Death sometimes initiates hyperbole of praise. This is not one of those times. Alexander McQueen was an artist. That distinction makes him a rare breed in fashion, one of only a handful of modern designers whose names even make it into the discussion.
Yet while identifying him as an artist, it is essential as well to celebrate McQueen as an extraordinary designer of fashion, one who not only could, but did, make beautiful clothes for women to wear. His career-long struggle to succeed commercially involved numerous factors, but definitely not on the list was a lack of interest in, or the inability to create, clothes for life beyond the runway.
This story first appeared in the February 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A LOOK AT THE MAJOR THEMES THROUGHOUT MCQUEEN’S CAREER>>
Funneled through his complicated personality, McQueen’s talent manifested in a likewise complicated and intense aesthetic, one marked by an ongoing counterpoint between aggression and romance. The two sides variously coexisted and clashed. Either way, McQueen displayed a theatrical brilliance that awed his audiences. But then, from the beginning, he proved a captivating storyteller, creating deeply realized characters through fashion. He rocketed to attention in London with shockingly cool crowd-pleasers such as 1995’s “The Highland Rape,” its cast done up in outrageous tattered tartans and pants, which sat dangerously low on the hips.
When he crossed the channel from London to Paris for a brief stint at Givenchy, the turmoil of which was well-documented, McQueen thrust himself under a new level of scrutiny. From then on he would be judged on fashion’s most competitive and high-profile stage, and if his intensity and wild motifs were often at least as disturbing as they were chic, his obvious passion elicited endless reciprocal passions, whether of admiration or dismay. After he fled LVMH for the more simpatico Gucci Group, he embarked upon an amazing creative roll, turning out, in relatively short order, shows that told stories of a shipwreck, a dance marathon, a human chess game. These amazed while flaunting McQueen’s range as a designer, from the impeccable Savile Row-nurtured tailoring to strident strokes of S&M, to magical gowns as likely to be crafted from hand-painted plaster or real, full-bloom roses as from chiffons and tulles.
Often, McQueen’s motifs closely followed his moods. His glorious escapade for fall 2008, “The Girl Who Lived in the Tree,” was born of a month spent in India, a respite which he later said had brought him out of a year of darkness during which his shows honored his friend and mentor Isabella Blow, who had taken her own life, and in a deeply angry presentation, Elizabeth Howe, a McQueen ancestor and victim of the Salem Witch Trials. The Tree show opened with depictions of a sad girl bedecked in gloriously Goth Victoriana, who had shut herself off from the world in a tree. By the second half, she had fled the darkness for the light, a transformation signaled by her embrace of spectacular, frothy Fifties couture-type dresses worked with lavish Indian-inspired embellishments. The next season, however, McQueen’s mood turned once more, as he began a three-season dissertation on the Darwinian darkness and man’s relationship to and abuse of nature.
In the days and weeks to come, much will likely be discussed about how McQueen’s mind-set impacted his work. But one thing is certain: His was the mind of a genius.
“People find my things sometimes aggressive,” McQueen said in 2002. “But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, with a dark side of personality, you know? And maybe sometimes I go too far. But that’s just me.”
Alexander McQueen: A look at the major themes throughout the designer’s career.
McQueen thrilled audiences with his elaborate runway sets, from mock nail beds to whirling merry-go-rounds.
McQueen frequently wove bird motifs — including peacock-shaped headgear made from twigs — into his collections.
THE SUIT LIFE
For all the theater and emotion in his designs, McQueen was also a master tailor.
A FINE ROMANCE
When McQueen went fanciful and romantic, he did so to breathtaking effect.
ON THE EDGE
Whether futuristic or darkly aggressive, McQueen was brilliantly provocative with the tough stuff, too.
Few designers could do high-drama like McQueen. Here, a few showstopping looks and moments.