Tuesday, 27 August 2013

"... But With The Mind."

By Rory A.A. Hinton

Lee Alexander McQueen

Queen Elizabeth II: "How long have you been a fashion designer?"
Lee Alexander McQueen: "Quite a few years, m'lady."

There are four designers in the history of 20th century fashion that changed the way women look: Coco Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Christian Dior, and Lee Alexander McQueen. While all acknowledge the sartorial change Lee made, some are still divided over its social significance. Did he support or subjugate post-Millett sexual politics? 
     For some the subjugation started early. The six-piece graduate collection for his MA degree from Central Saint Martins entitled "Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims" (July 1992) is seen by some as the misogynistic basis for every piece of clothing he ever designed. That his next show two years later entitled "Nihilism" (S/S 1994) provoked the critics to quickly condemn it (fashion journalist Marion Hume of the Independent described the show as "McQueen's Theatre Of Cruelty"), only added critical fuel to the subjugating fire. What else could this show be but a violent homage to John Galliano's "Forgotten Innocents" collection of 1986?
     Hume wrote that the collection was "a horror show ... of battered women, of violent lives, of grinding daily existences offset by wild, drug-enhanced nocturnal dives into clubs where the dress code is semi-naked." Despite the hyperbole, Hume was at least observant enough to see that Lee, despite his supposed misogyny, was a young talent with something new to show in a business where designers devour each other's ideas as if they were their own. In order to stand out in this business you must be new on demand. And "the shock of the new," said Hume (echoing a modern theme out of the pages of Robert Hughes), "has to be just that: shocking." In this case, the value of the shock was too costly for critical consumption. Hume and her subjugating subjects condemned Lee's modern designs as nothing but a shockingly new variation on an old misogynistic theme.

"Nihilism"  (S/S 1994)


     For others it is telling that Lee's "Ripper" show caused the "dames de Vogue" throwback Isabella Blow to sit up, take notice, and conclude something completely different. She too knew the shock value of Lee's new work. Fortunately, she was wealthy enough not to cheapen it by projecting a narrative of cruelty onto it (an ad hominem thing to do in the face of an inconvenient truth: when you cannot fully understand, you get fallaciously personal). Only someone as astutely connected as Blow (the one time assistant to both Wintour and Talley of Vogue fame) could put this subjugation theme into ironically feminine relief by focusing her attention on the clothes. She knew that the clothes were merely an interpretive vehicle for Lee's artistic vision. But she also understood that you need to have the vehicle to get the message across.
     Isabella was struck by Lee's tailored blow, and the blow-back proved beneficial for him: she became his sine qua non fashion Establishment entrée among the styled elite. By this time he was established enough to know and show that the humane establishment was in the designing details. "The tailoring was excellent," Blow says. "No one spotted it. They kept thinking it was just blood and paint. They weren't looking at the cut! It was obvious from the first outfit that here was someone of enormous potential and great gifts."

Blow And Her Protégé


     Lee knew from his apprenticing days with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard that cut, proportion, and colour are the three essential ingredients to a great outfit, but the greatest of these is cut. His beautifully tailored jackets in the "Nihilism" show were cut in such an exacting way that "the lapels were as sharp as shark fins," as Judith Watt describes them. Lee was a cutter, not a ripper ("McQueen's Theatre Of Sevility" is more like it). However, whether this tailored talent made him able to "marry Savile Row with ready to wear" (a stated aim of his as a designer) is questionable and worth considering, especially as a contributing means to his tragically early end. For some artists creativity and commerce remain divorced, despite the will toward rapprochement. For them it does not cut both ways.
     But there is no denying that the cut came naturally to him. At one point in the documentary McQueen & I, Lee is seen gathering up a white sheet that is hanging in a doorway to a very frugal studio. He walks into the doorway, elegantly gathers up the sheet with both hands, holds it in his left hand, takes a corded phone off the receiver that is hanging on the wall next to the doorway with his right hand, wraps the cord around the sheet, then hangs the phone up again. Seamlessly. Only Lee could get away with turning a functioning door into a fashionable drape by using a phone cord as a holdback. He did this without the slightest bit of effort, without the slightest hint of forethought, and without making you think that fashion and function are mutually exclusive. Style just flowed out of him.
     In light of Lee's natural style, only a myopic misogynist without Blow's eye, let alone an ear for what she and Lee had to say, would interpret Lee's "Highland Rape" show (A/W 1995-1996) as a slam against women, rather than what he said it was: a stylish commentary on England's rape of Scotland. "It wasn't anti-women," Lee says. "It was actually anti- the fake history of Vivienne Westwood." Lee's point was that Westwood's attempt to make tartan "romantic" takes away from the fact that eighteenth-century Scotland was not about "beautiful women drifting across the moors in swathes of unmanageable chiffon." "Highland Rape" was about the historic violation of women's rights because it was about the colonial rape of human culture. No amount of Westwood's revisionist herstory can take away from that fact, not if this Scottish l'enfant terrible had anything to show about it.

"Highland Rape" (A/W 1995-1996)


     Blow told Harper's Bazaar that what attracted her to Lee was "the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cut to make them new and in the context of today. It is the complexity and severity of his approach to cut that makes him so modern." By the time of his "Dante" show (A/W 1996-1997) the accusations of misogyny had slowly died the death of a thousand fittings. Lee was not interested in feminine subjugation but fashionable strength, wherever it may be found. Carmen Artigas, design assistant at Romero Gigli where Lee worked as a pattern cutter in the early 1990s, realized early on that Lee was all about "disturbing the senses and yet finding beauty in decay." Celebrating empowered beauty in human savagery was the "McQueen thing to do."
     "I want to empower women," Lee said. "I want people to be afraid of the women I dress." This is a key to his designing divide and conquer strategy. What Lee did was to cut through the idea that his social impact was only about supporting or subjugating women, while still acknowledging that disjunction's traditional influence on how we conceive of the relation between fashion and sexual politics. "You've got to know the rules to break them," Lee says. "That's what I'm here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition." Part of this tradition consists in how post-World War I women were able to discard the corset in favour of more functional clothing. Ever since, the implicit mandate for designers has been to prevent the subjugation of women that the corset represented.
     Lee understood this history, but as an artist with a social vision he used it to create a new standard by which his work should be judged. He was not just about supporting women through fashion. That was merely a means to a transcending end for him. The end was to approach the question of what it means to live a beautiful life. Lee called changing the way women look an "art thing." Rightly so. Art demands a change in us. And Lee's art changed the way we think about the social importance of haute couture (high sewing indeed). He changed the look of Betty Friedan's "feminine mystique" by empowering the human physique, where the dividing line between fashionable tradition and gendered rules was put into ironically masculine relief. Lee used his knowledge of the history of costume to promote the necessity of an androgynous aesthetics. He neither supported nor subjugated sexual politics. Instead, he changed the political game by demolishing the psychological rules (gender), but keeping the designing tradition (fashion). Empowering women changes everyone. This is his artistic legacy.

"The Birds" (S/S 1995)


     "He really loved women," fashion queen Daphne Guinness writes in her forward to Alexander McQueen: The Life And The Legacy, "really adored them - and not just for our statuesque beauty but for our fragility as well as our strength, our ghosts and demons alongside our accomplishments." This love began with his mother. Joyce McQueen's role in shaping her son's talent cannot be overestimated. Her love of social history and the powerful sense of identity that came from her research into their rich family heritage ("Highland Rape" would not have been possible without her), provided him with a sense that anything was possible for him as an artist. This possibility became actual in his "Banshee" show (A/W 1994-1995), where the women are celebrated as heavily pregnant, sport short Sinéad O'Connor style hair, and pose like the bride in Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage of 1434 (his favourite painting). Beauty, fragility, strength, ghosts, demons, and accomplishments. In a word: love.

McQueen Adoring Queen


     Helena's line about love in her soliloquy in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the humanistic (not misogynistic) basis for every piece of clothing he ever designed: "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" (A Midsummer Night's Dream - I, i, 234). The relation between love, physical eyesight, and conceptual vision is the central theme in this play about the confusion that love sometimes brings. Lee's work attempts to clear up this confusion by focusing our fashionable attention away from the eyes (important as they are), and onto the mind. He was, therefore, a conceptual artist. "With me, metamorphosis is a bit like plastic surgery but less drastic," Lee said. "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 today and what will continue to be so tomorrow." No wonder Lee had Helena's line tattooed on his right arm.

McQueen Adorning Queen


     Lee's love for his mother received a shocking blow when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. She and Lee lived with it for two years until her death on February 2, 2010. Her death proved fatal for him. The day before his mother's funeral (nine days after she died) Lee hanged himself in his Green Street, Mayfair apartment on February 11, 2010. He left a suicide note. The contents remain private to this day. It was inscribed in the catalogue of Wolfe von Lenkiewicz's The Descent Of Man. Even though Lee had the designer's eyes, more than any other designer of his generation, he still was not able to mindfully accommodate love's loss in his life. What caused this man's descent? Did the love of the mind fail him?
     A coroner's inquest into Lee's death recorded the verdict that his suicide was carried out "while the balance of his mind was disturbed." Lee's psychiatrist blamed his client's depression and anxiety, in part, on "the demands of his work." It has been said of Isabella Blow that the reason why she committed suicide was that she could not endure being stuck between kitch and oblivion. Something similar can be said of Lee: he could not endure being stuck between the love of the eyes and the love of the mind. While a psychological story can and should be told here about Lee's lack of endurance, a philosophical one needs to be told as well. Lee's philosophy of art was not strong enough to deal with the confused descent that love brought into his life. This is particularly the case when it comes to the marriage between creativity and commerce.
Mother And Son


