Alexander McQueen: a commentary on death and decay

Charles Cowling

Holographic video featuring Kate Moss which was projected during Alexander McQueen’s 2006 fall/winter collection, titled Widows of Culloden, during Paris Fashion Week. It was a tribute to all the women who lost their husbands in the battle and its aftermath.

 

Phoebe Hoare, who’s put some really good things our way, suggests it’s time we did something on Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer. She’s quite right. It’s not as if his work does not dwell and brood on death, dying, mortality and moral blackness.

Before becoming a student at Central St Martin’s, McQueen cut his teeth as a Savile Row tailor. There, he made suits for the nobility and gentry. He made a suit of clothes for the Prince of Wales and, on the back of the lining of one of the sleeves, wrote in biro:  ‘I am a c**t’.

He was fearless about flabbergasting people. He wanted people to leave his shows vomiting with shock and gagging for his clothes — and they did. His graduate show at Central St Martin’s was titled Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims and featured a frock coat with human hair between the fabric and the lining.  Throughout his life he carried on giving his adoring public more of the same — Gothic horror and much else.

Zoe Blackler, writer and journalist, says of him: “In McQueen’s world, an exuberant dress of cut flowers becomes a commentary on death and decay. A sculpted dress of black-dyed duck feathers recalls a raven, another deathly image, while accessories evoke the sadomasochistic. And yet, even at their darkest, his creations are never less than beautiful. ‘I find beauty in the grotesque,’ he said. ‘I have to force people to look at things.’” [Source]

Of a jacket embroidered with an image of the crucified Christ, he said: “That’s how I see human life, in the same way. …You know, we can all be discarded quite easily. … You’re there, you’re gone.”

And so he was. He killed himself in 2010, nine days after the death of his mother.

Was he a genius? Not in the opinion of Toby Young:  “Not a “genius”, unless by that you mean a gift for self-presentation.” But many would disagree. Compare him with YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damian Hirst and that tent woman. He was streets ahead.

Or was he? You decide for yourself.

 

Frock coat from Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims. The panel on the right shows the hair. 

 

Bone jacket

 

Raven dress

 

Note the vulture skulls on the shoulders

 

Skull scarf

 

He could do pretty, too

 

From the Dante show

 

 

There’s a good series of photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 show Savage Beauty here.

There’s a good survey of his oeuvre here.

 

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gloria mundiQuokkagirlPhoebe HoareRichard Rawlinsoncharles Recent comment authors

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gloria mundi
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Are you from WA, Quokkagirl? There’s a certain direct style about your comments I recognise…

Quokkagirl
Guest
Quokkagirl

should read balloon – it was the hot air in front of my eyes that did it.

Quokkagirl
Guest
Quokkagirl

Oh how I am tempted to prick this particular baloon……

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

Thank you for this, it’s amazing to hear about Isabella from a personal perspective, and McQueen’s shows. I first learnt about her in the Philip Treacy exhibition when it was touring Dublin back in 2006 or thereabouts. Such a tragedy that she ended her life, and McQueen. They were both exceptional people…and I usually don’t say that about anyone!They were, and still are, inspiring.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Phoebe, a youtube video to make any Isabella appreciator both happy and sad. Damn, I wish she was still alive.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

WOW Phoebe, love the enthusiasm!!! Highland Rape was a memorable event. The link you posted brought back memories. I was about 20 feet to the right of the girls you see on the catwalk shots. The show made the ‘enfants terribles’ of the time (Gaultier etc) seem like has-beens. Young McQueen’s shows were not just theatrical but dangerous. Accompanied by the loudest thumping rock music, the models staggered and stumbled down the catwalk, making you wonder if they were just hamming it up for dramatic effect or were truly drunk and high on drugs, or had actually just been raped… Read more »

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

Wow Richard, just wow!!! Isabella was just as brilliant as McQueen in my opinion, such an inspiring and knowledgeable person, (and muse to the wonderfully talented Philip Treacy, which you know). What did you think Highland Rape? This has made my day.

