“Give me time, and I’ll give you a revolution,” the late Alexander McQueen once said. It was a lofty promise, but he managed to pull it off, becoming one of the most revered fashion designers of all time, and one of the select few who have been elevated to the status of artist. Rarer still, he is among the minority of fashion personalities whose name resonates with the general public, reaching celebrity-status during his lifetime, and icon-status in death.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (an exhibit of his work that debuted only one year after his passing) is the 11th most-visited show in the museum’s history—only knocked out of the top ten by Michelangelo. Visitors waited in lines for hours to get in, and the show generated so much traffic that the museum stayed open until midnight in order to accommodate fans. The exhibit sparked a similar reaction when it travelled to London’s Victoria & Albert museum in 2015, where it became the institution’s most-visited exhibit, and forced the V&A to stay open for 24 hours to meet the demand. No other solo fashion figure has been able to inspire such massive crowds, or to have such a wide reach.
But our obsession with the designer goes beyond his work, making him a bonafide pop-culture icon. In 2012, Sir Peter Blake, the artist behind The Beatles’ iconic album cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club updated his famous work with modern British celebrities—McQueen among them. The massively popular online game World of Warcraft has a character named “Alexandra McQueen,” who is described as a “tailoring trainer.” He was also among the leading contenders in a public vote to appear on a new £20 note in the UK. That doesn’t even begin to count the multiple films on the way about him, including The Ripper, which will explore the relationship between the designer and his muse, Isabella Blow (similar to McQueen and I), the documentary McQueen (not to be confused with the stage production about the designer of the same name that ran in London in 2015), which came out last June, and another unnamed biopic.
So what is it about Alexander McQueen that has created such a sustained, profound interest in the public eye?
Perhaps we’re so invested in him because of he embodies the “tortured artist” story—and yes, the title of artist is absolutely fitting. McQueen’s legacy as a designer is propelled by his provocative work. But unlike other provocateurs (Jean-Paul Gaultier, who rebelled with a wink, Martin Margiela, who refused to engage, and Vivienne Westwood, a literal punk), McQueen challenged audiences by exploring concepts in a painterly way, taking on dark subjects through lavish design and beauty. You don’t want to read about the thought behind his work (although the stories are often fascinating). You just want to look at it.
McQueen began honing his skills at an early age, dropping out of school at 16 to apprentice with tailors on Saville Row. His graduation collection from his time at Central Saint Martins earned the new designer the eyes of the industry, and his earliest shows (featuring models flipping the bird, pants so low they placed bare bums on display, and titles like “Highland Rape” and “The Golden Shower”) quickly established his ability to antagonize. Nevertheless, he was appointed to Givenchy, where he was tasked with creating couture collections for the storied French house. Though he didn’t last in the position, McQueen said that his time there “softened” his approach to construction. The next phase in his career, focused entirely on his namesake label, catapulted him to the figure we know today.
But beyond a recognizable aesthetic, what really cemented McQueen’s legacy were the attention-grabbing ways he presenting his collections. If the argument for fashion shows is that they allow designers to control the mood and create a world for their collections to exist, then McQueen was undoubtedly king, staging theatrical shows that all but created narratives for his otherworldly work. Productions like “Voss,” “No. 13,” and “Scanners” crafted moments that demand repeat viewings, transcending the concept of what a fashion show could be, and in turn, the concept of fashion itself.
He created a carousel set piece years before Chanel and Louis Vuitton did the same. He used a hologram of Kate Moss for a finale long before concert organizers adapted the technology to bring back deceased musicians. He drew from the art world to create performance pieces in ways that still blow today’s collaborations out of the water. Ever ahead of the curve, he was also among the first designers to live-stream a fashion show on the internet (the final collection he presented himself and broadcast it on SHOWstudio, allegedly attracting so many viewers the site crashed).
For a designer who was never more successful than when he experimented, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. In an age where designers are encouraged to comment on politics, how would he have interpreted today’s global issues? In a world in which technology is increasingly changing how fashion is produced, how would he have incorporated new equipment like 3D printing into his work? In a time when collaborations and capsule collections have become more prevalent, which creative minds with whom would he have chosen to work? And as more fashion brands create narrative films to conquer digital advertising, what dreams (or nightmares) would he have concocted?
If there is one way to summarize McQueen’s legacy, it is that he lingers. Each season he created wears that left the industry wanting more. It was a feeling amplified after his tragic passing in 2010. What remains is a body of work so enthralling, it defies fashion’s most basic definition of constant change. He has all but become a mythical figure, much like the ones that inspired him.
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