Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty

Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Red and black ostrich feathers and glass medical slides painted red
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read Michelle Olley’s perspective on appearing in the runway show.

Andrew Bolton: This particular dress came from a collection called VOSS, which was all about beauty. And I think one of McQueen’s greatest legacies was how he would challenge normative conventions of beauty and challenge your expectations of beauty—what we mean by beauty. This particular one is made out of ostrich feathers dyed red. And the glass slides are actually microscope slides that have been painted red to give the idea of blood underneath. And there’s a wonderful quote in association with this dress, where he talks about how there’s blood beneath every layer of skin. And it’s an incredible, again, very powerful, powerful piece.


In McQueen’s Words“There’s blood beneath every layer of skin.”

The Observer Magazine, October 7, 2001

Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001

Coat, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims (MA Graduation Collection), 1992

Dress, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010
Gray wool and silk/synthetic knit printed in jellyfish pattern
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: As you can see here, McQueen designed many permutations of the frock coat. He made this one for the 2010 collection, Plato’s Atlantis. Here we have Sarah Burton—who was McQueen’s head designer for fourteen years—talk about the collection.

Sarah Burton: He was interested in this concept of hybrid. With those tailored pieces, specifically; they had tailored arms, but the body was jersey. So there’s this weird sort of hybrid and juxtapositioning of different fabrics and how would they react together.

So he took these jersey shifts, put them on the mannequin, and then cut into all of these tailored pieces and morphed the two together. When you watched him cut on the stand, it gave you goose bumps because he had a sort of bravery. He was never afraid of anything. It was never, “Oh, this is not going to work.” He was so confident and so clear about the way that he was doing things, and that was, I think . . . part of his genius is his knowledge of every single level of making clothes.

I remember on the last collection he did, he actually—on a piece of felt with a piece of chalk—chalked out a frock coat by eye, cut it out, and pinned it on a dummy and it was a perfect fit. That’s how familiar he was with that piece of clothing.


In McQueen’s Words“I like to think of myself as a plastic surgeon with a knife.”

Wynn, Winter 2007/08

“With me, metamorphosis is a bit like plastic surgery, but less drastic. I try to have the same effect with my clothes. But ultimately I do this to transform mentalities more than the body. I try and modify fashion like a scientist by offering what is relevant to today and what will continue to be so tomorrow.”

Numéro, December 2007

Jacket, Joan, autumn/winter 1998–99

Jacket, It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98

“Bumster” Skirt, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
“Bumster” Skirt
Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96 (re-edition from original pattern)
Black silk taffeta
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: One of his most iconic designs in this particular gallery is the “bumster.” And there’s a lot of mythology around the bumster—that he was inspired by the builder’s bum. In McQueen’s mind, it was an experiment in elongating the body. For McQueen, the most exciting part of anybody’s body, male or female, was the bottom of the spine. And the bumsters is really about showcasing that part of the body.

Mira Hyde: My name is Mira Hyde, and I was living in the East End in an area called Hoxton Square, and Lee had moved into my building. He found out that I was a male groomer—I did hair and makeup for men—and invited me to do his next show. And that was how I first met Lee.

I was given a lot of the bumsters because I was quite small and I could wear them. It made you feel taller, especially when you wore them with heels, because then all of a sudden, you just look incredibly long legged and very long torsoed.

The bumcrack . . . sometimes you could see a bit of it, and sometimes it was just above it, but normally you would see just a touch. It was like a bum cleavage, and depending where I went, I would expose it, or I would wear a long shirt, depending on where I was. But I always got commented on it, everywhere.

Andrew Bolton: The bumster trouser caused a sensation when it was launched in the early nineties. I think what’s interesting about McQueen is how he would harness the attitude in the street. He was very much about anarchy and about the anarchy of the British street, the anarchy of British music, and trying to, again, harness that into his clothes. And the bumster was one of the garments that, very early on, would make his reputation as this provocateur.


In McQueen’s Words“[With ‘bumsters’] I wanted to elongate the body, not just show the bum. To me, that part of the body—not so much the buttocks, but the bottom of the spine—that’s the most erotic part of anyone’s body, man or woman.”

