five things you didn’t know about alexander mcqueen
Alexander McQueen was one of the world’s greatest, most provocative and visionary designers. His eponymous brand carried all that he himself was - a personality of the most glorious dreams and fantasies. As Savage Beauty opens at the V&A, i-D looks at...
1. Designing the costumes for Eonnagata, 2009
Working alongside dance legend Sylvie Guillem and choreography king Russell Maliphant, as well as theatre maestro Robert Lapage, McQueen collaborated on the dance production Eonnagata.
The story is a dramatic and challenging one, exploring the tale of Chevalier d'Eon - an 18th century cross-dresser. Beginning as a male French aristocrat and a spy, Chevalier d'Eon's life is upturned as his cross-dressing lands him in a circus as part of the freak show. As Guillem takes on d'Eon's female counterpart and Maliphant his male one, McQueen brings to life the complex, sad and exhibitionist factors of d'Eon's character through costume.
Quoted in The Guardian in 2009, McQueen said "This male-female character was so up my strasse. I'm interested in the dark psychosis of his mind. There's a melancholy there, especially after he was exiled and became the puppet of the ladies who lunch."
Watching Guillem and Maliphant meet McQueen for fittings in Sylvie Guillem's bio-documentary is to see a master at work. You see him pattern cutting straight onto the body as he creates a hooded cloak for Maliphant, and his mischievous grin after declaring the costumes as "cute."
2. More costumier craft; McQueen enters the fashion world
McQueen left school at 16, an infamous fact. With only one qualification from school - in Art - he began working at Savile Row, at the store Anderson & Sheppard. Though much controversy has surrounded his work at the royally appointed tailors, there was never a jacket found lined with obscenities. Always the maverick, McQueen both down and up-played the rumours. However, it was not only his training at Savile Row that contributed to his expertise, but also his working at Angels, a costumiers that catered to all the London theatres. From the sharp expert, to the dramatic envisionaire, he went on to assist Koji Tatsuno. Based in London at the time, Tatsuno was a designer working to create special one-off pieces that challenged the status quo and were there to be appreciated as art - not necessarily to be bought. Perhaps it was a rejection of the late 80s, early 90s consumerist attitude, but there is an undeniable parallel with McQueen's own clothes and shows being seen as statements, rather than as products and a sale strategy. It was from there in 1989 that McQueen went on to Italy, to the grand Romeo Gigli. Gigli was a maverick in his own way too, an Italian designer who readied himself against the 80s power dressing and celebrated romantic shapes and romantic women. McQueen was hired as an assistant, but after a year came back to London, entered the doors of Central Saint Martins looking for job, and joined, instead, as a student. His graduate show in 1992, was titled Jack the Ripper. Isabella Blow bought the whole collection and the rest, as they say, is history.
3. The Givenchy gala years (1996 - 2001)
McQueen at Givenchy could be seen as the bad side of the late 90s, early 00s (which now - with the current love for nostalgia and ironic fugliness - everyone naturally loves). However, his work on Givenchy spring/summer 2000 which was all white, bad-ass-clobber tracksuits with heels and Gisele opening the show - tell me that ain't fashion.
McQueen's take on the house's couture was also dazzling. Spring/summer 1997 was a collection with rams-heads and white bodices fit for sordid queens. But it was all marked with the drama of the Gucci takeover of Alexander McQueen's own label. Much of it was written in the press, as there were high stakes involved. McQueen as Givenchy creative director, and thus an employee of the LVMH group, had sold 51% of his own name-sake brand to LVMH's competitor, the Gucci Group. It was business, but it was also drama and the fashion world, as well as the rest of the world, was keenly watching to see what would happen. McQueen left the house of Givenchy in 2001.
"I mean, you never see these people. You never get invited to their dinner parties. I just work for them. I've never worked in a couture salon before but I tried not to get too carried away with it… Structure and finesse is what couture is all about. I don't want to embroider everything in sight or play around with metres and metres of tulle. That has no relevance." (Quoted in The Guardian Weekend, January 25th 1997)
4. The Union Jack: David Bowie and McQueen's royal collaboration
In 1997, David Bowie released his album Earthlings, whose cover saw him facing away from the front, with his back covered in a dramatic Union Jack coat. The sharp incisions of the shoulders and the A-line drop are echoed in the very flag pattern on the coat itself. Earthlings the album was very much Bowie's reaction to contemporary culture, and who better to dress him than McQueen himself, who wasn't afraid to comment on and challenge his very own immediate surroundings. It was a time when drum and bass had came around, high-octane ecstasy was in the air and McQueen and Bowie were two artists who were of that time, transcending it in order to manifest it into art.
McQueen himself was of Scottish heritage but grew up in East London, something that would always be a great part of him, with both places providing constant inspiration throughout his life. His own meeting with the Queen, in 2003, when he was honoured as a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was a momentous day for fashion. He is quoted as saying that day, "I now formally urge the British Government to match this recognition by investing in manufacturing and new talent - the foundation of British Fashion."
5. Ultimately, McQueen was a lover.
Perhaps this isn't a fact as such, and those closest to him will know, but it is important to know that McQueen was a lover of the highest sort. It wasn't just his unrivalled ability to compound romanticism into some of the most beautiful and iconic fashion ever, but it was his unbridled attitude towards women that should also be remembered. An enfant terrible, not just of fashion, but of feminism. The bumster trousers, the corseted and shouldered jackets, the shows which demanded unequivocal passion from his team, his models and his audience. When McQueen committed suicide, as well as leaving his inheritance to his family and housekeepers, he bequeathed money to the Sarabande charity to help provide bursaries and funds to students of Central Saint Martins. He also donated to Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, as well as £50,000 for his bull terriers.
All that is a love for something that goes beyond mere fashion.
Text Bojana Kozarevic
Photography Marc Hom courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum