Fashion commentator Fabiana Bronte has written this about the recent loss of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, a designer that had done much to develop a steampunky look on the catwalk. We thought you may all be interested in seeing what she has to say.
It was the collection entitled Highland Rape that made me first sit up and take notice.
In his Winter 1995 collection at London Fashion Week, his second show, British fashion designer Alexander (known as Lee) McQueen tapped into his Scottish roots to channel the Highland Clearances into a collection that grabbed world attention and headlines.
I was then a fashion editorial and photographic director for a major New Zealand daily newspaper. Having Scottish ancestry, and a fan of fashion’s enfant terribles such as John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier, I was naturally excited by the prospect of a new challenger to that crown.
The Highland Rape collection featured disheveled and battered-looking models in torn tartan clothing. McQueen said he was commenting on the “rape” of Scotland by the British, though critics of his work saw in it a perverse and misogynistic celebration of the sexual violation of women.
For the show McQueen transformed an industrial loft space into a chaotic battleground symbolizing 1746’s Battle of Culloden. The show also acted as a modern day conscientious objection against Cumberland’s 1746 Dress Act clause in the Act of Proscription, which made it illegal to wear Highland dress, in particular the kilt.
The show and that collection set the marker for the so-called “bad boy” of British fashion to experience a future of success.
At that time, I watched and wrote as some New Zealand designers, most notably in the “Dark Fashion Central” of New Zealand known as Dunedin, which has a very strong Scottish-settler base, picked up on this aesthetic.
I recall the season around that time that former Dunedin designer Nicholas Blanchet sent his controversial “rugby” menswear collection down the runway, complete with models with painted-on “bruises”. It had a very “McQueen” stamp about it.
Later I recall reading how McQueen met leading British stylist Katy England, who he poached from her media role as a stylist to become his creative director. He said he had encountered her outside a high profile fashion show, where she was trying to “blag her way in”.
“Lee liked the way I looked,” Ms England later told The Observer. “He said he’d noticed what I wore. I had on a fantastic nurse’s coat with an amazing shoulder detail.”
He had just completed his second collection. She began working with him on his third, The Birds, shown at Kings Cross, and has been a part of the team ever since.
This morning, after an evening spent working on the finishing of a pattern for a tailored jacket (which undoubtedly owes something to McQueen’s edgy fashion contribution over the years) I awoke in disbelief to a text from a friend and fellow Kiwi clothes maker: Alexander McQueen is dead.
I have always appreciated McQueen’s edgy aesthetic, and in recent years have found some of his more historical and gothic references inspiration for Steampunk-style design.
His influence upon the current wave of steampunk style has been huge; he is undoubtedly one of the major inspirations for the sudden rush of global steampunkness.
“Haute couture steampunk neo-industrial goth” was how blogger Octavine Illustration described McQueen’s Fall 09 Haute Couture collection in March 2009. “An apocalyptic post-millennial celebration of black and white. The fashions, while not wearable by the likes of most, spoke to the current sense of global economic meltdown. Spectacular.”
As stated in the New York Times in May 2008, and now posted on Impactlab.com: “Steampunk style is corseted, built on a scaffolding of bustles, crinolines and parasols and high-arced sleeves not unlike those favoured by the movement’s designer idols: Nicolas Ghesquiere of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and, yes, even Ralph Lauren.”
Another blogger wrote that McQueen was “seriously putting the ‘punk’ in ‘steampunk’” and yet another, that “his dark and twisted sense of humour and Gothic references are mingled with subtle digs at his fellow designers and the current economic climate”, and that some of his shoe designs “might be taking the whole steampunk thing to the next level”.
On the question of the stunning and out-of-this-world skyscraper shoes McQueen has sent down the runway in recent times, the Teacups and Couture blog said quite accurately that they “belong on a steampunk robo-chick”. Undoubtedly, that was the culturally-astute McQueen’s intention, as it taps perfectly into the zeitgeist.
More recently Alexander McQueen has become known for dressing Lady Gaga, most spectacularly in the recent “Bad Romance” video. He used this song as the finale of his Plato Atlantis Spring/Summer 2010 live internet fashion show for the collection for Spring 2010. This was a groundbreaking moment, when anyone with an internet connection had a front row seat to one of the season’s hottest shows.
This, his last collection, was a sinewy, sensual parade of sublimeness, with exquisite rippley, silky fabrics printed with designs of reptilian beauty. They were paraded on models slinking down the runway and trying to negotiate walking in McQueen’s unusual-shaped futuristic skyscraper shoes.
Over the years, Alexander McQueen has combined that very British aesthetic already plundered by designers and older peers such as Vivienne Westwood – tailoring, tartan and tweed – with a very modern, sensual and edgy sensibility. A product of the famous fashion talent incubator, the illustrious Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London, he was controversial, outspoken on some things, while at the same time gracious, skilled, and with his eye firmly on the main game.
While he could send extraordinary other-worldly creations down the runway, his commercial garments were at the same time very wearable, and even at times quite classical. He happily blended the best of both worlds – wild creativity, with down-to-earth practical wearability. He was also never one to shy away from the bold statement or avoid the difficult issues that face us.
In October 2008 veteran British fashion journalist Sarah Mower wrote on Style.com that his Spring 09 collection featured a video projection of a revolving Earth, and flanked by a zoo of stuffed animals, portraying endangered species. McQueen explained, through program notes, that he had “been pondering Charles Darwin, the survival of the fittest, and the deleterious results of industrialization.”
“McQueen’s couture sensibilities are breathtaking in close-up, where the detail of flowers and birds becomes visible in lace underlayers and then echoed in lace ankle-wrappings incorporated in shoes,” Ms Mower wrote.
The designer was said to be despondent over the death of his mother last week.
“I’m letting my followers know my mother passed away yesterday if it she had not me nor would you RIP mumxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…” he wrote on Twitter following her death.
He added shortly afterwards: “But life must go on!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
McQueen’s friend, the influential British fashion insider Isabella Blow who helped his career take flight, took her own life in 2007 at the age of 48.
It is my personal view that grief is something not well understood in our fast-paced industrialized world. Clearly, Lee was devastated by the loss of his mother.
We cannot know what the designer would have come up with next. He had become so “hot”, the fashion world waited with bated breath to see what he would dream up next. Sadly, now, we will never know.
I hope the world, and history, will be able to finally forgive him this premature finale, and to remember and salute Alexander McQueen for the brilliant bright light that he was.
And as a fitting tribute, may I leave the last word to Canadian television host Jeanne Beker of CTV, a front row regular at his shows: “He reminded us all why we love fashion, and fashion became more relevant in his glow.”
Fabiana Bronte is an experienced fashion writer, stylist, photographer, designer and chronicler, now living in Christchurch, New Zealand.