Dresses to impress

In the basement of an ugly office block in east London, the former post room has been transformed. Where previously there were pigeon-holes stuffed with mail, franking machines and a dry, papery smell, now stand rail after rail of exotic garments clad in glossy, clear plastic sheaths, each like a larva in a chrysalis. Shelves heave with shoes so elaborately carved and decorated around their towering heels and thick-wedged soles that they are closer to sculpture than footwear. Brilliantly hued feathers spill from boxes. The occasional skull peers down from on high. On a mannequin, a billowing mass of ivory tulle could be the shredded wedding dress of a runaway princess bride. Young women in ballet flats, little cardigans and great sweeps of false eyelashes scurry through the racks, scribbling, fixing and arranging. Welcome to the archive of Alexander McQueen.

Every important fashion house has an archive – an invaluable three-dimensional document of a label’s entire output; a mini museum that only the privileged can access. But right now, the McQueen collection has a particular resonance. In February last year, nine days after the death of his much-loved mother, the designer, known to everyone by his first name Lee, took his own life. He was 40 years old. While his extraordinary talent had never really been in doubt, his legacy had suddenly become very precious indeed.

On August 1 2010, seven young graduates from the London College of Fashion began the process of sorting, photographing and rehanging every piece, finally assembled in one place after being retrieved from a series of stores scattered around east London. “Lee used the archive in a day-to-day way, referring back to his own work time and again,” says Jonathan Akeroyd, chief executive of the McQueen fashion house since 2004, speaking on his mobile from Beijing, where a black hoarding decorated with orange and lilac butterflies conceals a new store, the sixth globally and the first in Asia.

Now, 2,400 garments have been documented down to the last detail on a vast database: the fabric, the embroidery, the stains, rips and holes, and, where relevant, which celebrity wore it and when. The Icelandic singer Björk donated a show-stopping red dress from 2001, made from dyed medical slides and ostrich feathers, to ensure the archive’s completion. Collectors of the designer’s work, including Daphne Guinness and the supermodel Naomi Campbell, have had their holdings catalogued too, though they are stored elsewhere.

The avant-garde splendour of McQueen’s designs lit up the catwalks of London and then Paris, from his graduation from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 1994 onwards. But the theatricality of the shows (models being led by wolves, trapped in mirrored cubes, taking part in a massive chess game, dancing themselves lame) could sometimes eclipse the cleverness of the clothes.

Seeing them up close is a thrill. McQueen’s tailoring ability (he was apprenticed on Savile Row aged 16), his dressmaking sensibility and his experience in the couture ateliers of Givenchy in Paris, where he was creative director from 1996 to 2001, combined with a sponge-like absorption of ideas and imagery from cinema, art and nature to make his work powerful and unique. One dress is made from 168 razor clam shells, picked up on a Norfolk beach by the designer and his then boyfriend and bleached and scrubbed by hand; another, worn by Cate Blanchett at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is in black satin encrusted with exquisite embroidered silver roses and an eagle. A tulle underskirt froths from beneath.

Yet for all the drama, the clothes, unexpectedly perhaps, are wearable, too. While McQueen perfected a stylised silhouette for women of emphatic shoulders and nipped-in waist, he designed in profile, taking a lady’s lumps and bumps into account. You only had to spend a Saturday afternoon in the Old Bond Street store to see how many loyal customers there were, from Russian wives to City women, who understood that these were clothes that felt as good as they looked.

For a few months this year, the carefully managed archive will be incomplete. From May 4, 100 outfits and 80 of the accessories that McQueen worked on with jeweller Shaun Leane, milliner Philip Treacy and others will be on show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute in New York, in an exhibition dedicated to McQueen’s work called Savage Beauty.

“After the shock [of McQueen’s death], I felt strongly that there should be an exhibition, and immediately, too,” said Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute, when we met during London Fashion Week in February. “People’s feelings change over time, and I wanted to tap into the rawness, the vivid memories. It’s more honest. Those around him are still coming to terms with things and there’s been no revisionism.”

Bolton, who is English, said: “I’d followed McQueen’s career so doggedly from the beginning and knew the material backwards. But it didn’t make me any less nervous to present the legacy.” (The Met, however, has form in these matters, showing a Gianni Versace retrospective less than a year after his murder in 1997, and to critical success.)

During his lifetime, McQueen’s team was small and loyal. It still is. Trino Verkade, who worked with him in various capacities since McQueen graduated, is now creative co-ordinator. Sarah Burton, who joined the company in 1996 straight from studying fashion at Central Saint Martins, slipped quietly into the role of creative director after the designer’s death. “There was no question in my mind that she was the only choice,” says Akeroyd. Sam Gainsbury, the woman who produced most of McQueen’s runway extravaganzas, has designed the show at the Met, along with Bolton and production designer Joseph Bennett. One room will be lined with a marquetry version of McQueen tartan and feature the collection called “Highland Rape” (autumn/winter 1995-96), which brought McQueen recognition – and a reputation for controversy that he would never entirely shake off. Its ripped tartans, exposed breasts and a skirt strung through with a watch chain, which some critics mistook for a tampon (“that’s not even perverse, it’s gross,” said McQueen), were meant to reference the 17th-century Highland massacres.

And then there’s Anna Wintour, the golden-bobbed editor of American Vogue who, though not his number one supporter during his lifetime (McQueen didn’t play the celebrity game, and could be brusque, or, more often, absent), is less equivocal now. As co-chair of the Costume Institute’s annual gala, which brings in the $2m per year that the institute needs to survive, she has put her weight behind the delivery of the exhibition. “He could make the best suits ever, incredible suits, incredible coats,” Wintour told me when I met her in London. “When I’d go and have my fittings with him, he would be the one pinning away. Nobody else. Alexander liked to get in there and do it all himself.” On our meeting, Wintour was wearing a McQueen leopard-print felt mac. “This is from when he was at Givenchy,” she said. “He loved the atelier there, the expertise of the French couture houses … even if the corporate culture didn’t really suit him.”

Givenchy is owned by luxury behemoth LVMH, with Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe, at its helm. It is a company that likes strong commercialism to underpin creativity. When, in 2000, McQueen received an offer from the Gucci Group (in turn owned by PPR, which belongs to businessman/art collector François Pinault) to buy 51 per cent of his label, with the promise of creative freedom, McQueen jumped ship.

The Alexander McQueen house moved to sleek offices in London’s Clerkenwell. McQueen treated himself to a country cottage near Hastings, and carried on buying art. His collection contains work by the Chapman Brothers, Sam Taylor-Wood, Wolfgang Tillmans, Rebecca Horn and Don McCullin (McQueen often said he’d have been a photojournalist if he didn’t work in fashion). Joel-Peter Witkin, the American photographer whose tableaux are often studies of death, depravity and deformity, had also been a key influence in McQueen’s earlier days. “But he began to dislike Witkin,” says Andrew Bolton. “He felt he was about decadence, and not about celebrating the idea of difference, which was one of Lee’s mantras.” Another theme, the search for love of himself and others, also dominated his work. “He was always searching, and I’m not sure he ever found it,” Bolton adds.

The art and the houses (there is also property in London) will be sold and the money invested in a foundation. With McQueen’s will still in probate, no one in the company is forthcoming on the subject, but it is thought the funds will be used to help the less privileged undertake an art education.

The son of a London cabbie, McQueen was the youngest of six children and grew up in Stratford, east London. He left school at 16 with one O-level in art. After four years on Savile Row he set off for Milan with a one-way ticket and an ambition to work for Romeo Gigli, then the darling of the fashion world, which he succeeded in doing. At 22, he returned to London and went to Central Saint Martins looking for a job. Instead, he was asked to do an MA. McQueen always said that he knew, even as a child, that he would “be something in fashion”. He was a lot more than “something”, and it seems typically generous (he was as kind and thoughtful to friends as he could be cruel) that he would want others to be able to go on the same journey.

‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 4 to July 31 (preceded by The Costume Institute Gala Benefit on May 2). Next week in Life & Arts, author Anne Roiphe on the muse in the McQueen oeuvre

McQueen fans

Cate Blanchett

The actress wore a black and silver Alexander McQueen dress, embroidered with an eagle in flight, for the premiere of Robin Hood at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2010. McQueen personally selected the dress for her.

Lady Gaga

Not surprisingly, the singer is a long-term fan of the designer. She wore a silver McQueen bodysuit and his Armadillo shoes with 12in heels for her “Bad Romance” video in 2009, and this dress for last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.


The Icelandic singer wore a red creation on stage when she performed in Toronto in 2001. Made from medical slides and ostrich feathers, the dress tinkled to the music. Björk donated it to the McQueen archive.

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