Both Alexander McQueen’s life and work were rife with contradictions. He was born the son of a taxi driver in London’s poverty-ridden East End and dropped out of school at 16 to become an apprentice on men’s bespoke tailoring strip Savile Row. He sewed suits for the Prince of Wales and graffitied profanities into their lining. His darkly romantic vision won him pretty much every major award London had to give yet his achievements were never written about unaccompanied by the phrase “enfant terrible,” and during his five-year post at the head of Givenchy spat out as many highly-publicised controversial comments as he did wildly inventive garments (while the Brits lapped up his conceptual collections, they failed to resonate with retailers in the mainstream American market).
It’s this clash between raw irreverence and exquisite beauty that remained a constant hallmark of the late designer’s art. If there’s one thing more intrinsic to Alexander McQueen than pigheadedness it’s polish, and it’s this that made even the sauciest products of his imagination commercially viable. His notorious 1996 builders-bum trousers would be crafted with the same scrupulous attention to detail that went in to sewing the Prince of Wales’ suits, and the tailoring skills he refined during that period led Joan Collins to claim that his sense of cut was greater than that of the equally esteemed Yves Saint Laurent. Rumour has it Collins wanted McQueen to design her dress for her wedding to 36-year-old Peruvian Percy Gibson, which would have made for a delicious triple-whammy of unconventionality had the manic designer not stood her up twice.
Not that he would have any concern for the repercussions: Alexander McQueen loved to shock. His collections often toyed with themes such as rape, violence, death, and mortality. It was a combination of this obsession with darkness and his extraordinary ability to cut fabric that had him noticed by uber-stylist Isabella Blow, who famously purchased his graduate collection entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims in its entirety.
In the wake of the death of both Blow and McQueen, it’s easy to read the latter’s fascination with the grotesque purely as a sign of unhappiness. And while there’s no doubt an eerie portentousness in remembering the collections where he sprayed models with blood and trapped them in cages, these things also serve as a reminder that McQueen’s primary fascination centered around mutability of the body. His sense of cut, proportion and tailoring allowed him to literally change the shape of the body, sometimes creating wild volume where before there was none and other times squeezing his models into corsets so tight they fainted on the runway.
Interestingly, it was Spring 2009, the show in which McQueen literally knocked the breath out of Abbey Lee Kershaw in trying to manipulate the body to its most absolute limit, that he gave his runway bow in a giant fluffy bunny suit: A fitting reminder that no matter how serious the state of affairs, for McQueen, a smattering of irreverent humour is never far behind.