Spectacular. Ground-breaking. One-of-a-kind. You frequently hear people describing Lee Alexander McQueen’s electrifying fashion shows with those adjectives, but not so much his clothes. Which is a shame, but understandable.
McQueen was a master showman, in the Cecil B. de Mille mould – casts of thousands, fire and brimstone, the whole shebang. Back in 1996, he made his models walk on water. Few designers could have topped that, but McQueen was apparently just getting started.
However, McQueen was only able to stage such spectacles, season after season, because his clothes lived up to the hype around them. Sometimes, they even surpassed it. The fashion industry is filled with cynics: if McQueen’s clothes hadn’t been good enough, someone would have called him out on them.
It’s easy to forget, in the flashy furore around the Victoria and Albert museum’s restaging of the Alexander McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty (Kate Moss dancing at the opening, over 30,000 tickets already sold and a budget, I was told, of £3m to stage), that the clothes are what actually matter in the story of McQueen. They are the most powerful and awe-inspiring element of all. “It was not really about showing clothes to the press, it was actually telling a story or painting a picture,” says the designer Sarah Burton, who has helmed the McQueen label since the founder’s death five years ago, of McQueen’s trademark shows.
But, I’d argue, McQueen’s physical clothes tell the story best of all. That certainly came across when he was staging fashion shows on shoe-string budgets in London in the mid-1990s, when he established his reputation as an enfant terrible out to shock. Witness his signature “bumster” trousers, so-called because the waistband cuts low and leaves the cleavage of the buttocks exposed. They were devised by McQueen in 1992 and the original prototypes are now owned by the vintage collector William Banks-Blaney of WilliamVintage, who cites them as his “pride and joy”.
The heartbeat of McQueen’s continual aesthetic obsessions throb through those early London shows. The opening galleries of the V&A exhibition are devoted to them – and a few pieces feature here, loaned by friends, collaborators and collectors, some of which also feature in the exhibition. The clothes are more raw, less spectacular, but their strong silhouettes and decorative approaches find more refined reflections throughout McQueen’s cannon of work.
Levelling the accusations of misogyny that were directed at the designer during those formative years, many of the garments in the opening galleries were loaned (and have been worn) by women. “I remember being shocked when people said 'oh, it's misogynous, it's misogynous',” recalls Katy England, the stylist who collaborated with McQueen on those early shows, and worked with the V&A to curate the pair of galleries devoted to McQueen’s early years. “I thought what the hell are they talking about?… I was excited to be that girl, to wear that.”
Ultimately, that’s the legacy that Savage Beauty celebrates – that beyond the phantasmagoria of the shows that McQueen so adored, the clothes really can speak for themselves.
Here's a selection of key pieces from his early shows in London highlight the themes and obsessions that formed the foundation of his aesthetic – the building blocks of one of the world's greatest fashion talents.
Photography: Ruth Hogben
Styling: Anders Sølvsten Thomsen at CLM
Model: Nykhor Paul at Nevs
Make-up: Lucy Bridge at Jed Root using Tom Ford Beauty Flawless Complexion
Retouching: Emma Tunstill at Touch Digital
Digital operator: Marc Pritchard at ProVision Studios
Production: Drue Bisley
Styling assistance: Rhys Davies
Photographic assistance: Laura Falconer
Runner: Wanda Martin
Casting: Rebecca Knox Casting
Special thanks to Katy England, Shaun Leane, William Banks-Blaney, Nadja Swarovski, Suzy Menkes, Susanne Madsen, Andrea Gelardin and all at Hoxton Street Studios
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