By  on April 4, 2006

Like some fashion Wordsworth, Alexander McQueen felt the world was too much with us when he was creating his spectacular fall-winter collection.

He sought escape and solace in the remote and rugged Scottish Highlands, and he swept his audience right along with him, delivering a stirring fashion moment. By the time a ghostly apparition of Kate Moss had vaporized as mysteriously as it appeared for the finale—to the haunting strains of the Schindler's List sound track—editors and retailers were on their feet and roaring.

"I'm an avid follower of the news, and sometimes you just can't take any more war, any more disasters, and you want to remind yourself there's beauty in the world," McQueen says of his presentation. "I wanted to show a more poetic side to my work. It was all about melancholy and a feeling of sadness, but in a cine-matic kind of way. I find beauty in melancholy."

The show was in many ways a sequel to McQueen's seminal and controversial Highland Rape collection of 1995; the contrast between them highlights the designer's growing confidence and technical prowess. Yet this season's collection sprung from the same raw, creative impulse that had made McQueen, the son of a taxi driver, a soaring fashion talent more than a decade ago.

To be sure, the original Highland Rape, which McQueen says he intended to counter romanticized images of Scottish history, immediately evoked accusations of misogyny and has remained controversial ever since. "People thought there was real blood and tampon strings hanging," McQueen recalls, denouncing such reports as falsehoods. "It was really just a hedonistic collection: wild women in the Highlands."

Despite a shoestring budget, the earlier show demonstrated McQueen's natural talent for theatricality. Models, some wearing spooky contact lenses that blacked out their eyes, stumbled or stormed out dramatically onto a runway strewn with detritus, wearing clothes that were often ripped, torn and tattered. "Most of the collection was built on remnants from fabric shops," McQueen explains. "I think I made most everything myself."

But McQueen, who has long maintained that his shows are highly autobiographical, was in a different state of mind back then. After all, he once described himself as a "big-mouth East London yob," and his feisty nature and liberal use of expletives earned him a bad rap in the press early on. "I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about fashion," he confesses.Not so today.

"I'm back into the swing. I think I found my mojo," McQueen chirps, sounding rested after a vacation in Majorca, Spain. "Even though Highland Rape may have been seen as controversial, it wasn't meant to be. And that passion came back again. You need to understand why you're in fashion in the first place. For me, doing a show means having my own personal half-hour of everyone's attention to make a point."

McQueen, who had a rocky four-year tenure as the couturier at Givenchy, has no lingering resentment about an experience he once described as a "nightmare." Instead, he credits his time working in that couture atelier for the quantum leaps in technical mastery between the first Highland collection and its sequel. Moss' finale dress, for example, is a marvel of weightless, coiling ruffles invisibly mounted on tulle—a far cry from the vinyl "bumster" pants of yore.

But McQueen has taken a much more studied approach to building his own house, demonstrating a business acumen often overshadowed by pants-dropping showmanship and his reputation for unpredictable behavior. "My feet have been on the ground a long time," he asserts. "I believe in a cement foundation and not just overnight sensation. It's meant to be thought out very carefully.…I think I'm a very careful businessman."

McQueen's Amwell Street headquarters in London, a Dickensian jumble of cluttered workrooms linked by rickety staircases, is hardly a corporate environment, or even a particularly luxurious one. Coffee is served in paper cups; fabric remnants are stored hap-hazardly in stacks of cheap plastic hampers and the dyeing room is announced by a disturbing splash of red paint across a white door.

But the designer, who sold a 51 percent stake of his company to Gucci Group in 2000, is proud of the fact he's never gone bankrupt and that his clothes actually sell. Indeed, he disclosed that the firm is poised to beat the 2007 deadline for breaking even set by Robert Polet, Gucci Group president and chief executive officer, in late 2004. McQueen describes his working relationship with the suits at Gucci parent PPR, who took over following the departure of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, as "fantastic" and stresses that he has all the creative and financial freedom he needs. "I prefer to spend my money on an artistic event," he says by way of example. "I like a spectacle, and I think people in fashion do, too.His latest take on Highland Rape, replete with allusions to Lady Macbeth and the widows of Culloden—a reference to the 18-century Battle of Culloden— certainly called for a more narrative and theatrical approach, including a towering set of bare boards meant to convey the scale of the Scottish hills. And look out for another potential blockbuster presentation come October. "The next [collection] I've started on already will need it," he says—"it" being a big budget and technical aid from the theater, film and special-effects industries.

