By  on April 13, 2009

With a global financial crisis as the backdrop to the fall collections, one of the biggest questions hanging over the shows was if designers would play it safe or stick their necks out.

From the moment the fashion pack arrived at Alexander McQueen’s venue and encountered the set— a steaming mound of blackened runway props of yore atop a cracked-mirror runway— it was clear this designer was in the mood for something fierce.

“I wasn’t born to give you a twinset and pearls,” the designer deadpans.

Instead, he unleashed a full-strength, hard-core McQueen experience, complete with killer heels, theatrical makeup, bone-shuddering music, preening models and— of course— breathtakingly dramatic clothes, from wet-look dresses made of a material resembling garbage bags to don’t-mess-with-me peak-shouldered coats.  If other designers have recently homed in on McQueen’s signature brand of power dressing, he laid down a gauntlet with his nuclear-powered dressing.

“People need escapism in times like this,” he says over the line from his London studio, about a week after having celebrated his 40th birthday at private members’ club Shoreditch House. “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment. It’s time to let loose a bit. [People] don’t want to look at a two-piece suit with a wide belt. They want to see something that takes them away.”

The son of a taxi driver who once described himself as a “big-mouth East London yob,” McQueen launched his signature label in the early Nineties, another period of tough economic times. In preparing his fall collection, titled “The Horn of Plenty” and based on the concept of reinvention and recycling, the designer says he watched a lot of news and was inundated with the unfolding subprime mortgage crisis and its worldwide aftermath. Mostly he became bored of “this money situation” and decided to “do something crazy.”


“You know that everyone’s sales are going to be down 20 percent anyway. You may as well make a statement,” he shrugs. “I just wanted to make a point that the situation was not of my own doing, to make a statement about myself and the reason why I work in fashion.”

The silhouettes and prints were innovative, bold and eye-popping, including a bustier dress in an awning stripe with the skirt fanning up over one shoulder. “Any black with a red or orange stripe is a sign of warning, even in the animal kingdom,” the designer growls.

Famously contrarian, McQueen says he figured the compulsion of most designers would be to follow well-worn paths, which he toyed with in witty and powerful send-ups of bourgeois French fashions and his own archive. The use of houndstooth— or “dog’s tooth,” as McQueen calls it— symbolized this retreat to the safety of classicism. McQueen took it “to the edge” and had the “teeth” morphing into magpies in a nod to mind-bending Dutch artist M.C. Escher. He then sculpted these printed fabrics into wicked jackets and siren-worthy gowns.

“I don’t think it helps anyone to be safe,” he says, characterizing tweaking an old standard or doing a best-selling look “in a different color” as no way to kick-start a stalled economy. “Just because it’s classic doesn’t mean you can get people to part with their money. When there is this climate, people seem to revert into themselves and regurgitate the same old ideas…the tried-and-tested formulas,” McQueen explains in his take-no-prisoners parlance. “You should really put a brake on old ideas, so I put them in a pile of rubbish. If I could have, I would have set fire to it.”

No need. The fashions were incendiary enough.

“He proves to be able to tap into a bottomless well of vision and skill, bordering on a savant’s mad genius,” enthuses Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation. “It’s a very rare and potent punch, and very welcome in this new no-frills era of zero tolerance for risk and fantasy.” Fargo says she can already envision one of his “gaga showpieces” in Bergdorf’s holiday windows.

Barbara Atkin, Holt Renfrew’s vice president of fashion direction, calls the show a rare moment of fashion brilliance, “lavish and unconventional, disturbing and yet beautiful at the same time.” What’s more, she also applauds McQueen’s Darwinian pretext that “only the strong will survive” and “not taking a risk is the biggest risk.” Already, Atkin decided to put McQueen’s exit number one on the cover of its Holts magazine next season.

“We bought some of these fantastical pieces from the runway along with more commercial looks,” she says. “His innovative approach to fashion has given him a strong signature, turning him into an authentic brand with a clear message, hence a strong following.”

McQueen chief executive officer Jonathan Akeroyd declines to give figures, but says sales of the collection were in line with expectations, from runway showpieces to more commercial interpretations. Look number one, a houndstooth skirt suit, was a bestseller, along with a houndstooth chiffon dress and an evening gown made of red feathers that retails for 7,400 euros, or $9,800 at current exchange. Akeroyd said show pieces represent about 35 percent of total sales for the season, with commercial interpretations, including a houndstooth jacket and lamé dress, both retailing for less than 1,000 euros ($1,320), among the most popular.

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