Since Isabella Blow helped their paths cross in the 90s, Swarovski made the designer’s most fantastical dreams reality – explore the history of their collaboration
With one revelling in the macabre and the other the refined, Alexander McQueen and Swarovski might seem like a surprising match, but for over 15 years the crystal house has played a crucial role in creating some of the late designer’s most iconic runway moments. The story of how it all began reads like fashion folklore, and as with much of McQueen’s early successes, it was all down to mentor Isabella Blow, who introduced the young designer to Nadja Swarovski. Swarovski supplied the seed-like crystals that glittered on net dresses and wire millinery for SS99 – the show was declared a monumental success, and marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between the two houses.
Memorable triumphs include McQueen’s groundbreaking Widows of Culloden collection in 2006, featuring glittering bird nest headdresses festooned with quartz-encrusted eggs, or the crystal bodysuits and jagged heels of 2009. Together their partnership formed the groundwork for the Swarovski Collective, a support initiative that has since helped over 150 designers, and this year celebrates its 15th anniversary. To mark the opening of Savage Beauty at the V&A, where over 20 embellished McQueen pieces created with Swarovski will be displayed, we delve through the archives to take a retrospective look at the history of their iconic, iconoclastic collaboration.
Swarovski crystals flickered throughout Alexander McQueen’s groundbreaking SS99 collection of stilt shoes, futuristic breastplates and padded frockcoats, with one show-stealing cubic headdress that sparkled in the light demonstrating the spectacular fashion potential of crystals. The show marked the beginning of Swarovski’s relationship with the house, and ended with Shalom Harlow dramatically rotating on a turntable, amidst a robotic paint fight.
The legendary Widows of Culloden collection in 2006 was billed as almost a Greatest Hits reprise for McQueen – a triumphant spectacle of tweed, tartan, historic tailoring, padded hips and incredible showmanship, topped by glittering headdresses festooned with bejeweled eggs, speckled in blue topaz and smokey quartz crystals, created in collaboration with Shaun Leane and Philip Treacy.
For SS07, models walked beneath an enormous white chandelier in Paris’s spectacular Victorian Cirque d'Hiver theatre. The setting made for the perfect venue to showcase a collection that took its cues from history, featuring traditional silhouettes reimagined with exaggerated proportions and fresh flowers. The showstopping look? A gown with a hem that exploded in a puff of smoke-like fabric, lilac Swarovski crystals on the throat and beneath the breasts, left bare save for a thin layer of mesh.
For this collection, McQueen traced back his ancestry to Elizabeth Howe, who was hung during the Salem witch trials in 1692. Themes of paganism, prosecution and worship inspired the collection, which introduced the iconic cocoon-shaped dress, designed to mimic the contours of an ovum, and two headpieces titled Star and Moon, smothered in glittering gemstones and crystals.
For SS09, McQueen pondered Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Referencing the animal kingdom, exotic skins and fine bird-like tassels sat next to delicate net, lace and corsetry, as models teetered in 12-inch heels. Exquisite craftsmanship steered the collection, which culminated in a series of crystal-encrusted mirror-ball dresses and bodysuits.
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14 March – 19 July 2015. www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty
Liked this? Head here for more from our McQueen Day: