the models, mohawks and manacles that made mcqueen's story

The author of "Gods and Kings," the recent book about McQueen and Galliano, talks us through five rarely seen photos that throw light on Lee's life.

by Stuart Brumfitt
13 March 2015, 9:50pm

Dana Thomas's recent book, Gods & Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, caused a stir with its tales of how "two working-class British boys shook fashion to its core." Here Thomas, also Contributing Editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, talks us through some of the archive imagery of McQueen that illustrates the book. From his mohawk that scared off her Newsweek International editors to his #freethenipple (before it existed) "Get Your Tits Out" knits, these five pics provide great insight into the life and times of Lee McQueen. 

"In mid-July 1998, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on LVMH head Bernard Arnault. Though he owned several dozen luxury brands and had many high-profile designers in his stable, including John Galliano at Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Arnault chose to be photographed with his Givenchy designer Alexander McQueen. (This image is from the contact sheets of that shoot.) Arnault watchers immediately made note: McQueen was now moving into the realm of most-favored designer."

"For his Fall-Winter 1994-1995 show Banshee, McQueen hired a young Welshman named Julien Macdonald, who was studying fashion textiles, to do the knitwear. Macdonald remembers: '[McQueen] drew up a quick sketch of the sweater'—a pullover turtleneck with vertical panels in transparent fishing line that revealed the bosom—'and he named it "Get Your Tits Out" whilst laughing hysterically. He loved the shock value and told me that it reminded him of a fetish outfit he had seen in a club the night before.'"

"The most subversive piece in McQueen's spring/summer 97 collection "La Poupée" was one McQueen commissioned his friend the jewelry designer Shaun Leane to make: a square metal frame with manacles on each corner that attached to a model's upper arms and thighs, effectively shackling her into a square form. McQueen asked the American black model Debra Shaw if she would open the show wearing the frame.

'Well,' she responded, 'what is the history behind it? Is it a reference to slavery?'

'No, God,' he insisted.

The frame, he said, was a commentary on all of that: constraint, Aryan beauty, Surrealism, and in modern times, what he saw as the fascist dictates of fashion — the rules of taste and what was acceptable set by a group of people he deemed bourgeois and boring. When she tried the piece on, she says now, 'I felt like my body was in a picture frame.' She did not feel fettered like a slave. 'I'm proud of my heritage and my race,' she insists, 'and I would never do anything that would be humiliating.'"

"In February 1997, I went to interview McQueen at Givenchy headquarters for a cover story I was writing about him and his new job for Newsweek International. Just before I arrived, he shaved his hair into a Mohawk at his desk—there were still bits of hair on the white formica top. "I love to do things spontaneously," he cracked. Fashion photographer Mark Arbeit did the cover shoot in an adjoining room and this is the Polaroid I kept — it's been in my desk ever since. McQueen's look so scared Newsweek's editors in New York that they cut him out of the image and only ran the models on the cover."

"McQueen staged his first ready-to-wear show for Givenchy at Halles aux Chevaux, an old horse slaughterhouse on the edge of Paris, where cobblestone floors slanted toward drains for the flow of animal blood. The clothes were a mix of tidy tailoring, such as smart gray flannel suits and Audrey Hepburn-like sleeveless shifts, and tawdry party wear, like leopard-print catsuits and tight black vinyl dresses — those Russ Meyer girls with their bountiful bosoms bursting forth. At the end, a Mohawked McQueen, dressed in a dark suit with a geranium pink shirt, took his bow with bawdy, busty French actress Béatrice Dalle erupting from a shiny black dress."

Dana Thomas's Gods & Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (Penguin) is out now.


Bernard Arnault and Alexander McQueen, 1998 © Jake Chessum/Supervision
Tim Douglas/Camera Press/Redux
Neville Marriner/Daily Mail/Rex USA
Mark Arbeit
Ken Towner/Evening Standard/Rex USA

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