The Guardian Weekend, July 6, 1996

Coat, Dante, autumn/winter 1996–97

Dress, The Horn of Plenty, autumn/winter 2009–10

Ensemble, Eclect Dissect, autumn/winter 1997–98

Corset, Dante, autumn/winter 1996–97

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Corset
Dante, autumn/winter 1996–97
Lilac silk faille appliquéd with black silk lace and embroidered with jet beads
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: In the Victorian era, each stage of mourning demanded a different color, one of which was lilac. This corset’s jet beading is also associated with mourning. Here, we see McQueen finding poetry and beauty in death.The corset comes from his autumn/winter 1996–7 collection, called Dante. By this time, McQueen had gained an international reputation, but he was also still struggling to make a living. Louise Wilson, director of the MA program at Central Saint Martins, talks about those early years for McQueen—or Lee, as he is known to his friends:Louise Wilson: There’s one thing you could say about Lee: he deserves every credit for what he did because it was incredibly hard when he left, and they had absolutely no money, and it was a very different time to now. And they lived in a squat. And although that all sounds very romantic, it was hell. And because of not having any money they took risks. And it sat outside of a fashion system.Andrew Bolton: McQueen’s skill at making clothing helped him to succeed.Louise Wilson: An architect doesn’t build the house for you; they employ the builders, whereas, Lee, in effect, built the house because he cut the patterns and he sewed the jackets. Basically, he didn’t need to depend on anybody. He didn’t have to employ a machinist. He didn’t have to employ a pattern-cutter at the very beginning. You know, if he had nothing he could still create.


In McQueen’s Words“People find my things sometimes aggressive. But I don’t see it as aggressive. I see it as romantic, dealing with a dark side of personality.”

W, July 2002

Ensemble, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, autumn/winter 2002–3

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, autumn/winter 2002–3
Coat of black parachute silk; trouser of black synthetic; hat of black silk satin
Hat by Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen courtesy of Alister Mackie
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“This collection was inspired by Tim Burton. It started off dark and then got more romantic as it went along.”

Numéro, July/August 2002

“Life to me is a bit of a [Brothers] Grimm fairytale.”

Reuters, February 2001

Ensemble, autumn/winter 2010–11

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
Autumn/winter 2010–11
Dress and glove of printed silk satin; underskirt of duck feathers painted gold
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: When Alexander McQueen died in February of 2010, he left this collection, called Angels and Demons, unfinished in his studio. Sarah Burton, McQueen’s chief designer for many years, helped to complete it.

Sarah Burton: It was very much inspired by handcraft and the idea that in a way in our culture there’s the loss of the artisan, the loss of people doing things with their hands and making beautiful artisanal clothing or carvings or paintings or sculpture.

And he looked at all the old masters and he looked at sort of medieval arts and religious iconography. It was almost looking at the Dark Ages and finding that there was a light in the Dark Ages.

There was still a modernity in the way that the fabrics were developed. So, for instance, there’s a dress with a Hieronymus Bosch jacquard on it, Heaven and Hell. And what we did is we scanned the painting and digitally wove the jacquard. So in a way you’ve still got this juxtaposition of the old and the new, which I think is always important in his work.


In McQueen’s Words“I relate more to that cold, austere asceticism of the Flemish masters, and I also love the macabre thing you see in Tudor and Jacobean portraiture.”

Harper’s & Queen, April 2003

“For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channeled through me. Fashion is just the medium.”

Muse, December 2008

“Spine” Corset, Untitled, spring/summer 1998

“Coiled” Corset, The Overlook, autumn/winter 1999–2000

Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen
“Coiled” Corset
The Overlook, autumn/winter 1999–2000
Aluminum
Courtesy of Shaun Leane
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: This corset was inspired by the coiled necklaces of the Ndebele people of southern Africa. McQueen gave jeweler Shaun Leane the daunting task of transforming the necklace into a corset.

