The sheer genius of Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen always loved to put on a good show.
I feel so very fortunate that I got to see several of them over the past decade. They were often held in a faded gymnasium or decrepit arena far out in the Paris suburbs. Everyone in the fashion press complained about the long hike out to the middle of nowhere, but no one would dare miss a McQueen extravaganza.
The clothes often looked like period pieces — until you deconstructed them and found many modern wearable items amid the theatrics — and the settings were either futuristic hodgepodges or Edwardian tableaus. But a McQueen show always sent me out on a fashion high.
So much of fashion is about fantasy and illusion. And when it came to the thrills, McQueen was the master. He just always seemed to think bigger than any major fashion designer.
I was shocked to hear the news of McQueen's death on Thursday, just as the fashion world was set to focus on the fall collections in New York. He was only 40 when he apparently took his own life only a few days after his mother died. I can only wonder what else he might have accomplished if he had conquered his own demons.
No two McQueen shows were alike. In one show, he created an 18th-century sitting room with a chandelier that lay on the ground before rising to the ceiling (the reverse of the Phantom of the Opera) and a nine-piece chamber orchestra. In the final number, a model in a gown that resembled a life-size corsage intentionally left a trail of flowers as she left the runway. While he featured bustles and padded hips, once such features were stripped away, his looks were modern. McQueen liked to tweak norms that way.
The next season his runway was marked with a gigantic red pentagram while a hologram flashed images of giant locusts devouring each other. McQueen said he was inspired by learning that one of his ancestors was a witch burned at the stake in the 1600s. This collection ran the gamut from cave-girl furs to breast-plated bodysuits. I wasn't crazy about it, but my friends and I argued over its merits all the way back into Paris during the long taxi ride. Even if you thought McQueen had missed his mark, he made you think.
Another time he created a fractured fairy tale collection that started with morbidly dark Addams Family dresses and ended with bright jeweled Masterpiece Theater gowns, inspired by a trip to India.
But his most personal show came in October, 2007 when he paid tribute to his mentor, British stylemaker Isabella Blow, another tortured figure who committed suicide a few months earlier. Blow had discovered McQueen when he was a fashion student and launched his career. Upon entering the arena, we sniffed Blow's favorite fragrance, Fracas by Rober Tiguet. For the tribute, he transformed the runway into a gigantic erector set that mimicked a bird's wings — Blow had a passion for birds and big hats — and sent out a collection of feathery creations that moved those of us in the audience to tears with its sheer beauty.
Two years before the tribute to Blow, McQueen stood by his friend Kate Moss, who was pilliored in the press after a photo showing her snorting cocaine with her rocker boyfriend appeared on the front page of the British tabloids. When many in the fashion world shunned her and nervous advertisers dropped her, he showed up at the end of his show wearing a T-shirt that read, "We love you Kate."
Last year, at a time when frightened designers were scaling back their shows because their luxury customers were scared off by the recession, McQueen boldly forged ahead with a collection that seemed like a 15-year retrospective of his career. It made me realize how many of his pieces had stood the test of time.
Some fashion historians carped that it was too early for McQueen to look back into his archives.
Now, I'm so glad he did.
Behind the scenes at McQueen's "retrospective" collection last year
Here's the final runway walk at the show; listen to the theme song: