But the clothes are why I have always admired Alexander McQueen. I am afraid that it cannot be ignored that he was probably responsible for muffin-tops, though. His bumster trousers of the mid-'90s, their waistbands descending lower even than hipsters, certainly heralded a trend that led to the almost complete circumcision of the high-waisted trouser, and is still causing problems to this day. It is not a worthy tribute to the man known as Lee. But in 1998, when I was finishing off my A Level case study on back emphasis (called, what else, "Round The Back"), I finished off my historical overview with a clipping of a model in a pair of white bumsters from Vogue, noting that McQueen had introduced a new form of back emphasis that would define the late '90s as vividly as the bustle marked the mid-Victorian period or the completely backless dress the '30s. I can remember the first time I saw his designs, and I cannot say this for most current designers, who float about my awareness before I finally register that I've been looking at their work for a while now. It was in a Guardian supplement, and I remember being fascinated by the skinny carrot-haired model wearing Victorian corsets. I also vividly remember my dad saying how ugly the girl was and why on earth would anyone want to wear anything that she wore. This would've been in about 1995.
There's no denying that McQueen's shows could rub people up the wrong way. Everyone has heard of the notorious "Highland Rape" show, with the shredded lace and the trailing tampon-strings. His work was accused of promoting violence against women, and his name became shorthand for "gay male designer who hates women and wants to mutilate and desexualise them". I'm not getting into that debate today. But I have to say that the clothes have always been edgy. Regardless of how initially unwearable they seem at first, they have almost always retained a wearable factor in a way that was rare to find. Clothes are either wearable, or they're not, and McQueen's clothes, no matter how insane and impossible they seemed at first glance, worked on a body. McQueen was always pushing the boundaries and challenging himself. He knew how to tailor garments (during his apprenticeship with a tailoring establishment he claimed to have graffiti'd "I am a c*nt" on the interior lining of a suit for the Prince of Wales). His tailoring was always astounding. He cut jackets back to front, morphed the elements of the suit together, dropped pieces, added pieces, and did so with the confidence of someone who knew the rules of one of the strictest, most rigorous disciplines of clothes-making - and also knew exactly how to break all those rules. He did this from the beginning. A 1997 jumpsuit, now in the V&A collection, in pale pink twill, merges wide-legged trousers with a distorted jacket, one side loosely draping with, the other perfectly crisp and fitted. (see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O8430
I'm not setting out to offer an overview of his career. I feel that overviews of careers should only be done after having a proper look at everything the subject has done, and I'm not qualified to do so at this moment. I'm talking about the presence McQueen in my life, knowing of his work through my studies. In 2001, I came across one of his showpiece dresses in a second hand clothes shop in London. It was very cheap - but at the time I was a penniless student and barely had £150 to spare. I couldn't justify it, but I knew I would suffer from having had to leave it behind. I had done so on so many occassions in the past with different designers. I am forever grateful to Michelle of the Vintage Fashion Guild for agreeing to cover the price of the dress at such short notice, and letting me pay her back in instalments. The dress, which I believe is from a 2000/01 collection, is amazing. It is a strapless Princess-line dress in very thick, practically half-inch-thick wool felt, like very, very high quality insulation. The bodice is tight and fitted, and scandalously tiny. The skirt, spreading out in flaring gores from the segments of the bodice, spreads out into fullness that exceeds a full circle. Each flaring gore is punched with a geometric "lace" pattern, using a 16th century technique to create a completely contemporary, modern piece. It is really quite unlike anything else anyone has done before or since. It is absolutely McQueen.
The other McQueen piece I have is a late '90s trouser suit from one of his first collections for the house of Givenchy, where he was creative director from 1996-2001. The elegance of Givenchy, associated always with Audrey Hepburn, and the iconoclasm of McQueen was one of the more unusual fashion relationships, lasting for a mere handful of years. The suit came up on a market stall at Portobello while I was going round with the Dragon - it was the first, and I think the only time, that the Dragon has tagged round Portobello with me, back in 2002/03. I am still astounded that the suit was a mere 45 quid. One of those "grab it NOW, you'll never see the like again" situations. The frock coat has those McQueen trademark sculptural, exaggerated shoulder pads which, in this case, peak up into small horns at the shoulders. As always, perfect proportions. The trousers are wide-legged and flawlessly cut. The aggression of the jacket's form is softened by the striations of the wool, which is flecked in pale greens and creams, and both softened and enhanced by the swirling assymetry of the embroidered falling leaves. McQueen always did brilliant trouser suits. The dramatic M-notched lapels, a construction method popular with Regency tailors, are here appropriated by McQueen almost as a signature. M for McQueen, M for magnificent, M for my goodness. And M for missed; will be. M for mourning. M for memory.