Shaun Leane: The “Coiled” Corset was a particularly amazing piece because I had to cast the model’s torso in concrete to get an exact form of her, and then I had to literally form every coil, one by one, front and back, and work all the way up, so that it was a perfect fit. And she’s actually placed into the corset, and then it’s screwed all along the side, and up the arms, and beside the neck. There are tiny, little bolts, so the model’s actually screwed into the piece.

It’s not heavy. It’s made from aluminum, and even though it looks quite restrictive, the model actually said the piece was actually very, very comfortable.

It’s a beautiful piece in my mind because it looks quite like armor, but then it’s very flattering to the female form, and it’s a really beautiful silhouette of the female form.

The beautiful thing about the whole collaboration, working with McQueen, was that it helped me push the boundaries of how jewelry should be perceived and how it should be worn, and we’re left with these beautiful iconic pieces.


In McQueen’s Words“I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic aspect.”

L’Officiel, February 2010

Ensemble, The Hunger, spring/summer 1996

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
The Hunger, spring/summer 1996
Silver wool/synthetic with red silk faille lining; bodice of molded plastic encasing worms; skirt of red silk faille with silver antlers
Antlers by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places.”

Times (London), February 12, 2010

“It’s the ugly things I notice more, because other people tend to ignore the ugly things.”

The Face, November 1996

Dress, It’s Only a Game, spring/summer 2005

Ensemble, No. 13, spring/summer 1999

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
No. 13, spring/summer 1999
Corset of brown leather; skirt of cream silk lace; prosthetic legs of carved elm wood
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: McQueen made this ensemble with carved prosthetic legs for Aimee Mullins. Mullins is a world-class Paralympic athlete, and she modeled the boots for his 1999 show, No. 13.

Aimee Mullins: They were solid wood, solid ash, so there’s no give in the ankle. So any kind of a runway walk that I had practiced went out the window. And then suddenly they laced me into this leather bodice, and there were some spinning discs in the floor of the runway, which I had, while practicing in these wooden legs, you know . . . was very conscious of how to avoid them. But now that my neck was secured in this almost neck-brace position, I couldn’t look down. I couldn’t even see where the spinning discs were. And I just remember thinking, “Okay, you’ve done the Olympics. You’ve done harder things than this. You can do this. You can survive it.”

And you know, the fact is, nobody knew that they were prosthetic legs. They were the star of the show—these wooden boots peeking out from under this raffia dress—but in fact, they were actually legs made for me.

His clothes have always been very sensuous, and I mean the full gamut of that. So hard and strict and unrelenting, as life can be sometimes. And then this incredibly romantic swishing of the raffia.


In McQueen’s Words“When I used Aimee [Mullins] for [this collection], I made a point of not putting her in . . . sprinting legs [prostheses for running]. . . . We did try them on but I thought no, that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is that she was to mould in with the rest of the girls.”

i-D, July 2000

Dress, No. 13, spring/summer 1999

Ensemble, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7
Dress of McQueen wool tartan; top of nude silk net appliquéd with black lace; underskirt of cream silk tulle
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read an article by Jonathan Faiers about McQueen and tartan.

Andrew Bolton: Sarah Jessica Parker wore a variation of a dress from McQueen’s Widows of Culloden collection to the opening of Anglomania, an exhibition celebrating British fashion here at the Met. McQueen was her date, and he wore a kilt of matching tartan.

Sarah Jessica Parker: I said, “I would be so honored to wear your family tartan and walk up the steps of the Met with you.” So that’s really where it began.

Andrew Bolton: What was it like being fitted by him?

Sarah Jessica Parker: Well, I always describe it as one of the really great, memorable experiences of a lifetime because I think by the time I met him in person, I had been exposed to a nice amount of fashion. So I had started, at that point, to understand what went into something being well made. And I couldn’t believe the diligence.

He had these gorgeous hands. And he just worked. And he was quiet and unthinkably shy, didn’t look in your eyes much, didn’t want to, wasn’t interested in engaging; it wasn’t important for me to be his friend. You know, he was very concerned about his work.


