Last week was the 10th anniversary of the great Lee Alexander McQueen’s tragic death at the age of 40. Arguably one of the most talented designers of the 20th century and the noughties, his impact was profound. From his phenomenal tailoring skills, to his diverse and obscure inspirations, to his theatrical presentations, no one was quite like McQueen. The hooligan of British fashion knew how to shock and comment on social and historical issues, seen throughout his own line and during his tenure at Givenchy. His mastering is pattern making is well known, he cut could cut a pattern by sight without measurements on the stand, the work of a true genius. McQueen’s genius is so renowned, “Savage Beauty”, a retrospective of his work, was the most popular show in the history of the V&A in London. He revolutionised the fashion show, challenging the norms, creating a piece of theatre, a piece of art to showcase his beautiful designs. In honour of him, we take a look at some of his most memorable shows.
Highland Rape – Autumn/Winter 1995
One of McQueen’s earliest shows and perhaps his most controversial. McQueen’s inspiration was Britain’s rape of Scotland and the atrocities committed there but unfortunately, critics thought it romanticized the rape of women. The clothes were ripped and distressed, exposing the breast. He used a combination of exquisite laces, tartans and latex, with precise tailoring and exquisite gowns featured, but the biggest statement of the show had to be the “bumsters”, pants and skirts so low that you could see the buttocks and the pubic region. He said “That part of the body – not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine – that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman”. This spawned the trend of low rise pants that became popular.
Untitled/The Golden Shower – Spring/Summer 1998
Another controversial show by McQueen, this time due to the name. Originally titled Golden Shower, but due to the carnal connotations, the sponsors insisted on a name change, so it went by the name “Untitled”. This didn’t stop the theatrics of the show. The models walked in a tank of ink dyed water, and halfway through the show, the sprinkler came down on the models but lit up with yellow spotlights to give the illusion of a golden shower. The models wore tight snakeskin dresses, bold yellows and blues and tailored suits but the collection moved to all white, only to become see-through once the rain fell.
No. 13 – Spring/Summer 1999
No. 13, McQueen’s thirteenth collection has to go down as one of the most memorable shows throughout fashion history. The unvarnished wooden floors would host a collection inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, with an emphasis on the handcrafted. Designs were made from wood, leather, lace and raffia. Intricate bodices, fringed skirts and lace ruffles contrasted with corsets and moulded harnesses. This juxtaposition of the soft romantic to the tough featured heavily in his work. But these were not the standout elements. It was the show’s opening and closing that wowed the audience. Paralympian Aimee Mullins opened the show in a pair of McQueen design hand craved prosthetic legs. In using a disabled model, McQueen wanted to challenge the typical notions of beauty, and he did. For the closing, former ballerina turned model Shalom Harlow stood on a rotating disk in the centre of the room in a cotton trapeze dress in between two metal robots. Their interaction began as gentle and graceful but became more violent and menacing, revealing that these were car paint sprayers that sprayed her pure dress in black and yellow. A standout moment.
Voss – Spring/Summer 2001
Voss. Another iconic show that really upped the ante of what a spectacular show should be. Conceptual and theatrical? Yes. Were the clothes good? Spectacular. The audience sat around a mirrored cube only to see their own reflections. The lights went up on the cube to reveal a psychiatric hospital with padded walls and a two-way mirror which the models couldn’t see through. Kate Moss came clawing out at the glass, instructed to act as deranged. One by one, the models wearing hospital headbands appeared in the collection celebrating nature. Razor clams, mussels and oyster shells appeared, as did feather skirts and dresses and taxidermied hawks. McQueen’s signature tailoring was present but the standout piece had to be the ostrich feather skirt and handpainted blood red microscopic slide dress worn by Erin O’Conner. If the collection wasn’t enough to capture the audience’s attention, the finale certainly did. In the centre of the room was a glass cube which’s wall’s shattered to reveal a voluptuous nude woman in a gas mask and breathing tube, surrounded by fluttering moths.
The Widows of Culloden – Autumn/Winter 2006
This show proved to be another theatrical show for McQueen, revisting his Scottish family history and the historic horrible treatment of the Scottish by the English. The collection had a sense of tragic romance, seen in a lot of McQueen collections, an ode to the woman who lost their husbands in the Battle of Culloden of 1745. There was McQueen’s signature tartan as seen in the Highland Rape collection, but this time, more delicately used in a way to celebrate the female form, as seen in a stunning tartan dress that was draped over one shoulder with a tulle underlay. Celtic belts nipped in waists, perfectly tailored tweed suits showed off the body and there was bustles, lace and furs. His collaborations with renowned milliner Philip Treacy were at their pinnacle in this show with models wearing antlers and birds’ nests with Swarovski crystal encrusted eggs. The show culminated in an ethereal Kate Moss hologram, in a stunning organza ruffled white dress, dancing and then disappearing into thin air.
The Horn of Plenty – Autumn/Winter 2009
McQueen’s Horn of Plenty show expressed his distaste for fast fashion. Also his perception that designers weren’t doing anything new, especially during the recession. Well this show threw that out the window. Yes, McQueen referenced his previous collections amongst the massive pile of junk in the centre of the room, but skilfully wove it through the collection whilst paying homage to Dior’s New Look houndstooth and Chanel tweed. The models teetered on sky high platforms, wore trash in their hair, had bleached eyebrows and oversized lipstick in the vein of Leigh Bowery. McQueen was contesting typical notions of beauty and fashion. The houndstooth skirt suits were shapely, the pencil skirts skin tight, the ruffles and collars high, the silhouettes sculptural and the fabrics stiff. The designer lacquered silk to give it a cheaper finish and in the final two pieces, lacquered feathers to create arguably the most outstanding pieces of his career. Mesmerizing.
Plato’s Atlantis – Spring/Summer 2010
Plato’s Atlantis would be McQueen’s final complete show. And it was nothing short of breath taking whilst being at the forefront of technology. It was the first fashion show to be streamed online. Unfortunately the site crashed as Lady GaGa tweeted about it to her 6 million followers. The show was also ahead of its time in terms of environmental issues. He was forecasting the ecological meltdown of the world where humans, who originally ascended from the sea, would be forced to return due to the melting ice caps. The show started with Nick Knight directed video of a naked model writhing on the ground, covered in snakes before the lights came up to reveal 2 robotic cameras on either side of the runway scanning the crowd. The cameras turned on to the catwalk and the alien like models in the infamous Armadillo egg shaped sky high shoots strutted. The relatively new technology of digital printing was a focus, with snakeskins and scales printed onto bodycon short dresses with voluminous skirts. Tailored pants revealed portholes of shimmering turquoise. Scales of different colours adorned the body. And the hair and make up? Braids and foot high Predator like sculptures were complimented by cheek prosthetics to create alien like creatures. Pure Genius. And sadly, this was to be the last time we would see this genius.
Thank you McQueen for being a true visionary. Sarah Burton was his right hand woman and has continued on his legacy. We are fortunate enough to have some Burton designed McQueen available to hire on The Volte. Hire Alexander McQueen for your next event to make a statement.