     The demands of his work include the necessity of coming to terms with art and money. "Designers have to make a choice - art or money. I don't create art," Lee said. "I create clothes people wear." This was sensible PR at the time (2004), given Gucci's 51 percent stake in his business. Just after partnering with Gucci Group in 2001, sales jumped 400 percent as a result of Lee's "What A Merry-Go-Round" show (A/W 2001-2002). The CEO of Gucci Group Domenico de Sole praised the marriage between "creativity and commerce this represented." He told British Vogue that McQueen's great talent and intensity as a designer included his "comprehensive understanding of his business."
     And yet, Lee's own economic commentary runs counter to his social commitment to artistic change. Guinness knew him well enough to know who he was and what he did. "He has been referred to as the fashion world's darling, its rebel and pioneer," Guinness writes. "He was both all of these things and none of them at all, because actually, what he was, was an artist. Had he chosen paint or wood for his canvas instead of material, I genuinely believe he would have been determined to master and challenge their disciplines in that same defiant, obsessive way he worked with clothes ... Painting's loss was fashion's gain, however, and how very glad I am of it."

Queen Mourning McQueen

     Art or money? Artist or businessman? His claim that designers must choose between the two is a consequence of his inability to see that in the post-Warhol era art and money are not mutually exclusive. While he was able to demolish the dividing psychological line between male and female by promoting androgyny as an aesthetic ideal, he was unable to demolish the dividing economical line between creativity and commerce. He did not have a balance of mind when it came to the economics of art. This is a philosophical failure. This failure shows itself in his work just prior to the time of his death, from his inconsistent questioning of human greed in "Natural Dis-Inction, Un-Natural Selection" (S/S 2009), to his inconclusive response to fashion's built-in obsolescence in "The Horn Of Plenty" (A/W 2009-2010), to his ultimate escapism in "Plato's Atlantis" (S/S 2010) - "Aristotle's Earth" was nowhere to be found.
     "The Horn Of Plenty" show is a noteworthy indicator of his struggle over the consumption of fashion in a capitalist society. The name of the show just happened to be the name of the pub in which Jack the Ripper's last victim was seen before her murder. Whether this was "a metaphor for impending doom" is up to the fashion critics to decide. What we do know is that Lee used the name of the show and his fame as a designer to respond to the inherent obsolescence and excessive production within the fashion industry. While stagehands were scattering broken mirrors on the runway (representing the narcissism of fashion), and stacking props from his past collections in mini landfills (representing the waste fashion produces), preparations were being made to launch his accessibly priced McQ line in 250 Target stores in the American Mideast once his "horn of plenty" show was over. "This whole situation is such a cliché. The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway," Lee stated, "and I think that is a big part of the problem. There is no longevity." The irony of his contribution toward the problem of mass-market saturation from "Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims" to "The Horn Of Plenty" ("McQueen's Pub Of Plenty" perhaps?) was not lost on him. He knew he was part of the problem. He never solved it.

"The Horn Of Plenty" (A/W 2009-2010)


     "I want to marry Savile Row with ready to wear," Lee once said. If "Savile Row" was haute couture for him. then "ready to wear" was about having money to spare at the end of the runway. To embrace both couture and commerce requires a philosophy of art that is insightful enough to see a capitalist life in aesthetic terms. "The Horn Of Plenty" show is an enigma because Lee was not romantically realistic enough to see the irony of mocking the excess of fashion by fashionable means as itself an artistic statement (precisely because it is an economic one). He failed in his own mind to look hard enough at art and money, unlike other British artists of his generation. The demand that this work required was too much for his love to bear. This is his artistic tragedy.
     Watt chose her words carefully when she described Lee as "the so-called Damien Hirst of fashion." Many are chosen, but few are called. Sadly, Lee was not one of them. That said, the Alexander McQueen brand under the corporate direction of Jonathan Akeroyd has less of a problem with capital than its founder. Hirst and McQ are now joining forces to celebrate the 10th anniversary of McQueen's iconic skull scarf by creating a new limited edition line based on Hirst's Entomology paintings. The collection launches November 15, 2013 and is available in chiffon, pongé, twill, and cashmere. Prices start at £135.

Lee Alexander McQueen: March 17, 1969 - February 11, 2010.

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