A Tribute & A New Future

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Everyone knows by now that for the Royal Wedding, Kate wore a gown designed by Sara Burton – the director in chief of Alexander McQueen. I thought I would post the following interview, the last interview ever done by Alexander McQueen, written by, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times.

Alexander McQueen sleeps under a portrait of himself in a rented flat in Mayfair, the Central London neighbourhood that is also home to such fashion luminaries as Valentino and Tom Ford. It’s easy to see why McQueen favours this particular portrait, to a self-reflecting degree, and chose to frame it as elaborately as a religious icon and place it on the same wall as photos of his beloved dogs — Minter, Juice and Callum — as though all four beings are inseparable.

As a well-off man of 40, with a newly purchased home down the block under renovation and a country house in Sussex, McQueen doesn’t lack for serious art. His friendships with artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood and Jake and Dinos Chapman go back years, and examples of their work are displayed in the two-level flat. Yet the portrait captures a moment of truth that feels savoured. Taken by David Bailey in 1996, it shows a fleshy and tentative McQueen staring into the camera. “I’d been up all night partying,” he recalls.

More to the point, he had just been hired by Givenchy, the French couture house owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods conglomerate whose chairman, Bernard Arnault, was prepared to pay huge sums for raw British talent. Openly gay, with a Cockney swagger that seemed to embolden him even as it made his insecurities transparent (the stylist Isabella Blow once remarked that his teeth “looked like Stonehenge”), McQueen had already left a mark with his bumster trousers, a style that set off a decade-long fashion for low-rise jeans. McQueen was then 27, living in his Hoxton Square studio in the East End of London and wondering where his next quid was coming from.

On the morning that an LVMH executive called with the Givenchy offer, he was in bed with his boyfriend, and, as he said later, he went to the toilet “to have a think”. When he emerged, he got on the phone and accepted, but with little enthusiasm. The arrival of champagne and caviar from Paris didn’t soften him. He was, and remains, not so much an enfant terrible as an enfant sauvage, guarding against the loss of his own innocence. That’s what the portrait shows — the watchfulness lurking in the haze of a London all-nighter.

Although McQueen would probably resist the idea that he has mellowed, there are signs recently of greater self-acceptance, not least in the move to establishment Mayfair. “Ten years ago I would have never thought of moving to this area of London,” he says. We have left his flat and walked around the corner to Scott’s, the Mount Street fish restaurant that now serves as his local canteen. At lunchtime the place feels jolly. Steve Martin enters, scans the room and heads to the back. McQueen, who is almost universally known as Lee, is given a booth near the door. He orders dressed crab and smoked haddock, and then continues: “It was all about Lee the Cockney oik and Hoxton Square. But now it’s about a company and peace of mind. I can still rock’n’roll, but I can do it here and I can do it safely.”

Some people might find this choirboy confession hard to take or, anyway, hard to believe. McQueen is famous for winding people up. He is wily. He knows how to clock someone else’s needs and adjust his responses, and not in a manner that feels slick or insincere, but certainly there is a large amount of obfuscation involved. Yet now when we speak he is forthright on a number of topics, including his friendship with Blow, who committed suicide in May 2007, about which he had said little publicly.

At the same time, collections such as the “Girl Who Lived in the Tree” in 2008 and the men’s show last autumn, a well-crafted ode to men’s sexual nature, are among his best. McQueen, who comes up with the concepts for all his shows and still cuts most of the patterns himself, describes these 15-minute performances as “the culmination of everything that goes around in my mind”. And though you might not think to place him in the same category as Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garçons, his clothes, like hers, have the power to open us up. In their hands, fashion is not meaningless. But as for opening himself up for understanding, McQueen would probably say, with a grunt: “I can’t be bothered.”

There is no doubt, however, that the sense of control in his shows is reflected in his personal life. Two years ago, after Blow’s death, McQueen ended a long relationship. “I had been in India for a month, and when I got off the plane I went straight to my partner’s work and I said, ‘We’re over’,” he recalls. “I finished with him, and I started cleaning up my business. And I’ve never been happier. I work much harder.” Later, when I repeat the conversation to Jonathan Akeroyd, McQueen’s chief executive for the past five years, he says: “I think Lee sells himself short, to be honest. He’s not one of these guys who brings his emotional issues to work.” Recently McQueen began seeing a porn star, whom he met online. “It’s great!” he cackles. He told me the man’s name, but asked that I identify him only by his porn nom de famille, Mr Stag.

More slowly, McQueen has come to terms with the tragedy of Blow, one of the great English eccentrics and — despite a genuine funniness — a woman with paralysing insecurities. It was Blow who gave an early boost to McQueen’s career by wearing his clothes and talking him up. Two portraits of her hanging in McQueen’s living room — a gift from the photographer Steven Meisel — capture her beaky, Sitwellian beauty.

“It was the most valuable thing I learnt in fashion, her death,” McQueen says. He acknowledges that some people think he did not do enough to help Blow — “You’ve got to let someone like that be herself” — and he says there are things that he and others did that he will never discuss. He calls Detmar Blow, her husband, “the bane of her life”, adding: “Isabella was so strong in her public image but couldn’t stand her ground in her personal life. I know the other side. She would say that fashion killed her, but she also allowed that to happen in a lot of ways. She got herself some good jobs and she let some of them go. You could sit Isabella down and tell her what she should do with her life. But she would never understand that all it came down to was, ‘You just are, Isabella. And that is your commodity’.”

On the morning that I meet McQueen in his office, a modern building on Clerkenwell Road, he is in his top-floor studio with Sarah Burton, his design assistant for the past 13 years, and the stylist Camilla Nickerson. Sunlight pours through the glass roof. The spring 2010 men’s show, which featured paint-splattered trousers and which he did, like all his men’s collections, with the assistance of Daniel Kearns (“He’s Irish, straight, a gentle soul”), was behind him, and work had begun on the women’s spring line. McQueen was experimenting with making soft fabrics look hard and blurring the line therein.

Gucci executives have never interfered in McQueen’s shows — “that’s all I’ve ever asked” — but the demand for profitability has surely given purpose to his creativity. Both collections are more absorbing, more speculative about the future of dress since the company began making money. The autumn men’s show, a high point in Milan, was a hardcore view of sexuality presented in a romantic envelope of Victorian darkness. McQueen, who has never shied away from expressing his sexual tastes — almost vulgarly so — says that the show was based on the subculture of rent boys that brought together Oscar Wilde and the son of the Marquess of Queensberry: “The cut is really all about, and accentuates, what I personally find attractive and sexy.” Yet, for all that, the clothes are not limiting.

I ask McQueen what he has learnt from doing menswear. He answers quickly: “Forget about the impact of the conceptual and think about the bigger picture.” McQueen started as a 16-year-old apprentice on Savile Row. It remains the locus of his designs: all things lead back to the ideal of fractional changes in cut. And in his view, most designers don’t pay enough attention to men over 30. “Somehow, you have to fit yourself into a bracket that doesn’t require a waif body but doesn’t look like a bag of spuds.” He laughs. “I’m 40 now, and I know what I’m capable of wearing.”

It could be said that McQueen is an incurable romantic. His clothes, after all, frequently make reference to the 18th and 19th centuries. When he tries to do something futuristic — clothes with winged shoulders, say, or the illusion of morphing — journalists slap him down. I remind him that he had once told me he wanted to be as revolutionary as his hero Kawakubo. He wanted to be known as a 21st-century designer. He nods. “Five years ago, designers like myself would look at Rei and pay homage,” he says. “Today we’re thinking faster than Rei. You have no choice.”

The truth is that McQueen tends to think in three dimensions. That’s partly because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he actually knows how to cut fabric. But it’s also because he wants to push the physical limits of fashion. This desire was never more evident than with a 2006 show that ended with a hologram of his friend Kate Moss. Filmed with four cameras and shown within a huge pyramid, the images of Moss looked amazingly lifelike. McQueen says that he was intrigued by the thought of people being able to view an entire show within a little pyramid mounted on their desks. “And I’d just send it to you over the internet,” he says with a giggle. “I’m talking fantasy, but I don’t think it’s that far from reality. Five years.”

His latest obsession is to do a live stream of a show over the web, while offering a handful of commercial looks for immediate sale. In his view, digital technology allows designers to move away from the narrative form and, inevitably, the runway itself. Or, as he puts it: “You can’t keep rehashing the same concepts of the good, the bad and the ugly.”

McQueen may just be winding me up. At one point, discussing the 15 minutes of transcendent joy that a show gives, he says: “God, I sound like I’m contradicting myself, but that’s me all over.” Still, he knows that for farsighted designers such as himself, the real hurdle to progress isn’t money or balky corporate honchos. It is creating a fabric that can produce a new, 21st-century silhouette.

Before us are some prototypes that, magically, appear to do just that: swirls of fabric suddenly blurring into a carapace. McQueen, though, isn’t satisfied: “Yeah, but what’s in my head isn’t feasible at this time. I’m trying to weave a fabric that goes from a structure into a chiffon, but the loom doesn’t exist. We’re all thinking about it.”

McQueen is now in midlife. He has achieved conventional success — the brand, the Mayfair address — but the inherent need to guard against his innocence is still there. Fifteen years ago it was all about rawness summed up by the bumsters. Today it’s all about technology, and McQueen has turned his passion there.

2016-11-28T22:26:30+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Nar-Nar April 30, 2011 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    Thanks for posting this! I worship McQueen. He was so innovative and passionate, and his clothes – love them or hate them – reflected both. I was heartbroken when he died, and I’m thrilled that Kate chose one of his designers for her dress. If I had massive amounts of money, I would wear McQueen everyday.

  2. Jessey April 30, 2011 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    I’m so glad you liked it! I loved him too and it’s so sad he’s gone.

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