Photo by Inez & Vinoodh/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media.
McQueen & I
Image 02. Photo by Catwalking / Getty Images.
London 2010. St Paul’s Cathedral, squeezed into the city like a relegated old timer, remains to these eyes, design at its most daring. It’s a fitting location for Alexander McQueen’s memorial service: grand, awe-inspiring, immortal; but also a disturbing reminder that things have come to this. Lee—for he was Lee to me—would have hated it: the crowds, the silence, the poignant, solemn atmosphere. Yet in a wonderfully reflective way, both man and building have managed to capture the architectural zeitgeist. They are inimitable, iconic and have defiantly stood their ground. Both dared to dream in bold, muscular ways. Regrettably only one of them is alive today.
It’s a sad day of memories and eulogies. Style mavens and adoring editors offer appropriate condolences to a crowd dazed by what has gone. Naturally the fashion industry is well represented. Suzy Menkes and Anna Wintour both make speeches that are respectful, if a tad circumspect. Naomi Campbell strides in, shrouded in black couture, followed by a non demure Kate Moss, head held low in disbelief. His great friend and muse Daphne Guinness, an Edwardian beekeeper in mourning, almost topples over in her vertiginous heel-less boots. I try to suppress a smile, Lee would have laughed like a drain.
I sit amongst the great and the good, ruminating on what these people are thinking. Directly in front of me, wearing a hat that obscures my view is the actress Sarah Jessica Parker. Or is it Carrie Bradshaw? It’s hard to differentiate. Dressed head to toe in McQueen she is quite the fashion spectacle. In sharp contrast, sitting on the opposite side of the cathedral, the designer’s family and closest friends look defeated, fading into the grey stone pillars that surround them. Things come to a surreal climax when a feather swathed Björk emerges from the sidelines and kills everyone with a haunting version of Billie Holliday’s Gloomy Sunday. The song is a pean to suicide, and its lyrics, ‘My heart and I have decided to end it all’, cut like a knife.
Photo courtesy of Alexander McQueen.
Photo courtesy of Alexander McQueen.
Everyone gathered was a part of Lee’s extended clan. All of them contributed to the phenomenon he would become, and most had been with him from the start. There was history in the building, friendship and an unerring loyalty. I’m lucky enough to remember the good old days when McQueen’s shows were the very epitome of style and showmanship. Like those who claim to have seen The Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, I swear I sat front row when Shalom Harlow took to a revolving platform and made spray painted love to a robot. I witnessed Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor plead insanity in the lunacy themed Voss show, and watched poor skeletal urchins endure pelting rain—very London—as they negotiated the treacherous catwalk of The Golden Shower. Anticipation is everything. Each season offered the unthinkable. McQueen became adept as impaling, shackling and subverting fashion show culture with an unflinchingly enthusiasm. “I don’t want to do a cocktail party,” he once said, “I’d rather people left my shows and vomited”.
Hair stylist Guido Palau, a giant in the industry—and someone who worked on all of these shows—knows what it takes to put these spectacular performances together. “Lee loved to collaborate. He knew the importance of adding to the mix and making each collection a total sum of its parts. I’d get a call at two in the morning and it would be Lee obsessing over something he’d seen that day in a gallery or at the cinema. He would watch certain films time and time again, soaking up references and integrating them into a collection. He loved Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and the twisted idea of working with human skin. He was fascinated with the extremities of Taxi Driver: Robert De Niro’s flawed sociopath, Travis Bickle, and Jodie Foster’s child prostitute were both characters he indirectly identified with. Over the years, Lee also taught me to appreciate art and culture in a way that was slightly foreign to me at the time. His references to Victorian photographers, S&M and the natural world, brought out something that made me look at beauty in a different way. You sometimes meet people in life who are the complete opposite of you, and yet you find common creative ground. I miss that connection.”
Lee was a rebel who put the stab in anti-establishment. He was also a visionary with unorthodox ideas who captured the public’s imagination. In longtime collaborator Sam Gainsbury he sought out superlative production, the best London locations for his shows, and a cast of edgy faces who looked anything but ordinary. The entire performance, from music, to hair, to casting, was a collaborative effort, done in a way that could only emerge from London’s effortlessly cool underground. “We would argue like enemies, but that’s what it took to get the balance right. Lee soon learned that a fashion show is not just about the designer, but the entire team. The designer has done their job and it’s a time for others to add some carefully judged elements. Of course, those elements were nothing without his creativity. Everything centred around Lee.”
Lee was a rebel who put the stab in anti-establishment. He was also a visionary with unorthodox ideas who captured the public’s imagination.
From the outset, McQueen’s collections referenced both his London roots and Scottish ancestry, with subtle clues. With tailoring skills acquired from time on Savile Row, 1992s Graduation show, Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, took a savage swipe at Victorian constraint, while his famous bumster trousers emerged from Highland Rape, a show that slyly commented on colonial theft. From these perverse angles, the man showed a remarkable patriot spirit and an integrity not often seen in fashion. Plus, from a more literal standpoint, everything looked great.
