Masterful. And plenty unsettling.
Alexander McQueen is one of fashion’s few for-real artistic geniuses. His collections manifest the wild wanderings of his imagination and emotional state into high theater in which his sartorial wizardry always equals the fantastical visions of his psyche.
That the latter is given to considerable mood swings is not news. Even at his most romantic — the Sarabande collection’s exquisite elegy on inevitable decay; The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’s struggle to leave the darkness for light — McQueen’s work has a major dark side, one which he expresses either romantically, as in those two shows, or with all-out aggression. Such was the case with his remarkable fall collection built on last season’s Darwinian premise that only the strong and adaptable survive. Here McQueen developed the thought further with a mind-blowing ode to recycling and reinvention. Anyone with any appreciation at all for storytelling and showmanship, not to mention for remarkably crafted clothes, had to have been awed. “This [economic] crisis isn’t my fault,” the designer said the day before his show. “I have to be who I am. This is hard. It’s old McQueen, aggressive McQueen. In this business, you have to be aggressive and have aggressive feelings.”
So out they poured — make that stormed — against the backdrop of a junk heap compiled from the set trappings of his past shows, veiled chandelier, carousel horse, random branches, along with all sorts of other refuse, including the proverbial kitchen sink. First out: a muscular reworking of the New Look and Audrey Hepburn-vintage Givenchy, in which, (aided by the Leigh Bowery lipstick), one sensed not only a celebration of the couture of yore, but also a dig at McQueen’s former employer and, perhaps, at a particular former designing colleague. Accurate or not, the motif made for a spectacular parade, an extravaganza of remarkable cut and construction in mix-and-match houndstooth. The bravado continued in high-drama coats, including a black, floral-flocked leather and intricately wrought knits, and went through to evening with a double-bubble ballgown, its black-and-red houndstooth morphing into a flock of dangerous birds, and a strapless siren gown crafted from tightly packed feathers. McQueen kept the recycling theme going throughout, working his own classics, finishing off looks with Philip Treacy’s spectacular hats — lamp shade, umbrella or deli plastic bag — and showing some elaborate fare in faux garbage-bag plastic and bubble wrap (actually treated silks).
The message, wrapped up in haute homage, was about marshalling one’s mettle in the interests of survival. And it was one of power and provocation. At this dangerous time for fashion, the best collections of the season have been the ones in which designers have made bold, signature statements, most of them optimistic. McQueen dared to express those other emotions, anger and frustration, twinges of which nowadays must pinch at even fashion’s sunniest types from time to time. Whether his brilliant outpouring of ire will ultimately prove cathartic or reckless remains to be seen.