In McQueen’s Words“Scotland for me is a harsh, cold and bitter place. It was even worse when my great, great grandfather used to live there. . . . The reason I’m patriotic about Scotland is because I think it’s been dealt a really hard hand. It’s marketed the world over as . . . haggis . . . bagpipes. But no one ever puts anything back into it.”

The Independent Fashion Magazine, Autumn/Winter 1999

Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

Ensemble, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9
Jacket of red silk velvet embroidered with gold bullion and trimmed with white shearling; dress of ivory silk tulle
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“When I design, I try to sell an image of a woman that I have in [my] mind, a concept that changes dramatically each season.”

Corriere della Sera, July 14, 2003

“[In this collection] she was a feral creature living in the tree. When she decided to descend to earth, she transformed into a princess.”

Interview, September 2008

Ensemble, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9
Coat of red silk satin; dress of ivory silk chiffon embroidered with crystal beads
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: This crimson coat and delicate empire-waist dress culminated a collection from 2008–9, inspired by the queens of England. As Sarah Burton explains:

Sarah Burton: It’s an enormous volume of fabric that at the neck is all bulleted and at the hem is all bulleted. But although it’s duchess satin, it still appears very light. And I think he wanted this sort of, you know, this regality but a lightness to it.

Andrew Bolton: The collection, called The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, was dreamy and romantically nationalistic, albeit tinged with irony. Sam Gainsbury produced the runway show for the collection, which featured an enormous tree wrapped in transparent grey silk:

Sam Gainsbury: Mostly Lee would have a very clear idea of who the girl was, and then from that point he would decide where she was, and then he’d decide what she was wearing. He had an amazing tree in his garden in Fairleigh, in his country house, and this tree had always fascinated him. So for me it was about the beauty and the power of this tree.

Andrew Bolton: McQueen conceived a fairy tale about a girl who dressed in beautiful black rags—presented during the first half of the show. When she met her prince, she descended from her tree, and her wardrobe exploded with the color, opulent materials, and jewels you see here.


In McQueen’s Words“I don’t really get inspired [by specific women]. . . . It’s more in the minds of the women in the past, like Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette. People who were doomed. Joan of Arc or Colette. Iconic women.”

Purple Fashion, Summer 2007

Suit, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Suit
Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96 (jacket and skirt not worn together on the runway)
Jacket of McQueen wool tartan with green wool felt sleeves; skirt of McQueen wool tartan
From the collection of Isabella Blow courtesy of the Hon. Daphne Guinness
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read an article by Jonathan Faiers about McQueen and tartan.

Andrew Bolton: The collection Highland Rape, which was in autumn/winter 1995 to 1996, is widely considered to be the collection that established McQueen’s reputation internationally. At the time, people thought the rape referenced the rape of women. But it was actually the rape of Scotland by England. The collection actually referenced the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century and the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century.

McQueen saw the Scottish heritage as rather bleak and rather brutal. In this particular collection, you can see that actually manifested in the clothes themselves by the slashing of the garments. There’s one particular dress, which is made out of green leather with a slash in the middle of the dress, just at the breasts. And we actually used that conceit as part of the construction of this gallery, where you’ll see a large gash created out of the wooden planks, which is a reference to McQueen’s punkish attitude and also

Dress, Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Highland Rape, autumn/winter 1995–96
Green and bronze cotton/synthetic lace
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Trino Verkade: People then started to see him as an artist, because this was somebody who was talking through his shows and through his clothes on a very personal level about something that was really powerful and quite shocking to people. This was in 1995. This is a time when people were doing minimalism. And Lee just came along and just socked them right in the face with the . . . with this show.

This collection was the first time that he did the torn lace, which was to become a signature of his. And we’d buy the lace in Brick Lane, and we’d cut ’round each flower to give that very delicate, torn appearance, which . . . it became something of a look for him.


In McQueen’s Words“[This collection] was a shout against English designers . . . doing flamboyant Scottish clothes. My father’s family originates from the Isle of Skye, and I’d studied the history of the Scottish upheavals and the Clearances. People were so unintelligent they thought this was about women being raped—yet Highland Rape was about England’s rape of Scotland.”

