The Alexander Technique
IT IS MIDDAY AND THE SUN IS struggling to appear from behind the clouds, yet the Venetian blinds of Alexander McQueen's office are drawn and a black candle burns on his desk. Somehow, this shadowy world seems appropriate for a designer who has become known for his darkly disturbing and poignantly romantic fashion shows.
Sitting in his big black chair, McQueen - Lee to his friends - is reaching for another tissue. Hayfever? Or a cold? 'No, just run down,' he says. It's a couple of weeks since his spring/summer 2008 menswear show in Milan and the designer has a reputation for committing body and soul to getting everything just right. You sense the pressure hangs heavy on his shoulders, but his commitment to his creativity is paramount and that period during the build-up is intense and all consuming for him and those around him. As Sam Gainsbury, the show's producer, says: 'Lee gets what Lee wants.'
'If you don't advertise, then you have to create a different impact,' is McQueen's reasoning for the rock concert allure of his shows. 'If you have half an hour of someone's attention, then you have got to make it half an hour that they remember for the rest of their lives,' he says.
McQueen's shows are the highlight of the Paris collections. They are compelling, each wildly imaginative extravaganza instilling a lasting emotional memory in the audience. There is always a narrative theme, which is what makes them such powerful theatre. There have been mesmerising visions such as models skating on an ice stage in a blizzard, or the floating hologram of Kate Moss in a billowing white dress from the 'Widows of Culloden' collection. Other memorable shows have included sinister finales such as the one that featured a model as Joan of Arc, clad in red sequins and encircled by a ring of fire, or - McQueen's favourite moment - model Shalom Harlow being spray-painted by robotic paint machines in his spring/summer 1999 show, 'Robots'.
'That was really powerful because it was about man and machine,' he says. The concept, he continues, was inspired by an installation by artist Rebecca Horn of two shotguns firing blood-red paint at each other. Another show that stood out for McQueen was spring/summer 2004, which included a dance performance choreographed by Michael Clark and inspired by the 24-hour dance marathon in Sydney Pollack's 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.
McQueen's collections begin with a concept that dictates the design of the clothes. Sometimes the subjects are dark and provocative; sometimes they are light and romantic. 'The work is autobiographical, they depict the mood of the times and the mood I am in at that moment,' McQueen says. For instance, last summer's collection (2007) was inspired by Handel's haunting Sarabande in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon (1975). '[The show] was about the degradation of war and all the crap we were going through about Iraq,' McQueen says. 'The romance in the music fuelled the romance in the clothes, the decay of the flowers falling off the dress, it was about poetry in motion.'
McQueen says his shows are always exorcising his ghosts. 'Doing that is just something that is part of me,' he explains. His difficult upbringing in London's East End is well charted, but the collections are also about coming to terms with who he is and the way he thinks about life.
'I suppose I am a very emotionally charged person and that is what comes through in my work, but you don't always get positive reviews because some people don't necessarily want to be confronted with the things I have to confront myself. However, I prefer to lay it out, I am today's honest designer.'
His mother is a keen genealogist and while the recent 'Widows of Culloden' (autumn/winter 2006/2007) was a love letter to his Scottish ancestors, his early, provocative 'Highland Rape' collection (slashed tartans, ripped lace and blood-streaked faces) was an angry response to the Highland Clearances of the late 18th to early 19th century, when landlords turfed their tenants off the land. The show ended with McQueen walking down the catwalk, pulling down his trousers and 'mooning' at the audience. It certainly brought him attention, but he now dismisses such behaviour as immature.
Fourteen years on, McQueen is regarded as one of the most formidable talents in fashion. His new autumn/winter collection was inspired by another branch of his bloodline, an ancestor who was convicted of witchcraft at the Salem trials of 1692 and hanged. The macabre show featured a giant pentagram on the catwalk laid out in blood-red sand to represent cinders, while a disturbing film ran on a screen above. Reference was made to the folksy clothes of the Puritans of the time, with finely crafted brocades and silhouettes inspired by ancient Egypt, including Nefertiti-like make-up by Val Garland, hats by Philip Treacy and celestial silver headpieces by jeweller Shaun Leane.
In retrospect, McQueen says the concept was too big and the subject matter jarred with fashion folk. 'There was an intensity that maybe upset some people,' he says. 'Maybe it should have been kept out of the fashion arena and used in the field of art.'
McQueen has a knack for finding people who really connect with his concepts to work with him, whether it is choreographer Clark, or silversmith Leane, who shares McQueen's passion for the macabre, producing lethal-looking tribal jewellery and silver corsets ('I sometimes turn up at shows with a big box and a screwdriver,' he says), or milliner Treacy, who has worked on most of McQueen's shows.
'It is exciting to work with strong designers like Alexander McQueen because they let you interpret their style,' says Treacy, who regards the designer as 'a true genius of modern tailoring' with a cut and attention to detail that is unsurpassed in the industry today. 'Some designers are specific, but many designers that I have worked with for a long time give me free rein to design with their collections in mind.'
McQueen has covered religion, sex, death and politics in his shows - so what now? The only clues he gives about his next collection are that it is totally different to the last one and is dedicated to his close friend and mentor, the eccentric fashion guru Isabella Blow, who ended her life this year. He will not speak about her, but perhaps the loss has fuelled his current melancholy. He is not sure if, at 38, he is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, but he is clearly reviewing where he stands creatively, together with the demands of running a growing brand.
In 2000, McQueen sold 51 per cent of his business to the Gucci Group, which gave him the capital to expand. He now also makes bags, shoes and eyewear as well as a denim line called McQ and has collaborations with Samsonite and Puma. The investment has given him security and mellowed him a little, but a growing brand brings greater demands and somewhere in that he is struggling to hold on to his artistic integrity.
'It is good to re-evaluate and understand why you are in the business and where you want to be,' he says. Citing the craftsmanship he learned in Savile Row as an apprentice and as creative director in the couture atelier of Givenchy in Paris, he reiterates, 'I love my work', but the raw energy he pours into it and the pace of the fashion calendar take their toll. 'How do you maintain that level of inspiration?' he asks himself. Hopefully he will find the answer soon, but meanwhile he will continue to amaze with his beautiful clothes and breathtaking shows.