A year after the designer’s death shook the style industry, the Met gives Alexander McQueen the honor of shaping history before the remembrances get fuzzy. In this week’s Newsweek, Robin Givhan looks at how the designer’s donation is seen in chronological context.
Trino Verkade is the auburn-haired keeper of the Alexander McQueen saga – a breathing difficult drive in a pair of skeletal jeans. At once warm and straight-talking, she was the primary member of staff hired by the great British designer, acknowledged as Lee. Verkade was an inner-circle friend who was there at the beginning of McQueen’s occupation in the early 1990s when he was living on social security above his sad-sack studio off Hoxton Square. And sorrowfully, she was there at the edge, last year, when he hanged himself in the million-dollar apartment he’d settled into in the graceful Mayfair quarter.
The stagecraft and mechanical wizardry showed off McQueen’s qualifications as a designer. He was a capable tailor who could also decorate a splendid dress without benefit of a pattern. And his private story – his working-class beginnings, rough demeanor, unrestricted offensiveness – made him a risky and captivating manifestation.
McQueen first gained reputation with his 1992 graduation collection – inspired by Jack the Ripper – for the master’s program at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Its mysterious sexuality dazzled the British media and hypnotized the unusual and powerful fashion editor Isabella Blow, who became McQueen’s mate and unabashed supporter. He rapidly made a name for himself worldwide by launching his “bumster” trousers – pants cut so low on the hips they showed the cleavage of the buttocks.
With remarkable rapidity, McQueen was greeted into the fashion establishment. Gucci Group invested in McQueen’s company and set it on a course for expansion into fragrances and a secondary line. Nevertheless professional victory was fixed with stress, nervousness, and personal tragedy. McQueen’s troubled patron, Blow, committed suicide in 2007, and his mother, Joyce, passed away in February 2010. At 40, the great British designer committed suicide the day before her funeral.
One of McQueen’s most impressive performances was for his spring 2004 collection, based on the 1969 Sydney Pollack picture They Shoot Horses. The movie uncovers a heartbreaking tale of aspirations and obsessions during the Depression; contestants in a dance marathon exhaust themselves physically and psychologically through their anxious grasping for an elusive esteem. The film asks the provocative question of whether it is kinder to relief people from their distress than to let them be subdued by the hurt that hope so regularly provides. The clothes were, as for eternity, dreamlike: dilapidated dresses elaborately constructed from a patchwork of fabric; distressed chiffon gowns weighed down with tarnished sequins.
McQueen offered a clear-eyed idea of the harshness of life that, possibly, only the working poor are frank enough to recognize. Whilst other designers, from John Galliano to Ralph Lauren, were romanticizing employees, vagabonds, and corporate strivers, McQueen was more orientated to stress their calloused hands, bloodied feet, and shredded dignity.
In that direction, the great British designer‘s work was full of loud, raw honesty. And whether gorgeous or horrible, it continues to be irresistible.