Savage Grace

Savage Grace

The hooligan of fashion. l’enfant terrible. Lee. Five years after his death, we’re still getting to know McQueen

From the day that he debuted bumster trousers in his A/W 1993 Taxi Driver collection, exposing inches of butt-cheek, to the bow he took in a ‘WE LOVE YOU KATE’ T-shirt at his Paris show in 2005, pledging support to Kate Moss after her cocaine scandal – Lee Alexander McQueen was always the master of headline moments. He was the showman with magnetic creativity, the bad boy of fashion who delighted in offending, and five years after his untimely death, he’s front page news again.

We’ve all heard about the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at London’s V&A – the major retrospective that covers everything from his 1992 graduate work to his final, unfinished A/W 2010 collection. It seems a fitting follow-up to last year’s Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! show – an homage to his muse and confidante,Isabella Blow, which was hosted at Somerset House. But the late designer also pops up this spring in Kent Baker’s new photography book Inferno: Alexander McQueen (Laurence King Publishing), and in a second show, Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process, on at the Tate Britian (10 March-17 May).

These projects are all trying, via different routes, to get to the truth of who the real McQueen was. The V&A’s exhibition, which originally showed in New York in 2011, is a long-awaited chance for Brits to see his legendary creations up close – from gothic-inspired couture to unashamed fetishistic accessories. Finally exhibiting in his beloved hometown, it promises to give insight into what admirers consider his once-in-a-blue-moon genius.

Kent Baker’s book, on the other hand, takes a narrow and up-close look at McQueen at a specific moment in time: his 1996 Dante collection, a creative tour  de force that became one of the professional highlights of his life. Nick Waplington’s Tate Modern show focuses on 2009’s The Horn of Plenty, which was McQueen’s penultimate womenswear collection. The exhibition holds a magnifying glass up to his meticulous working process: the sketching, the fittings and the show’s production. It is McQueen the consummate craftsman.

So why are all these events happening now? They’re symptoms of the cult of McQueen. Baker’s photographs, for example, are accompanied by memories from journalists, make-up artists and even an ex-boyfriend – a handful of the friends and collaborators who moved in his orbit. Since his death in 2010, no shortage of people have come forward to give their version of who he was – from his shyness and loyalty, to the inner demons that haunted him throughout his life. As the years go by, our hunger for memories and stories about him doesn’t seem to be sated.

After the designer’s suicide, long-term colleague Sarah Burton stepped into McQueen’s shoes as Creative Director. Since then, Burton has won respect and plaudits, including the prestigious Womenswear Designer of the Year title at the 2011 British Fashion Awards,  followed up by the Red Carpet Designer title at last year’s event.

The fashion press approve of the way she’s progressed the label: ‘By the time McQueen died, it was clear his interest lay in the direction of demi-couture,’ says  The Times Deputy Fashion Editor Harriet Walker. ‘Sarah Burton has developed  this aspect with collections that have incorporated incredibly high levels of workmanship into the off-beat, strung-out vision she inherited.’

But what she perhaps can’t match is McQueen’s showmanship. He was famous for spectacular catwalk shows, featuring everything from floating ghosts to atmospheric downpours, taxidermy and  chess boards. While Burton is exceptionally talented, she is a different person with different strengths. ‘A new period is beginning,’ she recently told The New York Times. ‘I loved Lee, but he is gone.’

So, what was at the heart of McQueen?  No amount of gossip will ever reveal the truth. For all his friends and admirers, he died alone; but despite the dark romance of his work, he lit up the lives of those around him. That’s why we still can’t get enough. 

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty runs at the V&A from 14 March to 2 August



Remembering four spectacular Alexander McQueen shows…

The Golden Shower
For the  show-stopping finale of  the S/S 98 collection, McQueen made  it rain on the catwalk,drenching the models. Under their feet,  the water-tank runway gradually filled with oozing black fluid.

Untitled (S/S 1999)

Model Shalom Harlow rotated on a turntable at the climax of this legendary show, while two robots liberally spray-painted her dress. 

High above the catwalk at the A/W 03 show, a model moved slowly through  a wind tunnel, her kimono billowing dramatically around her.

Widows of Culloden
Twisting in a glass pyramid  at the A/W 06 show, a wisp  of smoke turned into a ‘Pepper’s ghost’ hologram of Kate Moss, eerily beautiful in a white dress. See Kate’s hologram for yourself at the V&A exhibiion.

  • Words: Hattie Crisell

  • Photography: Kent Baker,, Michel Dufour, Rex, Anthea Simms, V&A, Nick Waplington