May 2011 12

by Secretary

Alexander McQueen, ‘l’enfant terrible’ of British fashion, is having a truly global moment.

As some of the most famous people in the world gathered in outlandish creations for the Met Gala, which this year celebrated the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s McQueen retrospective (Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which has attracted 46,000 visitors in its opening week – a Met record), it was hard for a dedicated follower of fashion not to wonder what its namesake would have felt about all this attention.

A few days prior to the Met event, an estimated two billion people watched worldwide as plain old Kate Middleton walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, and walked back up it again as Princess Catherine. The million-dollar question: who designed the dress? The answer? A private woman that very little is known about: Sarah Burton, who’s served as the creative director at Alexander McQueen ever since the tragic suicide of her boss over a year ago.

Burton has worked for the house of McQueen for sixteen years now, starting in 1996 when the eponymous designer was outraging Britain’s Daily Mail readers the land over with his Spring/Summer ’95 “Bumster” jeans (they didn’t leave much to the imagination) and his Autumn/Winter ’95 “Highland Rape” collection. Fondly remembered for having all the contextual subtly of Tracey Emin‘s high school art projects, the dresses looked like they’d been clawed from the bodies of the models – and tampons did make an appearance. The publicity was immediate and it was insatiable.

Burton was known in fashion circles as being a consistent and calmer counterbalance to McQueen’s intense, somewhat maniacal genius. The brand became synonymous with theatricality. The fashion shows became one of the hottest tickets during Paris fashion week, turning into the kind of events that people who had little interest in fashion would have loved to have been at, just to say they’d seen for themselves. It really kicked off in 1999, when prominent model Shalom Harlow, wearing a billowing, knee-length white dress secured at the bust with a belt, was spray-painted before the audience by two mechanical arms as she rotated on a specially-built platform.

There was also the “Asylum” collection, during the show for which the models prowled around the inside of a box, constructed of two-way mirrors so that the audience could see in, but the models couldn’t see out. For the finale, a box within the box opened up which contained a naked, plus-size women reclining on a chaise langue, covered in moths, her face obscured by sinister gas-mask-like breathing apparatus. The show for Spring/Summer ’05 had the models facing off across a giant chessboard, each dressed in some way to emulate a piece of the game but somehow each feeling like a pawn.

As the years went on, the spectacle grew. Soon after Kate Moss’s cocaine scandal, McQueen finished his show by projecting a hologram of her, floating above the runway in an ethereal dress. His Autumn/Winter ’09 show, entitled “Horn of Plenty” featured models with their mouths garishly painted to the point that they became grotesque. They wore discarded trash on their heads, thanks to legendary hat maker Philip Tracey, and the message was ominous, pandering to a futuristic dystopia that lurks somewhere beyond what you hope is possible.

Then there was the leather, the bondage, the S&M influences, the Armadillo shoes that the models refused to walk in for fear that they’d break their necks (you know, the shoes that Lady Gaga wears in her “Bad Romance” video? Yes, those). Somewhere it was evident that McQueen was a fully paid up member of the “pain is beauty” school of thought. But what beauty he created. For every dark moment, he gave us a place to escape to; Russian-inspired dresses as beautiful and delicate as a Faberge egg, a dress that could well have been a sculpture. Inspired by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, the elaborate creation had living blooms stitched into it, which then shed as the model walked down the runway.

Perhaps it was unsurprising then that McQueen, whose mind dwelt in such dark places and yearned for such beautiful ones, would eventually stop finding catharsis in putting the twisted results of his rabid imaginings onto the catwalk for us to delight in. It was front-page news when, on the 11th February 2010, he was found hanged in his wardrobe. His suicide note simply said he was sorry, and asked that his dogs would be looked after. The Autumn/Winter 2010 collection he left behind, extremely unfinished, spoke much more eloquently for him; it featured religious imagery and one particular coat, made from golden feathers, looked as though he had some sort of angelic being in mind whilst he was designing it. It seemed that McQueen had been intent on conceptualizing the afterlife, with all its romanticism, wanting to bring a bit of heaven down to earth via his clothing.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until July 31.



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