11 June 2018

A Visual Alphabet of Alexander McQueen

The legacy of Alexander McQueen is almost immeasurable. His disruptive approach to the fashion industry, his ability to channel the most profound notions of philosophy, art and beauty into clothes and his incredible sense of occasion and spectacle made him a designer like no other. More than any other designer to date, his work transcended the functional nature of clothing and elevated it to the highest echelons of conceptual art. His route to the top was long and complex, his friends were many and his inspirations were diverse. In the list below, I explore just some of the ideas, collections, concepts and figures that defined the man and the designer.

A is for art
If there was ever a designer who brought together the worlds of fashion and art it was McQueen: fiercely challenging the conventions of the industry, he turned couture into pieces of the avant-garde and shoes into sculptures. Looking beyond the constraints of clothes, he pushed boundaries and created items unlike anything the FROW had ever seen. From the Romantics to the Goths, the sublime to the simple, his inspiration was as diverse as his skills: citing the short films of Sam Taylor-Johnson to the religious iconography of war photographer Don McCullin, McQueen found influence as much as he influenced.

B is for bumsters
Perhaps one of the most iconic, and controversial, of McQueen’s pieces, the Bumster foresaw what was to come with the low-slug hipsters of the noughties… And it was in McQueen’s first collection in trouser form, and then as an intricate black silk taffeta skirt for the Highland Rape of AW95. The designer explained “I wanted to elongate the body…The bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman.”

C is for couture
Pushing the boat out with art and design, McQueen’s couture innovated the industry forever. From the AW99 haute couture collection featuring cyberpunk LED-lit transparent body suits and head pieces, to the romance of his theatrical 2007 sheer fabrics, his name will forever be synonymous with the highest of haute.

D is for david bowie
Of his many admirers and famous friends, David Bowie has got to be one of the most iconic. Designing the costumes for the 1996 and 1997 tours, Bowie was kitted out in some of Lee’s notorious looks. Perhaps the best remembered is the Union Jack coat the singer wore on his Earthling album cover, eternalised in music history on record sleeves everywhere.

E is for escapism
Probably one of the most unforgettable quotes from the designer, he once explained his ethos as a designer: that “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment”. Standing by it for his career, his shows and creations would sweep you away into McQueen’s world, away from the everyday into the surreal and sublime.

F is for feathers
Famed for his use of exotic materials and unheard of textiles, from fringed skirts to bird figures flying over models shoulders, the use of feathers is one of McQueen’s most recognisable and theatrical of features.

G of for grotesque
“I find beauty in the grotesque”, McQueen once declared. From his 1992 Jack the Ripper collection for his MA graduation, to Victorian mental asylum at SS01 Voss filled with padded walls, his creations were dark and wild, and unlike anything else.

H is for heels
One of McQueen’s most famous pieces has got to be his Armadillos. Created with Georgina Goodman, they were sky-scraper high and mutated in shape. Worn by a few brave souls off the catwalk, Lady Gaga still struts in them to this day.

I is for isabella blow
Famed for discovering McQueen at his Central Saint Martins MA show, stylist and fashion editor Isabella Blow went on to purchase his entire graduate collection and paid it off in instalments. Going on to support the designer in any way she could, the two shared a somewhat tumultuous friendship. When Alexander McQueen was bought by the Gucci Group in 2001, tensions grew: her close friend Daphne Guinness explained “She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress.” Blow tragically committed suicide in 2007, three years before Lee McQueen died, and the two remain one of the most notorious and mysterious fashion duos in history.

J is for jack the ripper (stalks his victims)
That was the title of McQueen’s graduate collection, created under the tutorship of the late Louise Wilson and the entirety of which was bought by Isabella Blow for £5000. The collection was the fashion world’s introduction to several of the themes that would define McQueen’s career: death, sex, and historical narratives.

K is for kate moss
Always referring to Kate Moss as “a female version” of himself, McQueen and the supermodel worked together on numerous occasions over the years. In fact, AW06 show, Widows of Culloden, even featured a life-sized hologram of Mossy, dressed in sumptuous flowing fabric.

L is for london
Born in Lewisham in 1969, McQueen was the youngest of six children to Scottish London taxi driver Ronald and teacher Joyce. Attending school in Canning Town, a tailoring course at Newham, an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors, and ending up on an MA at Central St Martins, Lee had a very London upbringing into the world of fashion which left an imprint on his design forever.