Time Out (London), September 24–October 1, 1997

Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Jacket of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye embroidered with silk thread; trouser of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye; hat of pink and gray wool bird’s-eye embroidered with silk thread and decorated with Amaranthus
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read Michelle Olley’s perspective on appearing in the runway show.

In McQueen’s Words

“I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through in my work. Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes. . . . That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers.”

Nylo

Ensemble, VOSS, spring/summer 2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Overdress of panels from a nineteenth-century Japanese silk screen; underdress of oyster shells; neckpiece of silver and Tahiti pearls
Neckpiece by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen courtesy of Perles de Tahiti
Dress courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read Michelle Olley’s perspective on appearing in the runway show.

Ensemble, It’s Only a Game, spring/summer 2005

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
It’s Only a Game, spring/summer 2005
Dress and obi-style sash of lilac and silver brocade; jacket of lilac silk faille embroidered with silk thread; top of nude synthetic net embroidered with silk thread
Dress courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: McQueen designed the 2005 collection It’s Only a Game around the idea of a chess match between America and Japan. Each ensemble corresponded to a particular chess piece.

The queen wears a short, thigh-high dress, which is wide at the hips, a silhouette based on the eighteenth century. A kimono collar, obi sash, and an undershirt beautifully embroidered to look like tattooing are all drawn from Japanese culture. Next to her, the king appears as an American football player, with shoulder pads and a helmet covered in Japanese tattooing.

In the runway show, the models moved as if they were pieces in a life-sized chess game, an idea inspired by a scene from Harry Potter. Taken as a whole, the collection revealed McQueen’s remarkable ability to look across cultures for inspiration.

Model Naomi Campbell was a close friend of McQueen’s and describes what it’s like to wear a McQueen ensemble:

Naomi Campbell: Everything was extreme. It wasn’t like you want to look beautiful. But you became this completely other creature. And you felt like you went into that vibe, and you went with it. It was regal but it was also with a story to tell, and it was futuristic. It was all in one. It was not predictable in any way or form.


In McQueen’s Words

“[In this collection] the idea of the chess game meant that we looked at six different types of women, women on opposing sides. We had the Americans facing the Japanese and the redheads facing the tanned Latinos.”

An

Ensemble, It’s Only a Game, spring/summer 2005

Dress, VOSS, spring/summer 2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
VOSS, spring/summer 2001
Nude synthetic net appliquéd with roundels in the shape of chrysanthemums embroidered with red, gold, and black silk thread with black ostrich feathers
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Read Michelle Olley’s perspective on appearing in the runway show.

In McQueen’s Words

“[In this collection] the idea was to turn people’s faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think, am I actually as good as what I’m looking at?”

The Fashion, Spring/Summer 2001

“The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show started.”

20/20 Europe, January/February 2001

“These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who wouldn’t be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.”

Coat, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Coat
Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Black synthetic hair
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: The runway show for Eshu emphasized the raw power of the clothes.

Sam Gainsbury: Sometimes it wasn’t as complicated as a big special effects and a finale. And I think what Lee felt was that he had found this big empty location that was very raw; the collection was very raw.

We built a pathway down from the top of the building to the bottom of the building that the models had to walk down. And we mic’ed up their feet so you could hear them walking and coming.

And I think that Lee felt that it was enough.

Dress, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Yellow glass beads and brown horsehair
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: The 2001 collection Eshu was inspired by the Yoruba people of West Africa, mixing tribal details with luxurious fabrics. This dress, embroidered with yellow glass beads interwoven with horsehair, is a tour de force of the couture. McQueen contrasts the sophistication of the beading with the rawness of the hair. Sarah Jessica Parker:

Sarah Jessica Parker: I described his clothes once—and I hope this isn’t offensive—but they were like sometimes ugly-beautiful. You couldn’t just call them “beautiful” because it seems like saying, “It’s fine. You know, the dinner was fine. You know, the clothing was lovely. They were lovely.”

