Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: On Alexander McQueen

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: On Alexander McQueen

Article excerpt

Alexander McQueen may have been a prat but at least he was an interesting one, says Shura Slater

Alexander McQueen famously claimed to have stitched 'I am a c***' into the entoilage of a jacket for Prince Charles. The insult was invisible behind the lining and his tailor master later investigated and found nothing. So what was this? An invention, an embroidery of the truth? It certainly became a good source of publicity as he spread the story -- step one in the creation of his bad-boy image.

McQueen wore his counterculturalism loudly on his sleeve. Often tediously. He wanted to be dark, dark, oh so dark. Great. I think it's pratty, but there are millions of people who don't, so good for him -- good for them. And even if he was a prat, he was still an interesting and unusual prat, idiosyncratic and determined.

Fashion clichés were slashed and reformed. And, as the current V&A exhibition should show, McQueen really did have imagination.

That McQueen flourished (creatively, financially) within the industry he attacked was a mark of genius. The skull-print scarves he introduced went from unsettling, to edgy, to cool, to popular, to populist. Imitations now sell on market stalls the world over. The skulls became the polka dots they had originally replaced. It takes vision to achieve this level of William Morris universality.

Even his 'bumsters' -- his arse crack-revealing innovation -- transformed the builder's bum into Rococo décolleté. It spawned low-waisted trousers and a lot of visible thong-ing and, when thong met bumster, the 'whale's tail'.

McQueen's vision was unique. He was the first to introduce Grand Guignol theatrics into fashion. John Galliano, preceding him chronologically at Givenchy, had comparable flair and showmanship, but his vision was more ethnographic, more all over the place, and less determinedly dark. Vivienne Westwood's earlier punk had been more genuinely subversive, but, crucially, less haute couture.

McQueen claimed to have gone 'straight from my mother's womb on to the gay parade'. But the names he gave his collections -- 'Highland Rape' (1995), 'McQueen's Theatre of Cruelty' (1993) and 'Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims' (1992) -- were more hardcore cruise club than Gay Pride.

His infatuation with darkness was pretty adolescent. Perhaps he was himself -- and perhaps that's why he ended his life in a drink and drug torpor.

Some collections name their sources ('The Birds', 'The Hunger'). Sometimes he only alluded to them. Once he played Mia Farrow's humming lullaby from Rosemary's Baby as models went from darkened catwalk -- one dragging a golden, life-size skeleton behind her -- to a spotlit merry-go- round, where they were joined by clowns in skull masks! Other times, with more rigour, he did pastiches, probably unintentionally. His 2004 show was a laboured reenactment of Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? What did McQueen want? This was a 20-minute show to sell clothes, not a study of Depression-era human exploitation and desperation.

And yet, for the industry this is exiting stuff. It may seem irritating, but at least it's not the same 50 models walking past in the same 50 dresses. And sometimes, it must have been amazing, really. Shalom Harlow, on a revolving platform, being sprayed by robot paint guns (1999). …

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