M is for music
Deeply influenced by art, McQueen also found great inspiration in music, known for his eclectic runway soundtracks, from Mary Poppins to Missy Elliott.

N is for newham college
Newham College in East London was where Alexander McQueen first received any formal education in fashion. After leaving school with one O-Level (the equivalent of a GCSE) in art, Mcqueen attended Newham to study tailoring. He would go on to serve an apprenticeship on Savile Row with Anderson and Sheppard, then working at Gieves and Hawkes and the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans. All of these formative fashion experience undoubtedly influenced McQueen before he eventually arrived at Central St. Martin’s with a view to changing the fashion world forever.

O is for otherworldly
Perhaps one of the most commonly used adjectives when describing McQueen’s catwalks and work, attending his shows would transport audiences straight into his imagination. Ethereal creatures with golden skeletons, and wrapped up dresses morphing models into feathered beings, the designer’s vision is unsurpassable.

P is for pagan poetry
Another famous friend and frequent collaborator of McQueen’s was Icelandic singer Björk: seeking the designer for the cover of her album Homogenic in 1997, the two continued a fruitful friendship ever since. Directing her music video for ‘Alarm Bell’, McQueen also created the notorious topless dress which the artist wore in her iconic ‘Pagan Poetry’ video. Celebrating their closeness in art and life, Björk sang a rendition of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ at Lee’s memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2010, dressed in head-to-toe McQueen.

Q is for quotes
Whilst the late designer’s creations will always be the most articulate expression of his thoughts, he also spoke eloquently and humorously, often to the dismay of uptight fashion editors who couldn’t handle his truth-telling on the industry or his refusal to kowtow to typical narratives.

R is for robots
Shalom Harlow twisting under the attack of two paint-spraying robots from McQueen’s SS99 collection is one of the designer’s most iconic moments. Brilliant yet brutal, metaphorical and layered, it summed up the unique vision of one of fashion’s most important visionaries.

S is for structure
After McQueen’s four-year stint at Saville Row, he had a penchant for precise tailoring and stunning structures. Explaining that he believed his talent for sharpness was innate, he declared “I think to know about colour, proportion, shape, cut, balance, is part of a gene”.

T is for tails
One of the most notable examples of McQueen’s incredible eye for art and design, his ‘Spine’ corset was made in collaboration with Shaun Leane. Sharing a preoccupation with human anatomy, the pair mimicked the human spine but hardened it with a metallic touch aesthetic. Fastening like armour, the corset represents one of several designs which demonstrate the designer’s obsession with hybridity: creating a part-human, part-animal tailed figure.

U is for underwater
It may be little known, but McQueen was an avid scuba diver when he wasn’t in his studio. Allegedly he drew the inspiration for his final show, Plato’s Atlantis, from his favourite diving location in The Maldives.

V is for voss
Inspired by the morbid photography of Joel Peter Witkin, Alexander McQueen’s SS01 show was one of his most dark and spectacular. The designer transformed a London bus garage into a makeshift asylum, where disturbed looking models clawed at the watching editors from behind glass, clad in feathers and antique fabrics. At the close of the show, the walls of a box in the centre of the room collapsed to reveal a cloud of moths and butterflies and journalist Michelle Olley, reclining on a sofa, breathing through apparatus.

W is for widows of culloden
For AW06, McQueen revisited the subject matter of Highland Rape – the AW05 show with which he made his name. The inspiration was the designer’s own Scottish heritage and the designer heavily used McQueen tartan within the collection. The silhouette -was designed to exaggerate the female form with each piece is unique, a one-off couture creation with emotional content intended to be handed down from generation to generation like the most precious of heirlooms.

Y is for youth culture
Born and bred a Londoner, McQueen was inspired by “the streets of the city…the kids in Hoxton…the punks in Camden”, and this British toughness is evident throughout his career. Amalgamating the romantic with the urban, the hard with the sheer, his collections are forever as relevant as they were innovative.

Z is for zeitgeist
Like so many visionaries, McQueen had a profound effect on the zeitgeist. From the 2000s trend for sky-high heels he inspired with his Armadillo shoes, to the low slung jeans trend started by the infamous bumsters, fashion at any level has never been the same.

McQueen the documentary is out in cinemas now.