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

It’s tempting! They would be pretty snazzy.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

By taking ordinary objects and turning them into art installations, Duchamp was at least doing something that hadn’t been done before. Emin’s squalid bed is just a variation on an old idea.

Phoebe, forgive the names-drop but I went to McQueen’s Highland Rape show at London Fashion Week many years ago – as a member of the press. I also interviewed Lee on a couple of occasions, and knew well his muse, Isabella Blow (nee Broughton), who committed suicide not long before Lee.

Both are great losses and not just to fashion.

gloria mundi
Guest

Wow. I want to live in one – right now. Thanks Phoebe, and I think you should contact Mr D and suggest he makes coffins.

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

Yes, art is very personal and people prefer different aspects of it, like visually appealing or thought provoking or both. Duchamp shocked the art world with a urinal, there was nothing irrational about the urinal itself but it was the context it was set in, the same for Emin I think. She doesn’t do it for me but I appreciate her all the same (not that you have to!).If you like Goldsworthy you might like this artist (if you don’t already know him), Patrick Dougherty. He would make some pretty spectacular coffins.
http://inhabitat.com/patrick-doughertys-mind-blowing-nest-houses-made-of-living-trees/

Gloria Mundi
Guest
Gloria Mundi

I never said I didn’t like her, the womanTE, I just don’t find looking at her unmade bed etc etc to be in any sense rewarding or interesting. I suppose it depends what you want from art, how you feel it should or could work. Raising issues, feminist or any other, in any direct sense, isn’t particularly what I want, I want some unique vision! Something that pulls together things I can relate to and then by a non-rational process transcends them, makes of them something revelatory. I think it’s the lack of revelation that makes people say of fashionable… Read more »

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

Richard, there are (literally) millions of people who can paint, draw, sculpt etc. but in today’s world (and in the past) you have to be exceptionally talented at art or have “brilliant” ideas (or both if you are McQueen) to make it on to the art scene. Emin just happens to have the ideas. Her work is the definition of controversial but she does raise important issues, feminism being the obvious one. She does, however, have another side to her that is more likable. Her is a personal tribute to her dead uncle. 1993 Uncle Colin is a homage to… Read more »

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

Raven Dress is great and is very similar to Kate MccGwire’s work which is also very deathly. I don’t know how well she is known to the general public but I came across her about a year ago when I started off dissertation research. She is also a technical wizard.
http://www.katemccgwire.com/index.php?pid=1

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

I can think of much ruder things to say about Tracey Emin than ‘that tent woman’.

The trouble with much BritArt/ConArt is the trendy critics hype the novel idea (pickled shark, filthy bed etc) but don’t seem to care about any lack of evidence of artistic talent in the execution. Emin has ideas but she cannot draw, paint or sculpt, for example.

I admire Alexander McQueen more although I find the word ‘genius’ is overused. If Emin is an Empress with no clothes, McQueen demonstrated a fine artistic imagination as well as brilliant tailoring skills and technical know-how.

gloria mundi
Guest

Actually Ru and Charles, I don’t see why Charles shouldn’t call her “that tent woman” – it’s the sort of thing I say all the time when my memory takes a holiday. (It rarely does an honest day’s work, these days) like “the steel angel bloke” or “the shark-halver.” And if it’s meant slightingly, well, it’s an opinion. I can’t think of enough rude things to say about the way so-called “BritArt” (as if it in some impossible way represented the nation) has ruthlessly commercialised the art market, and in my own immodest view, much of it that I’ve seen… Read more »

Phoebe Hoare
Guest
Phoebe Hoare

I love it, you’ve summed him up beautifully! McQueen was definitely a genius. He also managed to tell history through his garments, like his highly controversial ‘Highland Rape’ collection. People confused it with the rape of women but it was in fact based on the Jacobite rebellion…England’s rape of Scotland. He took history and told it through the medium of dress, something tangible and wearable, unlike text. If that isn’t genius I don’t know what is!
Here’s the link.
http://makingtheunfinished.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/alexander-mcqueen-highland-rape-aw-1995/

Ru Callender
Guest

Yes, very good Charles. But ‘that tent woman’? Tsch.