There are those who claim McQueen’s clothes were biographical statements, and there are clues to be gleaned if you look close enough. From his MA Graduation collection, where locks of his hair were sewn into linings, through to the recurring bird motif—a nostalgic nod to childhood—Lee imbued his clothes with the spirit of self. Lazy journalists have been quick to label his more extreme confections misogynistic, but Lee adored women, and his angry clothes were more about empowerment than mistrust.
Photo courtesy of Catwalking.com.
The man I encountered in the late 1990s loved low rent and high glamour—steaming the gay bars of Soho, then continuing the party at a chic West End hotel. He revelled in the city’s diversity and charm, feeding into its pop culture and emotional art. Back at home there was little space for anything but art. His mavericks of choice shared moral ambiguity: photographer Joel Peter Witkin, Mat Collishaw and the Chapman brothers were all revered for their uncompromising attitude. As an East End boy made good, McQueen could appreciate grime and glitz in equal measure. From humble cockney roots he was able to embrace the less picturesque side of London, famously choosing to rent studio space in unfashionable areas. Where he settled others would follow.
I first met him through Katy England, the London stylist who was instrumental in defining his aesthetic. We rifled through a rail of clothes in her Shoreditch loft, picking out suits to wear to a party that evening. I’m unsure what my first impressions were, but a mixture of vulnerability and uncensored bravado made him hard to dislike. He could be brutally dismissive and then tender as a lamb, as if he didn’t believe people who took interest in him. A dislike of talking about fashion when not ‘on duty’ always veered the conversation in interesting directions. He admired the new wave of British artists such as Damien Hirst and Gavin Turk, and secretly hankered to be taken as seriously. His apartment soon became cluttered with outlandish purchases: Allen Jones’ fetish furniture, Victorian prints, stuffed animals—a collection of priceless artefacts that were not to everyone’s taste. In pride of place, and perhaps the piece that sums up his irreverence, was a wall sized photo of an anus blown up to geographical scale. He revelled in the shock value of its reaction. It was simultaneously abhorrent and yet, in its distorting proportions, strangely beautiful.
In the mid 1990s with Britpop in full swing, London’s alt-gay mecca was a club called Popstarz, a beery joint that bucked disco glitz in favour of grunge and guitars. It was a place where Lee felt comfortable to some degree—democratic drunkenness in a venue big enough to get lost in. Yes, inquisitive punters sometimes circled, taking a closer look at this working class gay boy giving the capital a good name, but often he would be left alone.
Lee was less comfortable in the eye of the fashion industry and would often withdraw from the limelight wherever possible. On one memorable night he invited me to be his guest at the annual GQ Men of the Year Awards. He had been granted his own table, and alongside Guido Palau, Daphne Guinness and his PR guru Janet Fischgrund, we behaved badly at an event renowned for bad behaviour. Fuelled by alcohol, Lee was quite happy to puncture the egos of those in attendance, especially the acting fraternity whose superiority he detested. Picking up the award for Designer of the Year that night was a middle finger to those who resented his success.
There was a lighter, more playful side to Lee that bypassed those not in his inner sanctum. People confused the whiplash wit and abrasive charm with rudeness, and yet in reality it was merely a defence mechanism brought on by insecurity and professional paranoia. When doubt crept in, or disparaging comments came his way, he would often fight fire with fire. But the person I confronted in those peak years actively enjoyed being ribbed about his designs, as if he needed to be brought down a peg or two. Halloween was the perfect occasion to make light hearted jokes about his often austere Goth sensibility. I was bold enough to compare one collection with the witches and zombies populating the window of a local fancy dress shop. Purple with indignation and ready to snap, rage soon dissolved into the familiar machine gun rhythm of his approving laughter. Lee was serious, but didn’t take himself too seriously. At the heart of the things, he knew he had little to prove.
People confused the whiplash wit and abrasive charm with rudeness, and yet in reality it was merely a defence mechanism brought on by insecurity and professional paranoia.
Back at St Paul’s and the crowd disperses, following a line of tartan-clad bagpipe players outside. The writer Sarah Mower called McQueen “a fearless autodidact and impresario who drew on the mechanisms of theatre, film, dance and music in his sensational, visceral performance works”. In this sense, the audience who witnessed today’s performance would have to agree. His medium may have been clothes, but Alexander McQueen operated at a psychological level far beyond fashion.
London 2015. The V&A hosts Savage Beauty, a retrospective of McQueen’s career and their most popular exhibition to date. After the success of its New York premiere, the UK is in thrall to the magic of my late friend’s craft, and the museum opens its doors all night long to accommodate the unprecedented swell of interest. Families creep through the show with slack jawed expressions, absorbing something they don’t understand but most definitely feel. Suspended above a glass atrium containing some of Lee’s most otherworldly ideas hangs a sign which reads: ‘I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil’.
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