McQueen chief executive Jonathan Akeroyd says that the impulse for the spectacular show might have come from the designer, but it ended up being "almost tactical" in propelling the brand and the company. "It paid off. It created such a positive feeling with the buyers and the editors," Akeroyd says. He declines to give figures, but characterizes the wholesale campaign as "very strong," and the company's sales pace as "double-digit."

What was shown on the runway represented about half of what was available back in the showroom, and Akeroyd cites strong orders for cocktail dresses, cutaway jackets, tartan trousers and chunky knit cardigans, including a convertible style that can be worn long or doubled up. "Customers have over the past few years really bought into those show pieces," he notes.

Clothes remain the backbone of McQueen, but the company is becoming more diversified. As recently as 2004, some 75 percent of its business was women's ready-to-wear, Akeroyd says. This year, the category is likely to come in at about 55 percent, reflecting the growth of accessories, shoes and men's wear. And while handbags were a major push last year, footwear is the priority for 2006. "That alone will be 15 percent of our business already," Akeroyd says. "Shoes had a brilliant season."

He says the priority is to continue building the company's main in-house categories and key licensed products such as the McQ secondary line, slated to arrive in some 450 doors this fall, including areas in Selfridges in London and Printemps in Paris.

"We see this to be a very important project for the company," Akeroyd says of the McQ collection, which is positioned as younger and edgier than the flagship line. "We expect McQ to be competing with the likes of DSquared, which is one of the most successful lines in that category. Alexander can do beautiful, luxurious, tailored and very elegant things, but he can also be young, innovative, raw and edgy."Gucci Group's Polet, meanwhile, reiterates that the McQueen business is "very healthy." While he declines to discuss figures, the group's most recent results show a dramatic improvement at its "other brands," which include Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, Boucheron and Sergio Rossi, in addition to McQueen. "To swing from a 39 million euro [$47 million at current exchange] loss to a 13 million euro [$16 million] loss is pretty big," Polet says, detailing the 2005 operating profit tallies. "All the brands are growing strongly—and stronger than expected."

And he says the 2007 break-even deadline, which sent tremors through Gucci Group's smaller brands when he announced it, is having the desired effect. "It focused the minds of everyone, gave them clear targets and a clear, direct ambition," he explains, noting of McQueen, "the brand is at the beginning of its life. It is so distinctive and has so much of its own character that I think it has its own staying power." Polet, among the first to rush backstage after the March show with congratulations, encountered the designer with two fists in the air, declaring triumphantly, "This is Alexander McQueen!"

The apex of that show was the heart-stopping apparition of Kate Moss. The designer says he chose to incorporate Moss' image into his finale partly as a statement of support for his friend, who was dropped from the campaigns of a number of fashion companies in the wake of her cocaine scandal. "I thought she was treated really badly by the press," McQueen says. "I think she's above all that. I'm very loyal to the people around me."

To achieve the ethereal effect, Moss was filmed suspended in a harness equipped with a turntable and surrounded by multiple wind machines. The two hours of filming were overseen by director Baillie Walsh, who has done music videos for Massive Attack and George Michael. The Moss finale was created as a hologram, but ultimately realized by an old magician's trick called "Pepper's Ghost" that dates back to Victorian times, creating the illusion of a figure materializing on stage. This time it involved projecting the video image on four perfectly placed panes of glass on a pyramid for a ghostly, three-dimensional effect."It was a hard one to pull off, and it went over budget, but sometimes you can't help it," McQueen says with a laugh, hastening to add, "But we made it up in sales."

This article appeared in WWD The Magazine, a special publication of WWD available to subscribers.

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