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The McQueen Legacy

Profiles
Alexander McQueen in 2003.

By Mark Ellwood

On Tuesday, April 21, Dana Thomas, author of Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, will be at Books & Books Bal Harbour for a talk and signing. Read about her book and the many other cultural explorations about the late great Alexander McQueen.

This year, one of fashion’s most original voices, Alexander McQueen, will be recognized with no less than two books, one museum show and a play being released in London. Each of these cultural pieces serve as a reminder of how McQueen, the bad boy of British design, remains a force in fashion, even five years after his untimely suicide.

 

McQueen cartwheeling, 1994.

In February, veteran fashion reporter Dana Thomas publishes her new book, “Gods and Kings,” a doorstop-sized delight on McQueen and fellow fashion wunderkind John Galliano. Then, in the fall, British journalist Andrew Wilson releases his own biography of the designer. Furthermore, this spring, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will host a restaging of 2011’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” the landmark exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that attracted over 650,000 visitors, making it the eighth most-visited exhibit in the museum’s history. Perhaps Kate Middleton will open the show—after all, she helped shore up McQueen’s reputation just months after his death by choosing his onetime assistant (and successor) Sarah Burton to design her wedding dress.

A dress from McQueen’s “Widows of Culloden” collection, 2006.

So how has Alexander “Lee” McQueen remained such a potent force in fashion, his company thriving rather than dissipating in his wake? For one thing, according to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Valerie Steele, his artistry transcended seasonal styles. “His work was so absolutely unique,” she says, “immediately recognizable as his, with no concessions to trends or what was selling.” McQueen was a former pattern-cutter at London’s theatrical costume supplier Angels & Bermans; this gave him the ability to fuse fashion and costumes in a fresh way. “McQueen’s style tribe was intensely theatrical in a very visceral, fierce way.”

Dana Thomas agrees. “He is one of only four or five designers of the 20th century that created a new silhouette—and he did it before he’d even had his first professional show,” she says, referring to the “bumsters” he developed, trousers that teasingly created some extra cleavage at the lower back. He championed this new low-slung pant at the start of his career; now, almost two decades later, the everyday trouser fits at the hip, rather than the waist as was once standard. Few designers can claim to have moved the waistline.

Naomi Campbell in McQueen’s first show for Givenchy wearing Philip Treacy’s sheep-horn hat.

Though his swaggering affect and quotable truculence earned McQueen attention, they often overshadowed his true skills. Trained as an apprentice on London’s starchy Savile Row, his cutting and patternmaking skills were unparalleled. Thomas tells the story of an intern who was raving to McQueen about Balenciaga’s skill in making a garment with just one seam; McQueen rolled his eyes as the intern went on marveling at the seemingly impossible task. “The next morning, the kid walked into the studio, and there was that same dress sitting on the dummy,” Thomas says. “He did that all the time.”

A dress from McQueen’s “Widows of Culloden” collection, 2006.

McQueen wasn’t just a masterful designer; he understood the architecture of clothes, and easily catered to a diverse customer. “He knew how to cut a little black dress so that a woman—size 2 or 14—would look elegant,” notes vintage dealer Cameron Silver of L.A.’s Decades boutique. McQueen’s popularity wasn’t limited to his designs, either. Among the fashion pack, he championed democracy on the runway. When he tried to live-stream his catwalk show in Fall 2009, a recreation of Atlantis featuring holograms and sea aliens, the firm’s host site crashed due to the unprecedented traffic.

Shalom Harlow spray-painted by robots in McQueen’s “No. 13,” 1999.

There’s no greater evidence of McQueen’s enduring legacy, though, than the way today’s collections continually reference his work. Thomas recalls a recent Balmain show, where a white suit shown was identical to a piece from McQueen’s first (and panned) couture show for Givenchy. “Line for line, they reproduced it. I’m surprised the designer didn’t get fired for plagiarism.” She continues, “It’s really a shame he’s gone because he pushed everyone in fashion to do better. Next to his work, everybody else looked lame.”

 

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