McQueen Leaves Fashion in Ruins

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A McQueen ball gown in an Escher-inspired print, with a garbage heap of props from past collections in the background.

INEVITABLY, the talk of Paris fashion has been less about clothes than about money.

Retailers are worried about sales, and magazines are concerned with the loss of advertising. And most designers, listening to the bean counters, have played it so safe with their fall collections that they run the risk of choking. Fashion is in a fractured state.

Still, few designers are willing to admit that the expectations of fashion are changing, or to honestly question the future for luxury goods if the appetite — largely invented over the last decade with calculated marketing more than innovative design — no longer exists. Alexander McQueen’s exceptional collection shown here on Tuesday night, the most ambitious we have seen this season, was as much a slap in the face to his industry, then, as it was brave statement about the absurdity of the race to build empires in fashion.

With a runway of broken mirrors surrounding a garbage heap made of props from his own past collections, Mr. McQueen created a stage to symbolize the sudden crash of luxury exuberance. The clothes he sent out were a parody of couture designs of the last century, spoofing Dior’s New Look and Givenchy’s little black Audrey Hepburn dresses, as well as their reinventions by new designers at those companies in the last decade — himself included. It was a bit of a Marie Antoinette riot, poking fun at all the queens of French fashion.

“This whole situation is such a cliché,” Mr. McQueen said before his show. “The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem. There is no longevity.”

Mr. McQueen, in effect, was calling fashion’s bluff when he opened his collection with a suit in a 1940s silhouette, with a nipped waist and flared skirt in houndstooth wool, worn by a model who walked with her hands on her hips and posed with the exaggerated gestures of an Irving Penn photograph. That was followed by a houndstooth print on a mink coat in a Poiret shape and wool jackets that were defaced with embroidery that looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.

All the models wore hats by the milliner Philip Treacy that were made of trash-can liners and aluminum cans, or recycled household objects; the makeup, inspired by the mad look of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” gave the models the appearance of plastic faces that were all lips. The music, as well, was a mash-up of songs from his prior shows, with bits of “Vogue” and Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.”

This was, Mr. McQueen said, an ironic exploration of a designer’s reinvention. The irony is that designers say that fashion is constantly being reinvented, yet they continue to show the same shapes and trends of decades past. (Ergo, this season the collections have been fixated on the 1980s.)

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PUSHING BUTTONS A duck feather jacket and a hat that sprouts coral.

After the triumphs of his recent collections, this was a risky show, entirely uncommercial and intentionally provocative, and it generated extreme reactions. Dennis Freedman, the creative director of W, was visibly ecstatic watching the show; but another magazine editor, afterward, compared the trash-bin styling to “a collection inspired by Wall-E.” And some questioned whether Mr. McQueen, by including such obvious references to trash, was targeting John Galliano’s version of Dior, which, in January 2000, included a couture collection inspired by hobos and that led to protesters wearing plastic garbage bags outside the Dior ateliers on Avenue Montaigne.

Throughout his career, Mr. McQueen has relished pushing people’s buttons, though maybe less obviously since moving his shows from London, where he had developed the reputation as the enfant terrible, to Paris in 2001 after he sold his company to the Gucci Group. Mr. McQueen turns 40 next week, so he is no longer an enfant, though his work remains challenging and confrontational, especially this season, when it seems like the right moment for a deeper exploration.

While he is mocking the establishment for running circles over fashion history, isn’t Mr. McQueen as guilty as the rest?

From 1997 to 2001, he was the designer for Givenchy, one of the luxury brands owned by LVMH, and his tenure there was frequently marked by conflicts with management and mostly negative critical reviews. Before he showed his first collection, succeeding Mr. Galliano, who had moved to Dior, Mr. McQueen offended many French journalists by declaring that the original work of Hubert de Givenchy was “irrelevant.” Amy M. Spindler, the New York Times fashion critic, wrote of Mr. McQueen’s couture debut in 1997: “This was basically a pretty hostile collection from a gifted designer who seems in conflict about his role in the Givenchy studio. How members of the audience responded to the show depended on whether they were fascinated by that hostility and vulgarity or repelled by it.” The same could be said today.

During his early days in London, Mr. McQueen’s collections were sometimes described as misogynistic. The shows made audiences uncomfortable, and equally fascinated, most controversially in 1995 when he referenced the ravaging of Scotland by England by showing brutalized women in a collection called “Highland Rape.” He later transformed models into animals with horns on their shoulders or wearing leather masks like falcons; and in a 2000 collection, he showed models in a setting that looked like a mental hospital. The historian Caroline Evans, in “Fashion at the Edge,” noted that McQueen’s aesthetic of cruelty was actually culled from historic sources, “the work of 16th- and 17th-century anatomists, in particular that of Andreas Vesalius, the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin from the 1980s and ’90s, and the films of Pasolini, Kubrick, Buñuel and Hitchcock.”

So much informs Mr. McQueen’s collections that things get lost or obscured. In addition to Dior and Givenchy and Pollock, the new fall collection, titled “The Horn of Plenty,” included leather coats and poof dresses with a pattern inspired by Bauhaus and clowns, a magpie print inspired by the drawings of M. C. Escher, and dresses made of duck feathers after Matthew Bourne’s production of “Swan Lake.” The invitation showed an image of a woman with a trash bag on her head by Hendrik Kerstens, photographed in the manner of Dutch portrait artists, which was the starting point for Mr. McQueen’s exploration into recycling. (The image was recreated in a hat by Mr. Treacy.)

