Get to know the photographer whose grotesque and controversial work inspired the late designer’s visionary SS01 show
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IF YOU LIKE: MCQUEEN’S ICONIC SS01 SHOW, SET IN A MAKESHIFT ASYLUM
15 years ago this September, Alexander McQueen took over an old London bus garage for one of the most visionary shows of his career. Guests arrived to the sound of a beating heart pulsing through the darkness, and were forced to wait looking, not at a runway, but at a large mirrored box, face-to-face with their own reflections (a gesture that returned the gaze of the fashion critic back on itself). Finally the box lit up – through the glass was a clinical asylum space, its walls padded, with another smaller box in its centre. Disturbed looking models emerged from the darkness, pressing their hands against the windows as they prowled in incredible creations brought to life with feathers, antique fabrics and shells, their heads wrapped in bandages.
“My body’s going to be so at odds with the fashion sparrows and bony old crow-people in the audience...I am what most of them fear most – fat” – Michelle Olley, naked VOSS model
Most spectacular was the show’s finale, when the walls of the case in the space’s centre fell away, crashing to the ground and shattering. Moths and butterflies fluttered free – there, reclining Venus like on a chaise lounge, was a naked woman, her face masked in a contraption that ran breathing tubes over the back of the sofa. The heartbeat flatlined. The woman was journalist Michelle Olley, who chronicled the experiences working on the show in a fascinating diary. “My body’s going to be so at odds with the fashion sparrows and bony old crow-people in the audience...I am what most of them fear most – fat,” she wrote. Even by McQueen standards, this was dark – unsurprising, when you consider the tableau was an homage to an image by American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin.
YOU’LL LIKE: THE MACARBE PHOTOGRAPHY OF JOEL-PETER WITKIN THAT INSPRED IT
Joel-Peter Witkin’s photography is hard to look away from. Fascinated with taboo, his incredibly controversial work shifts the viewer’s gaze to outsiders in society, including circus performers and fetishists, while his still life compositions often feature amputated body parts and dead animals. McQueen collected Witkin’s prints, and the VOSS show was inspired by the image “Sanitarium, New Mexico, 1983”, where a masked woman’s breathing tube runs directly into a monkey hanging from the wall.
“I don’t find it extreme. I know it looks extreme to other people... I find it poetic. it relates to my work” – Alexander McQueen on Joel-Peter Witkin
SS01 wasn’t the first time McQueen had drawn from the artist’s world for his references – one of the photographer’s images inspired the famous crucifix masks in the Dante AW96 show, recently exhibited at the sell-out Savage Beauty exhibition. “I don’t find it extreme. I know it looks extreme to other people... I find it poetic. it relates to my work,” McQueen once said of Witkin, who was, according to Dazed co-founder Jefferson Hack, the only photographer the designer wanted to star in his guest edited Fashion-Able issue but didn’t manage to get on board. Although McQueen’s love of Witkin reportedly faded over the years, the language they shared remained: dark, provocative and incredibly powerful.