First, do read my review of the extraordinary Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. And now, to put it in context, here is an edited version of the cover feature I wrote for this month’s Where London, the excellent events magazine distributed in four and five-star London hotels. In it I interview the show’s curator, Claire Wilcox, who often used to meet Alexander McQueen at the V&A.
London Fashion Week, the year 2000: Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and actress Gwyneth Paltrow take their places in the front row of a warehouse space to see the latest catwalk collection by Alexander McQueen. As the models strut past, a simple mirrored box in the centre of the stage reflects the audience’s faces back at them. At the show’s climax, the box falls apart to reveal, replacing the audience’s faces, a grotesque, obese woman, naked but for a fetish-style gas mask, and surrounded by moths.
‘The two most terrifying things in the fashion lexicon,’ as the model herself wrote in her diary: ‘ample flesh and moths.’
‘It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry,’ said Alexander McQueen later, ‘turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.’
McQueen was never one to take the easy route. Growing up in east London as the son of a cab driver, McQueen had made dresses for his three sisters, and never wanted to do anything else. The only O-level he got was in Art, so he left school and apprenticed at a Savile Row tailor, where he stitched secret insults into the lining of a jacket for Prince Charles. His graduate collection at the prestigious Central St Martin’s, where he was invited to take an MA in Fashion Design when they recognised his talent, was entitled Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims. His first proper collection was entitled Taxi Driver, and inspired by the violent Martin Scorsese movie. His first catwalk show was entitled Nihilism. They got stranger after that.
‘Each time he’d say, “how am I going to beat that now?”, and push himself harder and harder,’ says Claire Wilcox, the curator of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. ‘His shows were extraordinarily theatrical.’
McQueen won British Designer of the Year four times; he was made chief designer of Givenchy at just 27. So the fashion world was stunned when, aged 40 and depressed at the death of his beloved mother a few days before, and the suicide of his great friend and mentor Isabella Blow before that, he took his own life.
The Metropolitan Museum exhibition that followed in New York a year later broke box-office records. Martin Roth, director of the V&A, recalls how gripped the city was when he flew over for just one day to see it. ‘This immigration guy stopped me and said, “What is the purpose of your visit?” I said, “I’m going to see Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.” And he said, “No.” I said “What do you mean, no?” He said “No. It’s sold out, I’ve tried twice for me and my wife!”’
The V&A has expanded the Met show by an extra third of physical space, and added 40 more garments and accessories to the 200 previously on display (see my review). One welcome change is a new gallery right at the start entitled London: ‘I thought it would be a good idea to understand more about his early days in London when he was broke,’ says Wilcox. ‘This city does produce some great designers. It’s a real cultural melting pot. There’s a marvellous education system here, and a real independence of spirit.’
Wilcox is reminded of a quote from McQueen to illustrate this. She goes off to ask someone to look it up, and returns slightly breathless: ‘What McQueen said is, “Clothes don’t come from a notepad. It’s eclectic. It comes from Degas and Monet and my sister-in-law in Dagenham.”’
And the ’80s were a fantastic time for street style. ‘After punk,’ says Wilcox, ‘you got that new wave of historicism in Westwood and Galliano, the club kids like Boy George dressing up, the emergence of magazines like iD and Dazed & Confused — it was rebellion mixed with historicism and theatre and a devil-may-care attitude.’
Wilcox first met McQueen 20 years ago, and often saw him at the V&A. Surprisingly, for those who think of McQueen only as a rebel, she says he loved bird-watching. Feathers inspired him, not just for their beauty but their engineering, and he drew a lot of his colour palette from the animal kingdom. He also loved museums, says Wilcox, having been taken to the South Kensington museums every Sunday as a child. ‘He noticed everything – he wouldn’t talk much, he would just look; and when he looked at clothes in our archive he understood their construction immediately. I learned a lot from him.
‘There are many stories about his prowess with scissors. It’s said that after he joined Givenchy as Creative Director, the staff took fright at the speed and confidence with which he cut their fabric.’
And that’s what is sometimes forgotten about McQueen. His shows were controversial and spectacular, with models being spray-painted by car-factory robots or gigantic trees made of fabric twisting upward from the catwalk; as he told Time Out when we interviewed him for a cover feature, ‘I don’t want to do a cocktail party, I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions.’ Yet the clothes themselves were strong enough not to be overshadowed.
McQueen had a supreme mastery of line and cut: however outlandish and science-fictional his creations were, they always flattered and enhanced the female form, turning skinny models into fashion superheroines. ‘I want to empower women,’ he said. ‘I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.’