McQueen of hearts

Image of Vanessa Friedman

It began a few weeks ago: I received a 215-page coffee-table book from Race Point Publishing entitled Alexander McQueen: Evolution. Then, only days later, from Abrams, came an even bigger (395 pages) tome, also about McQueen, called Love Looks Not With the Eyes. The third arrival was a smaller – normal hardback-sized – offering from Harper Design, called, simply, McQueen.

Three Alexander McQueen books in less than one month, a full 32 months after the designer – known as fashion’s enfant terrible, its genius, its terrorist and the designer every design student wants to be – killed himself at age 40? That’s one too many for coincidence, and too random a timeline for an anniversary. It’s the sort of thing that sets off all sorts of bells in my head, because it qualifies, according to the laws of fashion, as a trend. And then, like Pavlov’s dogs, I feel an instinctive need to ask: why?

Why now? Why Hallowe’en time and not Christmas time, the usual period for publishing weighty coffee-table books with price tags of $75 (the Abrams book) and $35 (Race Point)? McQueen was notoriously macabre, with collections entitled Highland Rape, Nihilism and Deliverance, a penchant for skulls and a propensity for saying things like, “I especially like the accessory for its sadomasochistic effect.” But this seems a bit reductive. Besides, a definitive McQueen book has already been published: the Metropolitan Museum’s 238-page Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, issued last year in conjunction with the Met’s retrospective of the designer’s work.

Presumably this month’s crop of authors and their publishers felt they could bring something new to the (coffee) table. Certainly, McQueen was extraordinarily talented, producing in the 16 years he worked under his own name a richer oeuvre than others have created in much longer careers, including several new shapes (the bumster trouser, which gave rise to a generation of low-slung jeans; the moulded corset; the elaborate tailcoat for women). It seems logical there would be more to say and learn.

Yet only one of the books is by someone who had a real personal connection to McQueen: the Abrams book is Anne Deniau’s photographic record of 13 years spent chronicling the designer’s behind-the-scenes work. But though the pictures are wonderful (including one that explains the title: it comes from a tattoo on McQueen’s arm), the words contribute little except mediocre poetry. To wit: “The time of insolence./ Irreverence./ A brilliant tightrope walker, a determined man./ Lee Alexander McQueen does not move forward as much as he sprints along the wire.”

The other two books are no more illuminating. Evolution is a chronological photographic record of McQueen’s collections, with pedantic descriptions and quotes from a handful of critics, while McQueen is a straightforward biography. There’s nothing here that you couldn’t find in an already existing book, or simply by Googling it. So if this trend isn’t really about what’s in the books, what is it about?

On one level, it may have to do with the success of the post-McQueen business under creative director Sarah Burton. There was a moment when conventional fashion wisdom had McQueen the designer as an impossible act to follow, and McQueen the brand in imminent danger of closing. But clearly this was wrong; Burton has been enormously successful, as borne out by her designs for the Duchess of Cambridge, from the wedding dress on. Indeed, McQueen may now have a broader reach than ever, which means books about its beginnings are potentially broadly desirable.

Then again, I also think the trend has to do with the power of McQueen’s vision itself, which was always best expressed in pictures: there’s a sumptuous quality to his work that gives depth to a book with almost no effort; because in effect the effort came from him. So for a publisher, it must seem an efficient route to a gorgeous tome.

But, finally, I think the true allure of the McQueen myth – for that’s what these books feed – has to do with a sense of nostalgia for the kind of designer he was, and for a time that no longer exists. In a way, like so much of what is going on today, it’s a recession thing; a memory of what we once considered the creative personality: drug-fuelled and single-minded, devoted to a dream that sometimes was a nightmare. Companies can now no longer afford this model of a leader, which has increasingly been replaced by creative realists such as Raf Simons at Dior, Frida Giannini at Gucci, Christopher Bailey at Burberry. This is the designer-as-brand manager, someone who can triangulate the creative, commercial and corporate with low-key aplomb.

Whether he would have liked it or not (and odds are pretty high he would not), McQueen and his work have become a symbol of an age of excess that was. These aren’t fashion books, they are history books. And there are always a lot of those.

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