Ahead of the house’s first London womenswear show since its founder’s death, we look at ten of the designer’s most extraordinary moments
Lee Alexander McQueen is known as much for his shows as he is for clothes, and it’s impossible to look back in fashion and not automatically think of his legacy. The designer set himself apart with his collision of influences that ranged from low-art to the avant-garde, as well as the characteristic juxtaposition of light and dark that permeated his work and put him on the map.
Politically and aesthetically, McQueen’s work embodies the spirit of London – wherever he showed during his nearly 20-year long career, the punk sensibility of the capital went with him. This season, for the first time since 2002, Sarah Burton is bringing the house back to its British roots, showing AW16 today at London Fashion Week. Since taking the helm in the wake of her friend and mentor’s passing, Burton has kept his legacy alive by continuing to present collections imbued with romanticism and exquisite artistry. Ahead of this evening’s show, we look back at ten of McQueen’s most spectacular, political and provocative presentations.
The show is rumoured to have been named ‘The Golden Shower’ by the designer, but when his sponsors – American Express – realised the phrase’s sexual and excremental connotations they refused to let McQueen use it. In a garage near Victoria station, gurgling acrylic tanks filled with water and lit from beneath in yellow, made up the runway.
Tailored jackets were pieced together in checks and stripes eventually peeling away to reveal bandage like dresses wound around bodies – some in yellow python, some in sheer white. Bringing literal meaning to the term ‘make it rain’, golden drops fell from the sky soaking the models and the clothes for the finale. McQueen’s obsession with the dark side of eroticism drove his works in such extreme directions, and if he wasn’t allowed to call his show the golden shower, he was going to make one happen instead.
WHAT A MERRY GO ROUND AW01
Continuing his use of found space, McQueen’s sinister merry-go-round brought people to a disused SW1 bus depot. Pre a totally gentrified London, the designer was known for transporting the then fashion elite to places unfrequented by the middle classes – a feature of his shows which, with each season, added class commentary and infused his works with a political rigour.
The night before McQueen was named Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, and the Gucci group had just purchased 51% of his company — all eyes, as ever, were on McQueen. The show began with an antique carousel, horses swaddled in purple and black latex, and models in their military-cum-cabaret wear, moving to the voice of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
‘Eye’ was McQueen’s first show in New York and rumours of a million dollar budget, and models dangling from Brooklyn Bridge, circled the city. The Pier 94 warehouse on the Hudson River was the show’s location, and to add to the furore New York had been issued with an extreme weather warning – demanding all schools and business be shut by the afternoon.
But the dedicated arrived – a thousand strong – to be greeted by a shallow pool of water which the show was held upon, models splashing as they walked. The finale brought models floating above what appeared to be daggers emerging point-first from the water, McQueen continually inspired by death and darkness.
A scan of McQueen’s brain adorned the photocopied invite, and the house was just about to open its first London flagship, and launch its first fragrance. A rock and ice covered runway, with a giant perspex tunnel suspended above it, set the scene in a hall on the outskirts of Paris. For the season, McQueen had melded Eastern and Western influences, with the windswept passage representing the journey from East to West.
Unlike so many designers, McQueen’s use of cultural symbols from across the world was rarely done in token bad taste. Influences would be noted and nodded to, rather than parodied or ‘re-designed’. Dresses and two-pieces were quilted, or fur lined, or made out of bondage fabric, with inspiration hailing from the armour of fourteenth and fiteenth century Samurai warriors for this season. At close, huge swathes of material wrapped around a nearly naked model, who fought against battering winds in the tundra-like tunnel.
In a storage building in London, cinders were scattered across the runway foreboding the theatrical burning of a Joan of Arc type figure at the finale of the show, in a ring of fire. Dressed as a knight it was Joan of Arc who, incited by the power of a Catholic God, drove the English out of France in the fifteenth century, before being burned at the stake by the British.
Use of armour is frequent through McQueen’s body of work –— central to his themes of protection and exposure of the female body, and Joan was the perfect inspiration – a martyr, a hero, and an early modern example of cross-dressing. The collection was classically McQueen: a mixture of sex, armour, historical references, and punk.
PLATO’S ATLANTIS SS10
McQueen’s final show ever was, expectedly, revolutionary. Foreseeing an underwater world, after the melting of the polar ice caps, models were half bionic half human – with gills at their temples and built up cheek bones. Lady Gaga’s new track “Bad Romance” premiered for the first time during the finale and, in collaboration with Nick Knight, the show was broadcast to a live audience around the world – making it the first live-streamed show in fashion history. (Though so many people logged onto SHOWstudio to watch it, the website crashed.)
The scenes captured were projected onto a giant screen at the back of the catwalk, turning the idea of audience and designer, as well as the exclusivity of a fashion show, on its head. Nothing was safe from McQueen critique, especially the fashion industry. Live-streaming is now commonplace, but back then it was a boldly innovative move.
HIGHLAND RAPE AW95
One of the designer’s most famously controversial shows, this was the first time since his graduation in 1992 that McQueen was showing in the British Fashion Council’s official tent. Supposedly a commentary on the oppression of Scots, as opposed to rape, the show saw semi-naked, blood-spattered models walk a catwalk of heather, in re-stitched tartans and leathers that looked like they had been torn open.
Even still, the title of the show brings about debate – whether such extreme and triggering language is necessary for use in fashion. (The designer faced accusations of misogyny in the wake of the show.) But playing it safe was never within McQueen’s creative remit – he deliberately put on spectacles that left his audiences feeling uncomfortable, even sick. In fact, he was once quoted saying, “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”
WIDOWS OF CULLODEN AW06
Known for advances in technology as well as in design, this was the show that brought the famous Kate Moss hologram to the world. On a battered wooden catwalk, south of Gare de Lyon – an area unfrequented by non-Parisians – a glass pyramid was raised from the centre at finale, with a breathtaking Kate Moss swirling and floating through the air as a hologram. The show was staged in dedication to Isabella Blow, who at the time was still alive, and served to set the tone for what could be done with creative thought in fashion and technology.
With the advancing technologies of the late 90s, McQueen took inspiration from William Morris and his peers involved in the Arts and Crafts design movement which occurred between 1860 and 1910. As a rejection of machinery displacing human skill at the turn of the century, design became focussed on highly detailed features.
And it was in an old rubbish storage facility that two robotic arms defaced a beautifully constructed white dress, worn by Shalom Harlow on a revolving platform – leaving it difficult to decide whether technology had ruined, or made, the dress. Culminating in a maniacal moment, and boundless applause from the audience, the image of the spray-painted dress is perhaps one of the most famous fashion moments ever.
In an old bus depot on the Thames, audience members entered a mirrored viewing chamber. The lights came up, revealing a stained box at the centre of the arena and a crazed Kate Moss with a bandaged head leering out from the backstage. Joel-Peter Witkin’s 1983 photographic collection entitled “Sanitorium” led the inspiration for this collection, with the models in multifarious depictions of illness scratching at glass walls and slowly wandering throughout the space.
The end of the show saw the four walls of the stained cube fall and the glass panes it was made from shatter, revealing writer Michelle Olley attached to iron tubes and covered in giant moths, her breathing strained and her heartbeat amplified across the speaker. A comment on mental illness and its treatment, and perhaps McQueen’s most famous work, continued to thrust political messages to centre stage in the fashion forum.
Watch Alexander McQueen’s greatest catwalk moments below: