Wednesday, March 20, 2019

McQueen

This past Sunday, March 17, 2019, would have been Alexander McQueen's fiftieth birthday. The designer committed suicide in 2010 at the age of forty.

I've never been particularly fashion savvy. On my most ambitious days I have a vague personal aesthetic, inspired largely by Tori Amos's look in the early-mid 90s, the warm-up wear and costumes of modern dancers like Martha Graham, and the cool lesbian girls I was infatuated with in high school, but my knowledge of fashion largely derives from the same source as my knowledge of most other things: film. I'm on more familiar footing talking about costume design than I am runway shows, and I'm apt to think of clothing as a narrative device; It's about more than just the garment, it's about the character wearing it, and the story they're telling. And the grander the gesture, the more dramatic and outrageous, the more I love it. When I really set myself to thinking about clothing design my mind will almost always go straight for grand, dramatic gestures (Eiko Ishioka's designs for Dracula or Kate Hawley's for Crimson Peak) or romantic period perfection (Janet Patterson's work on Bright Star or The Piano); I love looking at clothing like that and daydreaming about wearing clothing like that, but I'm not gonna make an effort to replicate those outstanding confections; When it comes to my personal wardrobe I need choices that are practical and comfortable for me as well as stylish.

So I don't know all that much about fashion and, unlike film, I've never been motivated to educate myself on the subject. I think of fashion like I think of Broadway: it's a cool thing that largely happens in bigger, more progressive, cosmopolitan areas. When I was in college pursuing a degree in art, though, I began to develop a strong aesthetic interest in female bodies and, by extension, I became interested in ways to adorn the female form. I wasn't so much interested in wearable clothing, I was more into the idea of creating sculptural pieces that were informed by the body, or art that was built around the body, transforming it into a component that works in tandem with the garment to create a tangible work of art. After college I started buying Vogue magazines on a fairly regular basis. I can't remember what prompted me to begin doing that, but I'm pretty sure it had more to do with the women who were gracing the covers than it did the designers themselves. Basically if an actress I liked turned up on the cover of the latest Vogue rather than the latest Vanity Fair I would buy the Vogue; I really just wanted to look at beautiful women I admired. But, at some point, I began to realize that I was drawn to particular pieces of clothing, and they were all made by the same designer: Alexander McQueen. With his flair for the dramatic and his gift for storytelling McQueen would be the obvious choice to truly bring me around to the idea of fashion as an art form in its own right.

My earliest memory, the thing that first caught my eye and truly captured my interest, were some fall/winter 2002 pieces that combined filmy pastel material, very fitted up top, almost like gauze bandaging, with leather harnesses. Sometimes the skirt would be an abundance of ruffles, layers and layers of them, very ephemeral and romantic and feminine, but paired with those severe, almost punishing looking harnesses. They were sexual, and maybe that didn't fully register with me on a conscious level initially, but the fetish implications - the rigid, constrictive nature of the harness dominating the delicate, yielding material of the dress - seem glaringly obvious in hindsight. McQueen wasn't just creating clothing. He was crafting a character, a mood, a statement. This was a garment that could be worn by a dominatrix, a gothic heroine, a bride of Dracula. I was in thrall.

And so I developed a fondness for McQueen, but it never really went beyond that. I have a habit of going overboard with my admiration, obsessing at times to a degree that is all-consuming, bordering on pathological. My love for McQueen was never like that, though; his work was always just kind of percolating in the back of mind, informing my artistic sensibilities in subtle ways. Though my admiration for McQueen was always kind of low key I was certainly a big enough fan to make a trip to New York in July of 2011 to see the posthumous retrospective Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see this show, and it remains one of the most thrilling, and emotional museum experiences I've had. I remember black walls, and music, and in some rooms there would be a wind machine going to make the fabric billow. If there wasn't a headpiece of some sort the mannequin models were often headless, to minimize distraction and keep the focus entirely on the garment that was being displayed. Guests wound around the space, from one room to the next, experiencing each collection in an atmosphere that tried in subtle ways to approximate the feel of an actual McQueen runway show. Like the clothes themselves, the exhibition was transportive and a bit overwhelming. It cast a spell, for sure.

