Like so many fashion friends of a certain calibre and age range, I too have my seminal memories of Alexander McQueen. His were the shows, along with Hussein Chalayan, that I knew would excite, provoke and inspire me, rising like phoenixes above the dross shown by so many other designers in London. One Hussein show, where Turkish folk musicians played in silhouette, as a backdrop to a show where dresses were inspired by costumes my unknown aunties might have worn in the Tarsus mountains, moved me to tears. Alexander’s shows were always exciting: we would show up to some disused, dank grey building, to be lit up with mind blowing technicolour and magical. almost Powell and Pressburger-like truly British narratives. Truly British, as these shows and their designer, understood the core of technique, fit and cut, well enough to deconstruct and recreate on his own terms. Something which any younger child of the punk era, watching from the periphery, as teenagers cut their hair, their clothes and selves into new shapes, fuelled by anger at the stuffy status quo, saw as the shock on the new on their TV or local high street. Children in Britain wear uniforms to school: we understand the classic cut of cloth into status, conformity and class at a very young age. It is this, combined with his training at Savile Row and then at St. Martin’s, which I think, along with the passion of an enquiring mind, delving into history and research, created such an overwhelming resonance in his designs.
My first memories of Alexander – I called him this, as Isabella Blow insisted that we did – was at Vogue, where I was interning in 1994/5. I sat next to Isabella, who was constantly on her ‘phone, promoting him, along with Owen Gaster and Philip Treacy, as her trio of protegees. He would come in to the office almost daily for chats; when we needed to call in clothes, it was by phoning his mother’s house. He refused to have his photo taken, as he was so shy and it took a lot of cajoling on her side to have him agree to a Vogue portrait. Isabella was pushing his talent onto anyone who would listen. Tiina Laakonen was a fashion editor there, fresh from working for Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. One afternoon, we fitted clothes on her in the fashion cupboard. This was the first time when I saw a pair of the now infamous bumsters, these were white silk taffeta, slightly flared, worn with a tightly nipped at the waist matching jacket with 1940’s meets Blade Runner-style shoulders, cut like a frock coat, yet utterly contemporary, exposing the midriff to a level I had previously only seen worn by my Goa rave friends, in their low cut Thai trousers, at squat parties.
I went to the press preview yesterday excited but nervous. Excited as I was glad that Savage Beauty had come to London: like many others I readily signed Melanie Rickey’s petition to bring the exhibition from the Met to London back in 2011. Nervous that there would be a whitewash or some kind of pastiche of his legacy – a large word for someone who died so young and so tragically. The move from East End boy on the dole, making clothes at his mother’s, to head of a fashion house and courted by the corporate world, had been swift and spectacular; so I was aware that there might be a recalibration of that tension, with it’s challengingly creative shock of the radical, yet romantic gothic heart, of the man, the clothes, the shows, the label. Then I went into the exhibition and there in the first room, his mother’s soothing, loving London voice, reading out his school report, taken from an early documentary, from when he was working at Givenchy rose above the exhibits and I knew that this was going to be brilliant. A show which didn’t shy away from the difficult or the challenging; but accepted these as a vital part of each collection.
Subversion is at the heart of Savage Beauty: from the pinstripe bumsters wilfully worn away at the front zip from his graduation Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims show, right through to Plato’s Atlantis, his final show, where he used digital prints, to create an army of mythical amphibian goddesses, via my favourite, In Memory of Elizabeth How, Salem 1692. I challenge you to not be moved by Savage Beauty: the nuances of what the very title and the names, based around different notions of what the word romantic might mean, in each of the rooms.
How someone who left school without qualifications and background, managed in such a tragically short life to create and execute season on season, is in itself unusual. His work his is no less brilliant than any of his contemporary YBA artists.
I rarely use the term artist to describe fashion, as it seems somewhat trite to use high art words when talking about clothes. But if you do visit the exhibition, and I urge you to try, I defy you not to also view Alexander McQueen in those terms.