Nowhere is an exploration of this mindset realised with more conceptual rigour and complexity than at Alexander McQueen. Antique taxidermy gathered from across France formed a backdrop to his spring/summer show in Paris last October, all presided over first by a fiery, orange sun, then a cool, silver moon.
"It started off with Charles Darwin," says the designer – 2009 sees the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work The Origin of the Species. "I was also interested in the Industrial Revolution because, to me, that was when the balance shifted, man became more powerful than nature and the damage really started. This collection is about looking at the world and seeing what we've done to it."
The look featured here comes from the first part of the show and looks back to a time before man's intervention had set in so overwhelmingly. It is dominated by natural fibres, bucolic embroideries, pale leathers and, particularly remarkable, prints inspired by nature, from granite to wood-grain, crystal and diamond. These are engineered to fit not the modern female silhouette but a Victorian mannequin, also found in France, hence the slightly truncated hourglass silhouette in this instance softened by drape and a billowing cape back which is quintessential McQueen.
"The forms are modelled on old bodies, not contemporary ones," the designer confirms. "Even at this early stage everything is subtly manipulated."
Given the nature of the designer in question, not everything is as innocent as it seems. And so delicate chiffon dresses with silk petals trapped between their diaphanous layers give way to more that echo the function of specimen jars covered with enamelled blooms in much harder hues than nature ever intended. "The inspiration is still organic," the designer explains, "but it is enhanced, synthetic – touched by man". Shapes are longer and leaner and prints become more forced – crushed crystals radiate refracted light and a facetted diamond morphs into a human skeleton from behind.
"All the way through, the prints are engineered around the body," McQueen continues, "and in that way we are taking a natural form and making it super-natural. You can make something perfect but that will always have its consequences. I personally have always loved the mechanics of nature." It is true that McQueen, a member of the Young Ornithologists Society as a child, has long demonstrated a fascination with the planet's flora and fauna as evinced by everything from elaborate bird head-dresses to butterfly prints and more in the past. "This collection starts out that way too, following the colours, shapes and textures of the planet but, once technology takes over, things appear more alien and other-worldly. I suppose it is darker and maybe a prediction of things to come but there is room for optimism. We do have a choice."
To view all this as some sort of dogmatic statement of ecological friendlessness would be to over-simplify the designer's intentions. McQueen is no Stella McCartney, after all. He is, however, profoundly aware of his own environment and of the zeitgeist as any front-running designer always must be. More broadly, the unashamedly conceptual nature of this collection points to the fact that ideas in fashion are no longer something to be ashamed of. Of course, a woman visiting a McQueen store and buying a wood-grain print dress will do so only because she loves it and it suits her, not because of any story behind it. In many ways, the concept is just a vehicle to ensure the creative power behind a collection stays interested. And that is just as it should be.
In fact, the word "conceptual" has long been a somewhat dirty one, in relation to clothing at least. A "conceptual" garment, the thinking has been for some years now, is something we know is clever and think we ought to like but, in all honesty, we don't really. Wouldn't a frilly pink frock be a simpler and more obviously desirable wardrobe proposition?
Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, this was not the case. The likes of Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela and any gifted progeny paraded the ideas behind their clothes – and these were often difficult or, in fashion parlance, challenging – with pride. Clothing that was clever was a mark of distinction. Those who wore it belonged to an elite club that left everyone else in the shade. With the birth of the designer buying spree in the late 1990s, however, a more brash and aggressively commercial mindset came to the fore. Fashion was designed to make people happy – it was simple, overtly luxurious and status-driven. And beautiful too, if in a more conventional manner. Overnight, the avant-garde appeared to lose ground, to appear stolid and overwrought.
Now, though, the tide is turning once more and the word "conceptual" is ripe for reinvention. With the benefit of hindsight, ideas no longer have to denote heaviness or obvious difficulty. Add to this the fact that any designer with more than half a brain – and that is almost all of them – is driven by an idea, be they Ralph Lauren, inspired by Anglophilic nostalgia or Marc Jacobs where the concept tends to be that there is no concept at all, and conceptual fashion immediately denotes rather more than a three-legged pair of trousers, say, or four-armed shirt.
The McQueen collection in question is nothing if not proof of that point. Although it is based on a single idea that is as clear as glass it is also extremely light – unusually light for this particular designer – and determinedly youthful. True, the McQueen customer looking for something special and statement-driven will always be spoilt for choice but those wishing to buy into the brand on a less serious level will be more than happy with a pair of pink crystal print leggings, say, a diamond print stretch jersey shift dress or even a wood-grain print fine-gauge knit sweater.
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