Alexander McQueen's Haunting World

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Givhan

A year after the designer's suicide shook the fashion industry, the Met gives McQueen the honor of shaping history before the memories get fuzzy.

Trino Verkade is the auburn-haired keeper of the Alexander McQueen history--a living hard drive in a pair of skinny jeans. At once warm and straight-talking, she was the first employee hired by the celebrated British designer, known as Lee. Verkade was an inner-circle friend who was there at the start of McQueen's career in the early 1990s when he was living on social security above his sad-sack studio off Hoxton Square. And sadly, she was there at the end, last year, when he hanged himself in the million-dollar apartment he'd settled into in the elegant Mayfair district.

Now, Verkade is charged with organizing the late designer's creative affairs--sorting through and edifying for the historical record the complicated influences that made his ready-to-wear at once romantic and grotesque, morbid and sublime. She has been working with some urgency these last few months, because America's premiere fashion museum, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is celebrating McQueen's work in an exhibition opening May 4.

McQueen was renowned for theatrical runway presentations, full of daring and bluster, that incorporated everything from live wolves to a hologram of model Kate Moss floating center stage like a ghostly apparition. "It all began with the show," Verkade says. "Lee saw the collections as both garments and mise-en-scene--plus the music. He'd never analyze what made sense or not. It was personal and emotional, and he never wanted to water it down."

The stagecraft and technical wizardry showed off McQueen's capabilities as a designer. He was a skilled tailor who could also drape a glorious gown without benefit of a pattern. And his personal story--his working-class beginnings, rough demeanor, uncensored rudeness--made him a dangerous and magnetic presence.

It's a testament to McQueen's talent that the Costume Institute has taken up his legacy. By tradition, it avoids exhibitions on living artists, and the last time it examined the life's work of a designer so soon after his death was with its Gianni Versace retrospective, which opened five months after the designer's murder in 1997. But curator Andrew Bolton wanted to tell McQueen's story before his atelier dispersed and the memories of him got fuzzy, doctored, and romanticized.

McQueen first gained prominence with his 1992 graduation collection--inspired by Jack the Ripper--for the master's program at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Its dark sexuality dazzled the British media and captivated the eccentric and influential fashion editor Isabella Blow, who became McQueen's friend and unabashed champion. He soon made a name for himself internationally by introducing his "bumster" trousers--pants cut so low on the hips they revealed the cleavage of the buttocks. Editors assumed the silhouette was meant to shock the prudish, but Verkade says the designer's goal was to elongate a woman's torso to make her appear taller and more powerful.

With breathtaking speed, McQueen was welcomed into the fashion establishment. Gucci Group--now known as PPR Luxury Business Group--invested in McQueen's company and set it on a course for expansion into fragrances and a secondary line. But professional success was coupled with stress, anxiety, and personal tragedy. McQueen's troubled patron, Blow, committed suicide in 2007, and his mother, Joyce, died in February 2010. At 40, the designer took his own life the day before her funeral.

It was almost exactly a year later and a winter's haze still hovered over London when Verkade took me to the McQueen archives. The secure warren of bland storage rooms, filled with rolling racks, is tucked into the bowels of a discreet building not far from the company's metallic headquarters on Clerkenwell Road. …