Much has been written about fashion designer Alexander McQueen since his death by suicide on February 11. Like many, I’ve been thinking about his work more than ever since hearing the news and am terribly sad and disappointed that such a brilliant designer left us too soon. McQueen’s incredible oeuvre has reverberations not only for fashion, but for other creative disciplines as well.
Like an architect, he could construct amazing forms from a flat piece of fabric. His fashion shows, which unfolded cinematically but were often over in less than 20 minutes, featured sets and production values that rivaled those of major motion pictures. The fantasy sequences of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus come to mind immediately. With the eye of an artist, an architect, and a filmmaker all rolled into one, McQueen created some of the most breathtaking and inspiring fashion of our time.
While I knew McQueen’s work through the pages of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, I didn’t study it closely until I was developing Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture, an exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, which opened in late 2006. The clothes were captivating: beautiful, extravagant, mind-bending, futuristic, and ethereal, sometimes all at once.
I was drawn to McQueen’s garments as much for their meticulous, often architectonic construction as for their historical allusions, such as those conjured by the slashed tartans of the iconic Highland Rape collection (fall/winter 1995–96); for the strong references to issues of identity seen in the romantic and melancholy Widows of Culloden (fall/winter 2006–7); for the extraordinary sculptural silhouettes seen in It’s Only A Game (spring/summer 2005); and for the sensual, sci-fi combinations of fabrics and prints, seen in Scanners (fall/winter 2003–04).
In McQueen’s spectacular presentations, the clothes were truly one with the designer’s complex and often fantastical visions. Remarkably, McQueen made the leap from runway to retail quite successfully, but the clothes could never be completely separated from the fantasy.
I selected the pieces for Skin + Bones during several visits to the designer’s unassuming London studio. Although I didn’t meet McQueen himself, I always had the impression that he was there, working on the floor above, and that nothing was done without his tacit approval. Calvin Tsao, who designed the exhibition, wanted something especially strong for the first gallery to signal the intersection of fashion and architecture to viewers immediately.
Widows of Culloden had just been presented in Paris in a set that consisted of a simple wooden box containing a large glass pyramid around which models walked while a ghostly hologram of Kate Moss (wearing one of the collection’s key pieces) materialized. We were awestruck, and thought the ensemble could bring elements of the two disciplines together in a dynamic, immersive way. Alas, transplanting McQueen’s vision to the exhibition was beyond the capabilities of a museum without the deep pockets of a Gucci Group, where McQueen’s label resided.
Still, the individual McQueen pieces generously lent by the studio were strong enough to exert a considerable presence in the exhibition. In several cases, their juxtaposition with architectural projects was uncanny. The cupola shape of the embroidered dress with the leather bodice from It’s Only a Game echoed the glass bubbles of a corner of Greg Lynn’s Slavin House, while the structure of both McQueen’s laced leather dress from Scanners and Lynn’s Blob Wall was created through the repetition of a single module: a simple shoelace for McQueen and a tri-lobed plastic blob for Lynn.
McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 show Plato’s Atlantis, presented in Paris in early October 2009, was a tour de force. In an interview conducted just before that show, Nick Knight asked McQueen where and when he was happiest, and he answered that it was when he was scuba diving. In Plato’s Atlantis, which had been, radically, broadcast live from the runway, McQueen succeeded in bringing to life the world that he saw beneath the sea and in his mind’s eye.
Feet planted firmly on the ground—albeit in outrageous lobster-claw shoes—models walked the runway wearing garments printed with complex, digitally generated images inspired by nature in shapes that at times recalled a crustacean’s carapace and at others the gently undulating tentacles of a jellyfish. McQueen, fittingly, described Plato’s definition of Atlantis as “a metaphor for a kind of Neverland, where people find sanctuary in bad times.”