist rip-it-up mode. Whatever else is gnawing him, this is a man who will never compromise on construction and craftsmanship. This season, he'd noticeably forgone his typical carapace corsetry, making for slightly easier shapes, like boxy jackets, airy gazar dresses, and a fringed dogtooth sheath. For McQueen's faithful, there were also fiercely tailored coats, nipped in the waist and picking up on biker quilted leather and big-shouldered silhouettes. Evening-wise—sans the drag-queen makeup—there was a slim, black paillette homage-to-YSL wrapover dress with a red-lined hood that would stand up as elegant in any company.
Ultimately, for all the feathered and sculpted showpieces that must have taken hundreds of seamstress-hours to perfect, this was a McQueen collection that didn't push fashion anywhere new. Yet that seemed to be exactly one of the things he was pointing to: the state of a collapsed economy that doesn't know how to move forward.