So, the whole world knows now that Alexander McQueen, the bad boy of British fashion, the East End boy made Gucci, the “pink sheep of the family,” has killed himself in London. It is really tragic. Forty years old and all the rest of it. “It just goes to show,” they’re saying in my local sandwich bar, “you can be as rich and talented as you like but if you’re not happy, eh…”
Three years ago Isabella Blow, his close friend and mentor, killed herself; she was depressed, and also had cancer. The greatest single risk factor for suicide is being close to a suicide. There must be something about it that just blows open the doors… At the time there were rumours that she and McQueen, whom she had discovered straight from fashion college, had fallen out, to which McQueen had replied: “It’s so much bollocks. These people just don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know me. They don’t know my relationship with Isabella. It’s complete bullshit. People can talk; you can ask her sisters.… That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella’s life. What I had with Isabella was completely disassociated from fashion, beyond fashion.”
McQueen’s mother, of whom he once said his greatest fear was dying before her, died last week. (He told her this in an interview for a magazine; her reply, weirdly, was “Thank you, son.”)
His Twitter account was taken down early after the news broke, but the cached page is still on Google. (It’s worth looking at not even from a voyeuristic point of view but to see the close-ups of detailing with which the page is wallpapered. Workmanship.)
The bio notes. He started out in a Savile Row tailor’s at 16; famously chalked “I am a c***” into the lining of a jacket being made for Prince Charles; only went to Central St Martin’s because he was applying to be a pattern cutter there and someone spotted him and persuaded him to apply for the degree course instead. Four times British Designer of the Year. CBE at only 33. He made this coat for David Bowie:
A true original (writes the Daily Mail), who once incorporated human hair into his designs, and last September sent 12-inch platforms down the catwalk, McQueen combined masterful tailoring and a haute couture sensibility with an imagination that spanned from obscure to sublime…
He once said in an interview: ‘When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off. You have to have a lot of balls to talk to a woman wearing my clothes.’
But this hardness – he described his clothes as “armour” – belies a strange sadness that is also present in the clothes. There’s a very long book in that coat; a couple of books. And see the dress above. It’s about death, but it’s also about life and self-containment and a kind of serenity, of holding yourself in, and while the antlers are masculine and powerful, the fabric is delicate, fragile – and intricately, meticulously cut and made.
Jess Cartner-Morley in the Guardian describes him as “a Brothers Grimm of fashion,” and says:
To wear McQueen is to be dressed in hourglass armour. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me: “I grew up with three older sisters, and I saw them go through a lot of shit, I always wanted to be able to protect them.” He did this the best way he knew how. “They would call me up to their room and I’d help them pick out clothes for work. Just, you know, what skirt with what cardigan, but I was always trying to make them look strong and sheltered.”
The genius of his clothes lay in his ability to keep the joy and hope symbolised by beauty and perfection in a tantalising equilibrium with the darkness which rumbled beneath.
The other thing everyone is saying is how empotional McQueen’s clothes are; how they are “about feelings.” You can see his spring/summer 2010 collection on the Vogue France website; it was due to be shown in London in a few weeks. Those shoes. Like the dress at the top, this collection draws on the natural world: Darwin, to be precise. Once you have that, the shoes make more sense… unlike many completely articifial looks, it’s as if McQueen was trying to make women look more natural, like strange exotic (powerful, wild) animals. There is a website which is unfortunately Lady Gaga’s website, where you can see a great page of archive clothes. (You can’t help who wears the stuff; like Tracey Emin being the poster girl for Vivienne Westwood, you just have to ignore it.) Look at the two top dresses. I love all this structural stuff. And look how beautifully they’re made.
Suzanne Moore has resuscitated an article she wrote in 2004 for the New Statesman, with the words: “Why McQueen Mattered.” She wrote: “If fashion is a mirror, it can still sometimes show us what we should really be seeing.” (And yes, that includes the state of the model above. You know me; I’m not advocating that.)
The inherent melancholy of the late 1990s that was collectively misunderstood, as Evans devastatingly shows [n.b., it is a book review.], as “heroin chic” was in fact a reaction to the healthy body of the 1980s. The scruffy, withdrawn-looking waifs who became stars were reflecting an alienation that was not simply personal but social and political, too, an aesthetic of abjection, of ugliness and excess. This was happening at a time, remember, when every aspect of daily life was becoming “hyper-aestheticised”.
Well, it is sad. Such fallout. A still-young man from a notoriously unstable world has killed himself, despite being possessed of a great, huge, influential talent. Fashion, like poetry, never saved anybody. It made nothing happen. But like poetry it helped to define the perameters of us, it gave us image, it tamed and contained colour, it put us in a context. Like poetry it gives those with the gift for it a place to put their gift. Like poetry it is a way of happening. Have a look at this: