Fashion: McQueen's theatre of cruelty: After the glitz of Paris, something shattering. Marion Hume was shaken but not stirred

You could tell there was a consensus: Alexander McQueen's debut was a horror show. In between bursts of hard house music, there was an eerie silence where usually motordrives whirr and shutters click. The photographers, many of them veterans of as many war-zones as fashion shows, had nearly all stopped snapping.

As for us fashion folk, we felt queasy. We are used to bare bosoms, and I really have seen more buttocks than I have had hot dinners during the gruelling Milan-Paris-London show season. But models who look as if they have recently experienced serious traffic accidents, in sheer and sweaty clingfilm knickers, with what appeared to be bloody, suppurating, post-operative breasts visible through muslin T-shirts, was rather a lot to take in the name of frocks.

It has been said, many times, that fashion is the fastest barometer of social change. McQueen, who is 24 and from London's East End, has a view that speaks of battered women, of violent lives, of grinding daily existences offset by wild, drug-enhanced nocturnal dives into clubs where the dress code is semi-naked. As such, his clothes probably speak with more accuracy about real life than some swoosh of an evening gown by Valentino. The charge against other young London designers, that their clothes lacked conviction too many floaty shifts that appear to have wafted on to the catwalk straight out of a Timotei advertisement could not be levelled at Alexander McQueen.

One reason I stayed in my seat to witness McQueen's catalogue of horrors was because here was someone with something new to say, in a business where designers gorge on each other's ideas. When Rei Kawakubo first showed her Comme des Garons collection in Europe, half the audience walked out. Her totally original vision was declared post-apocalyptic; Hiroshima fall-out fashion for bag ladies. Many who wrote her off now jostle for front-row seats at her shows. Ditto Vivienne Westwood. When she drew erect and enormous phalluses on girls' flesh-coloured leggings, I was appalled. Now I applaud her as loudly as anyone. The second reason I stayed was because McQueen is not an eccentric. He has a perverse view of women (but so do Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler and Gianni Versace) which I hope he will grow out of . But he has an assured view of fashion.

McQueen can cut it. He left school at 16, trained on Savile Row, at Anderson & Sheppard, where the Prince of Wales goes for his suits, then moved 'down the Row' to Gieves & Hawkes, purveyor of clothes to the earls Spencer, past and present. McQueen can set a jetted pocket, he can handstitch a satin lining, he can cut a 'coat' (Row-speak for a tailored jacket). And he can use these traditional skills in a new way. McQueen's coats sit high to the torso and fall long to the thigh. They can be sliced away over the back, or cunningly curved over a near-naked front. And they sit above his daringly new trousers he calls them 'Bumsters' which lie a dangerous two inches lower than hipsters, across the pubic bone at the front and redefining builders' bottom at the back.

McQueen also served time with Koji Tatsuno, gaining a feeling for extraordinary fabrics (a far cry from the tweeds and worsteds he worked with on the Row). Then, in Milan, he worked for Romeo Gigli, although Gigli's lyrical romanticism is yet to be evident in McQueen's work.

Fashion's international mandarins in London were looking for 'the New Punk' because prettified versions of the old punk, from the Seventies, were everywhere at the European shows. But punk was shocking at first. At McQueen's show, I felt an unease I don't remember experiencing since the first girl in my form to get her nose pierced walked into school assembly, circa 1975.

The shock of the new has to be just that: shocking. If Lon-don is to keep its creative supremacy, we must tolerate it. Without a tolerance of oddities and ugliness, Vivienne West-wood, John Richmond, John Galliano et al would never have been able to grow into international designers of whom we can be justly proud. And if that sometimes leaves us fashion hacks tut-tutting like latter-day Miss Jean Brodies, or feeling distinctly off-colour, so be it.

(Photograph omitted)

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