Suhani Lotlikar remembers the legendary designer Alexander McQueen.
Born in a family of humble backgrounds, Lee Alexander McQueen – famously known as Alexander McQueen – is a name that has been tattooed on the skin of the fashion industry. Just at the age of 16, he dropped out of school and found work at a men’s made-to-measure suit store in London’s Mayfair district. This inception in his career took him from tailor store to theatre costume design which majorly influenced his later work.
The designer’s first spotlight moment happened at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design where he presented his M.A. collection, Jack the Ripper. The collection is known to have featured a lock of McQueen’s own hair. The entire collection was bought by the renowned stylist Isabella Blow who later became a long-term friend of the designer. She stood by McQueen in his initial days of struggle during which he established his own brand of womenswear. The hardship faced by Lee in those days has become the brick and mortar of the brand today.
The news of McQueen’s passing presented regret and sorrow for many. The originality and valour in his work made me think about what McQueen would do while studying every show that came after.
Looking back into the archives of the designer’s runway shows; the infamous bumster trousers, first introduced in the Spring/Summer 1995 collection would have carried a similar reputation with Gen Z. His unusual concepts taking a walk in front of today’s audience would have forced them to look beyond their screen. Fashion students would have lined up outside trying to sneak into his shows for a glimpse just as the sneakerheads line up for a drop at Supreme.
McQueen’s work was prominently inspired by his study of fashion history and ability to turn it upside down. Another one of his iconic collections, rather a heavily-criticised one – the Autumn/Winter 2009 Horn of Plenty presented models wearing extreme overdrawn red and black lips and outfits duct-taped with metal scraps. Considering the current trend of fuller and overlined lips, McQueen’s visualisation deemed as grotesque was way ahead of his time. His models walked the runway of this showcase leaving behind the need to be cinched by their waists or have a lavish hairdo. It would have portrayed a hint of satire on the beauty trends celebrated today.
The concept development behind every collection presented by him painted a picture of his ideas in their literal glory. What followed was no less than the chaotic representation through art with The Hunger – Spring/Summer 1996 collection and Dante – Autumn/Winter 1996 collection. This paved the way to international fame and acquired him the British Designer of the Year award. He also worked with music artists such as Björk and David Bowie during this period. In the same year, Lee was appointed head designer at the French luxury house of Givenchy succeeding John Galliano. His first collection where he tried to walk the thin line between his creative outtake and the brand’s aesthetic was unsuccessful. McQueen himself stated that the collection was ‘crap’ and that his creativity was constrained at the job.
This translated into the comeback collection of It’s a Jungle Out There – Autumn/Winter 1997. Lee found relatability between his life as a designer and that of a gazelle in a documentary he had watched. The divide between today’s streetwear and luxury garments would have found a middle with the denim and leather frock-coats presented in this collection. From Nihilism to Neptune, the world of fashion witnessed an unconventional and controversial turn with McQueen. A reporter from the New York Times expressed her views about this comeback as ‘He isn’t just part of the London scene, he is the scene.’ Rightly said, ‘No. 13’ once again showcased the designer’s capacities to the world. The collection featured two iconic show-stopping moments. The double amputee Aimee Mullins graced the runway in a pair of intricately hand-carved prosthetic legs. And who doesn’t remember Shalom Harlow in a white belted dress being spray painted by two robotic arms in yellow and black!
This dive into the brand’s runway archives would not be complete without a rerun of Voss – the Spring/Summer 2001 collection. The models that walked down the harshly-lit, glass walled runway were adorned with bandages on their heads. This fashion moment was extremely outlandish and kitsch. It showcased Lee’s ability of storytelling through excellent tailoring and production. The classic silhouettes presented at the show remain as the brand’s identity event today.
“We’re not talking about models’ personal feelings here, we’re talking about mine. Models are there to showcase what I’m about, nothing else. It’s nothing to do with misogyny, it’s all about the way I’m feeling about my life,” he said.
In 2001, McQueen showcased his last collection in London before moving to Paris. The Autumn show featured a merry-go-round with models wearing clown-like makeup dragging a golden skeleton. The years that followed created many more such iconic fashion moments for the brand. McQueen’s last collection unofficially titled ‘Angels and Demons’ had 16 pieces that were only 80 percent finished. Sarah Burton, Alexander McQueen’s long-term assistant, succeeded the designer to keep the brand going. The designer’s legacy lives on in the inspiration boards of fashion students and in the archives of the luxury house. But the iconic vision behind the runway presentations has left through the doors.
In this day and age where conversations are fuelled with topics of cultural appreciation and appropriation, political correctness, climate change and wildfires, even a global pandemic; McQueen’s cutting-edge interpretations would have helped reimagine and redefine fashion. He was criticised for being a misogynist whereas his art was focused on creating clothes for women who would be feared. The brilliance in his vision of fashion and art would have created many more blinding moments making us all question the meaning and purpose of fashion. His runway shows were representative, diverse and inclusive even back in the 90s. His ability to create and showcase without the fear of damaging the brand would have made him an excellent pioneer in today’s fashion industry. He was the change before the change.
You can read more of Suhani’s work on suhani17.wordpress.com and on Instagram by following @suhani_lotlikar