Friday, 12 February 2010
I own and wear a Gieves & Hawkes black suit (bottom of the range, off the peg, bought in a January sale, but, hey, it's got the label). Following his time at Anderson and Shephard, Lee Alexander McQueen went to Gieves as a young apprentice. There he picked up a tailor's chalk and learnt to draw patterns; cut the finest cloths; sew and tailor. Every element of a suit from the finesse of a seam to the lie of a vent was executed with surgical precision. The skills McQueen learnt in Saville Row never left him. Even his most operatic creations were experiments in tailoring, albeit a provocative style of tailoring. His creation of startling and, at times, disturbing silhouettes were conceived in a Saville Row basement, bent over a workbench with a pair of scissors in his hand. When Lady Gaga appears in her video, Bad Romance, dressed like some alien mermaid fished from the ocean's depths, McQueen transforms the human form into something both recognisable and other worldly. In terms of fashion, this is a million miles away from the conservative environment of a tailors to the military but in terms of technique, the Paris catwalk and Saville Row were the intertwining strands in McQueen's creative DNA. His work though visually iconoclastic was rooted in technical discipline.
McQueen's clothes transgressed the conventions that kept fashion and art apart. This was most evident in his fashion shows where he condensed ideas and concepts into a chamber piece of performance art. In the Spring/Summer fashion show of 1999, a beautiful model wearing a huge, multi-layered white skirt stood on a bare stage which slowly began to rotate. On either side of her, two robotic arms began to dance and then, without warning, spray paint onto the skirt. It was as if the graffiti of the street had stormed the salons of the fashion world. In this theatrical gesture, the Stratford lad showed that he had the power to both create and destroy; to be simultaneously couturier and bovver boy. Part of the excitement that surrounded McQueen was that even in the most sophisticated circles he retained something of the delinquent vandal. Only he had the audacity to call a show Highland Rape, inspired by the Battle of Culloden or allow amputees and the obese to invade the catwalk.
His clothes climbed down off the catwalks and straight into the streets and council estates of our cities. The fashion for trousers and jeans that hang low across the buttocks, revealing a g-string or Calvin Klein band was lifted from McQueen's tailoring of trousers that dipped below the pelvic line. His bumsters inspired a whole new way of wearing trousers. The emaciated silhouette of skinny trousers that McQueen toyed with in his collections are now the de rigeur tight jeans and leggings that fill our high street shops. The Pagoda shoulders (1980's padded shoulders but on steroids this time round) that you see everywhere are McQueen's invention.
The ephemeral fascinated McQueen. Fashion, by definition, depends on the fleeting and the superficial. The beautiful blooms for a moment and captures the eye of a magazine editor or buyer, then it is gone. Karl Lagerfield remarked that, in his clothes, McQueen "always flirted with death. Who knows, perhaps, after flirting with death too often, death attracts you." Recent McQueen prints featured a gothic skull which can now be seen on every scarf and t-shirt worn by the young. It is impossible to say if, in a society where death is increasingly disguised and concealed, this was a fashion memento mori or whether it indicates McQueen's personal fascination with death.
But McQueen's importance will not be based on his preoccupation with mortality or the tragic nature of his own death. His importance will lie in the fact that he could take a roll of fabric and in his mind's eye, he could see how it might transform the human form: lengthen legs; broaden shoulders; pinch a waist. Combining this interior knowledge with his store of cultural references from history, religion and society made for new levels of creativity. McQueen understood that in societies where the visually crude and crass predominate, a garment of transforming beauty could still seduce us. Fashion, for a brief moment, could make us pause and wonder. His legacy is not death, but beauty.