Last year a feature length documentary about McQueen was released. As a piece of cinema McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, is pretty straightforward, chronicling the designer's humble beginnings as the son of a London taxi driver, his ascent through the echelons of the fashion industry, and the toll that both his professional and personal demons take on him, culminating in his suicide at the age of forty. Bonhôte and Ettedgui utilize an abundance of candid, behind-the-scenes recordings, footage from McQueen's remarkable runway shows, and interviews with family, creative collaborators, friends and lovers. The first time I saw the film I was underwhelmed by it from a movie-making perspective, but I loved having access to such a wealth of information about McQueen the man as well as McQueen the artist. Having seen the documentary two more times I can say that my appreciation for the directors' creative choices has increased, and their matter-of-fact approach - with the addition of a series of artfully rendered skulls specially constructed for the film to introduce each chapter of McQueen's story - feels right. They know enough to exercise restraint, allowing McQueen and those who were close to him to tell the story with minimal embellishment or artistic frivolity. If the movie comes close to tipping into sentimentality towards the end this can be forgiven, too. It's a movie that was obviously made with a considerable amount of care, respect, admiration, and affection. And every time I see it there's a new insight I pick up on, another perspective or idea that sparks my interest.

Before watching McQueen I knew next to nothing about the designer's beginnings in the the world of fashion, that he got his start working as a tailor on Savile Row and possessed an innate talent for the work. I've never even operated a sewing machine but, even though I'm not capable of fully appreciating the skill that goes into this sort of work, it really impresses me. McQueen had a grand vision, and he also had the practical skills to back it up. There's a great moment in the movie when McQueen's older sister Janet tells a story about her teenaged brother making a skirt for her, one so form-fitting she could barely walk in it . . . but she always received compliments on it when she wore it. McQueen had technical savvy, an understanding of the female form, and he was interested in making clothing that was personal, and one of a kind. So much thought and care went into both the look and the crafting of the garments, there was an intimacy to what he was doing. This intimate, personal approach extended to the concepts for McQueen's runway shows, which he said were largely autobiographical.

Drawing inspiration for his collections from literature, film, history, and current events, McQueen's work was also informed by the natural world, and non-traditional materials like flowers, shells and antlers often found their way into his creations. He was accused of misogyny but maintained that he wanted to make women look strong, formidable. Having witnessed the horrific abuse of his sister at the hands of his brother-in-law (and been the victim of abuse from the man himself) he wanted to create clothing that empowered women. What I love about his work is that it often transforms the models entirely, turning them into fantastical, otherworldly creatures. The combined sense of pageantry and storytelling in his collections could turn the women wearing his clothing into noble Scottish war widows, wild animals, woodland nymphs, or futuristic human-sea creature hybrids. His work may have been idiosyncratic and highly personal, but the more fantastical it becomes the more compelling and, indeed, accessible it is to me. His astonishing talents combined with his dark romantic sensibilities and seemingly boundless imagination make me positively giddy. What a gift his work was. What a treasure. Looking at his clothing, watching footage of his runway shows, I appreciate the time and skill that goes into it all on a practical level, but I don't have words to express what the work means to me emotionally. It just makes me feel so much.


For someone who was drawn to the macabre and melancholic, who created work he often referred to as dark, gothic, and death-obsessed, the McQueen we see in the film's earlier archival clips is surprisingly jovial. He liked to push people's buttons, wind them up, get them out of their comfort zones, and there was a playful quality to his provocations. He was a trickster. And a punk. He also comes across as someone who was down to earth, took his work very seriously, and valued the time and effort his collaborators put into helping him realize his vision. And he seems quite tender hearted, with an endearing, almost child-like affection for his pets (he dedicated one of his runway shows to his beloved dog, Minter, and set aside a generous sum in his will for the continued care of the three bull terriers who survived him). But he had a mercurial temperament, and was apt to push people away and alienate himself as often as not. One gets the sense that he felt most at home in his own skin when he was working, and one of my favorite moments in McQueen is when stylist Mira Chai-Hyde talks about how often the designer would stay up, late into the night, sewing and listening to Michael Nyman's score for The Piano. McQueen and Nyman eventually struck up a friendship (McQueen even commissioned Nyman to compose a piece for his Widows of Culloden show), so it's not only appropriate but very touching that the film uses Nyman's music as its soundtrack.

The second half of the film chronicles McQueen's steady rise in the industry, and the personal descent into paranoia, self-loathing and depression that paralleled his professional ascent. Watching this brilliant, charming, lovable man essentially waste away as he becomes more famous, while the people he was closest with recount some of their heartbreaking exchanges with the designer during this time period, is incredibly difficult to watch. It made me feel helpless, and incredibly sad for McQueen and all the people who loved him. It's during the final act of the film that I most appreciate Bonhôte and Ettedgui's straightforward storytelling style. Death was often the subject, directly or indirectly, of McQueen's work and another filmmaker might have been tempted to romanticize McQueen's self-destructive actions and his death. But the film never crosses that line. Nothing about what happens to McQueen is sensationalized or glamorized. McQueen is with us, and then he is gone. And it sucks.

But how fortunate we were to have had him for the time that we did.