But I think it’s this sort of raw sex of his clothes with the very unusual androgyny, an attempt at that at the same time. He kind of married these opposites—these sort of contrasting ideas—you know. A very high neck, which is very, very hard to wear. It’s not particularly sexy. But because the fabric was so close to the body, everything hugged in a really amazing way. You would tend to consider a high neck where you mightn’t with anybody else’s, because it still felt really sexy.


In McQueen’s Words“[I try to] push the silhouette. To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look. What I do is look at ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress. . . . There’s a lot of tribalism in the collections.”

Purple Fashion, Issue 7, Summer 2007

Ensemble, Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
Eshu, autumn/winter 2000–2001
Dress of beige leather; crinoline of metal wire
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“I like things to be modern and still have a bit of tradition.”

Harper’s Bazaar, April 2003

“I believe in history.”

British Vogue, October 2002

Bodysuit, It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Bodysuit
It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98
Brown leather with bleached denim and taxidermy crocodile heads
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“Animals . . . fascinate me because you can find a force, an energy, a fear that also exists in sex.”

L’Officiel, February 2010

Ensemble, It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Ensemble
It’s a Jungle Out There, autumn/winter 1997–98
Jacket of brown pony skin with impala horns; trousers of bleached denim
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words“The whole show feeling was about the Thomson’s gazelle. It’s a poor little critter—the markings are lovely, it’s got these dark eyes, the white and black with the tan markings on the side, the horns—but it is the food chain of Africa. As soon as it’s born it’s dead, I mean you’re lucky if it lasts a few months, and that’s how I see human life, in the same way. You know, we can all be discarded quite easily. . . . You’re there, you’re gone, it’s a jungle out there!”McQueen quoted in Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002)

“Oyster” Dress, Irere, spring/summer 2003

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
“Oyster” Dress
Irere, spring/summer 2003
Ivory silk organza, georgette, and chiffon
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: One of the highlights in this gallery is a dress called the “Oyster” Dress, which is made up of hundreds and hundreds of layers of silk organza, almost like a mille-feuille pastry. And the collection told the story of a shipwreck at sea and the subsequent landfall in the Amazon, and it was peopled with pirates, conquistadors, and Amazonian Indians.

And I think that what’s interesting about this particular dress is you see how McQueen evolved as a designer in terms of the fact that he was always well known as a tailor. With this particular dress, you see a much softer approach. As Sarah Burton explains:

Sarah Burton: He wanted this idea of it—was almost like she drowned—and the top part of the dress is all fine boning and tulle, and the chiffon is all frayed and disheveled on the top. The skirt is made out of hundreds and hundreds of circles of organza. Then, with a pen, what Lee did was he drew organic lines. And then all these circles were cut, joined together, and then applied in these lines along the skirt. So you created this organic, oyster-like effect.

Andrew Bolton: He learned softness at Givenchy; he learned draping at Givenchy. And this particular dress, I think, is a real tour de force of the couture and is a great reference to the skills that McQueen learned at the ateliers at Givenchy.


In McQueen’s Words“Working in the atelier [at Givenchy] was fundamental to my career . . . Because I was a tailor, I didn’t totally understand softness, or lightness. I learned lightness at Givenchy. I was a tailor at Savile Row. At Givenchy I learned to soften. For me, it was an education. As a designer I could have left it behind. But working at Givenchy helped me learn my craft.”

Purple Fashion, Issue 7, Summer 2007

Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7
Pheasant feathers
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: McQueen often used the raw materials of nature, and a striking example is this dress, which is entirely covered with pheasant feathers. The silhouette, with its long torso, is based on dresses from the 1890s.

The dress formed part of the 2006–7 collection, Widows of Culloden, which referenced a battle in the struggles between England and Scotland. As Trino Verkade explains:

Trino Verkade: Lee refers to it as the second half of Highland Rape because it refers back to the Culloden fight, but a lot more optimistic view of it. And I think, in his own words, it’s using more beautiful finishes. It’s less of an angry look, and it’s a more positive view. And it was set up to balance the Highland Rape show.

Andrew Bolton: The collection was completed ten years after the seminal Highland Rape show, when McQueen had become an established figure in the fashion world.


In McQueen’s Words“I have always loved the mechanics of nature and to a greater or lesser extent my work is always informed by that.”

NATURAL DIS-TINCTION UN-NATURAL SELECTION (spring/summer 2009) program notes

“Birds in flight fascinate me. I admire eagles and falcons. I’m inspired by a feather but also its color, its graphics, its weightlessness and its engineering. It’s so elaborate. In fact I try and transpose the beauty of a bird to women.”

Numéro, December 2007

Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Sarabande, spring/summer 2007
Cream silk satin and organza appliquéd with black degrade silk lace and embroidered in clear beads and sequins
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“I liked the padded hips because they didn’t make the [piece] look historical, but . . . more sensual. Like the statue of Diana with breasts and big hips. It’s more maternal, more womanly.”

Dress, Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Widows of Culloden, autumn/winter 2006–7
Cream silk tulle and lace with resin antlers
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“When we put the antlers on the model and then draped over it the lace embroidery that we had made, we had to poke them through a £2,000 piece of work. But then it worked because it looks like she’s rammed the piece of lace with her antlers. There’s always spontaneity. You’ve got to allow for that in my shows.”

Big, Autumn/Winter 2006

Dress, Sarabande, spring/summer 2007

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Sarabande, spring/summer 2007
Nude silk organza embroidered with silk flowers and fresh flowers
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

In McQueen’s Words

“Remember Sam Taylor-Wood’s dying fruit? Things rot. . . . I used flowers because they die. My mood was darkly romantic at the time.”

Harper’s Bazaar, April 2007

Dress, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
Dress
Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010
Silk jacquard in a snake pattern embroidered with yellow enamel paillettes in a honeycomb pattern
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Andrew Bolton: The exhibition ends with the collection Plato’s Atlantis, which was McQueen’s last collection while he was alive.

Sarah Burton: It was the idea of sort of the reversal of evolution, how life would evolve back into the water if the ice caps melted and we were being reclaimed by nature. We had all these engineered prints that he’d developed, sort of looking at the morphing of species, natural camouflages, and aerial views of the land.

We had research on the boards, and what he told us to do is he said, “I don’t want to look at any research. Turn all the boards around.” So he literally just worked from the fabric.

So what he would do is he would have an engineered print, and with that print he would place it on the form, and he would pin and construct these pieces that looked like they’d morphed out of the body themselves.

And only by taking the fabric and seeing how the fabric moved, you could come up with something new—by creating it on a body because clothes are to be worn; they’re not two-dimensional things. They are something that has to sit and mold onto a human being.

Andrew Bolton: The collection was streamed live over the Internet in an attempt to make fashion into an interactive dialogue with the audience. I think what’s particularly interesting is for the Romantics, nature was the primary vehicle for the Sublime, and for McQueen, technology was also a channel for the Sublime, particularly the extreme space/time compressions produced by the Internet.

“Jellyfish” Ensemble, Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
“Jellyfish” Ensemble
Plato’s Atlantis, spring/summer 2010
Dress, leggings, and “Armadillo” boots embroidered with iridescent enamel paillettes
Courtesy of Alexander McQueen
Photograph © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce

Sarah Burton: I think with Plato’s Atlantis, it was real perfection the way he executed every single piece. But knowing Lee, he would have probably gone somewhere completely different after Angels and Demons. He would always surprise you, and that was the joy of working with him, is he would always take it somewhere that was unexpected.

Every time he would take up a different theme or a different angle or a different technique and he would always push it forward, like, relentlessly pushing forward. And you could never really predict what he was going to do because he was so much his own person. His vision was so pure.

And he was really funny, and he was really good fun to work for. And, you know, he was incredibly loyal and incredibly inspiring.

Andrew Bolton: McQueen once remarked, “I’m overly romantic,” but it was precisely his romantic yearnings that propelled his creativity and advanced fashion in directions previously considered unimaginable.


In McQueen’s Words“[This collection predicted a future in which] the ice cap would melt . . . the waters would rise and . . . life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish. Humanity [would] go back to the place from whence it came.”

Plato’s Atlantis (spring/summer 2010) program notes

“There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”

WWD, February 12, 2010

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