Some of the fabrics were made to look like refuse, including a wet-looking black paper nylon that resulted in dresses that resembled Mr. Givenchy’s chic styles, only made of Hefty bags. A charcoal silk cape looked as if it was made of bubble wrap.

“I’ve never been this hard since I’ve been in London,” Mr. McQueen said. “I think it’s dangerous to play it safe because you will just get lost in the midst of cashmere twin sets. People don’t want to see clothes. They want to see something that fuels the imagination.”

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It’s an interesting issue that Mr. McQueen raises by challenging the status quo. While he did not exactly propose an obvious solution for the times, he at least suggested a viable alternative to the never-ending recycling of other designers’ fashion, which was to recycle his own.


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Alexander McQueen: Creative to the extreme


From the artistically arranged mountain of trash to the full-on red lips of the models, Alexander McQueen‘s spectacular was a shivering fashion moment especially in these restrained times.

With the bravado of a master director, the designer sent out everything bolder than life giant houndstooth checks, lampshade hats, hair upswept with giant curls rolled over metal drink cans and disturbing dresses made out of black crow or white swan feathers. Naturally (for this designer) the models were tortured into dresses that hobbled their feet, making each runway step treacherous and giving a discomforting misogynist feel to the show.

The effect was as if all McQueen’s fantastical visions from his 15 years in fashion were on the runway, enlarged by a computer click. There were also all his defining silhouettes, especially the lean, precise tailoring but refreshed with new fabrics giving effects like glossy bubble wrap.

Just the knitting once such a grandma fashion category oozed with imagination, as wooly serpent coils wound around the neck.

McQueen called this autumn 2009 collection “an ironic and illusory exploration of the concept of re-invention.” He was, indeed, looking back at his own and fashion’s past, citing the elegance of Audrey Hepburn (with a reference to his stint as designer at Givenchy) and Dior’s houndstooth checks. There were so many of those checks even mixed with McQueen’s favorite bird prints that you could not helping wondering whether this show, with its overt references to Dior’s New Look, was also a riposte to his fellow British designer John Galliano, who has forsworn high drama on the runway.

As an exercise in creative imagination, the collection was extraordinary — even if it showed only McQueen’s aggressive energy, rather than his gentler, romantic side. The invitation itself spelled out the message: An apparent Dutch Old Master in which the sweet-faced woman in a white wimple turned out to be wearing plastic bag. That effect was in the show, where an elegantly ruched dress, in papery nylon, looked like it was fashioned from a garbage sack.

Was this the moment for McQueen to give full vent to his tortured imagination? Such clothes are not a buyer’s delight although you could pick out a slender suit here and a graceful dress there. The designer, at 39, is young to look back at his own oeuvre. And there was something unsavory about the porn star lips and the general attitude toward women. But it was emotional to see McQueen push himself to the furthest reaches of creativity, as though it was wild, last stand. Let them go to the showroom to see the rest!


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Woman in the iron mask and Cruella de catwalk star in Alexander McQueen’s surrealist Paris show

It was a defining moment – or rather, a series of defining moments.

Alexander McQueen’s triumphant Paris show served up a selection of his greatest hits, looking back into his own archive and casting a fresh light on past glories.

What glories they were, serving as a timely reminder of just how influential a designer he is.

A model wears a creation by British designer Alexander McQueen

Iron woman: A bejewelled chainmail mask covered the face and body of a model  set the tone for a surrealist Alexander McQueen collection in Paris which was greeted with whistles and cheers by the appreciative audience

So many of McQueen’s staple looks – thigh boots, corset dresses, bondage straps, goat hair coats – have seeped into the collections of others, albeit in a watered-down way, that it was wonderful to see their originator reclaim them as his own again.

A tall pyre of crushed car parts, wrecked chairs and tin cans served as a centrepoint to the show, round which the models walked in stacked heels that were the highest seen in Paris so far. That’s saying something.

Armed to the houndstooth: A sculptural suit teamed with a Philip Treacy feather hat formed part of a sequence of masterful creations

A series of sculptural suits in black and white houndstooth check opened the show, some with kimono sleeves and others with a high ruffle at the neck.

At times, tops and bottoms were reversed, with trousers reworked into jackets and dresses into coats, so that the clothes looked skewed or deliberately off-kilter.

Hats made of ‘found’ items including old umbrellas, lampshades and wheels added a surrealist note to the collection

The hats, masterfully constructed by Philip Treacy, added to the surrealist feel, made as they seemed to be out of “found” objects such as a lampshade, a bin lid or an old umbrella.

In such a magpie-like collection, it was no surprise to find a magpie print: a literal rendering of the theme, for those still in the dark about McQueen’s intentions.

A model wears a creation by British designer Alexander McQueen

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Eveningwear was spectacular, with vivid reds and dramatic prints, while the models walked on the highest heels seen in Paris so far.

In heavy satin jacquard, it adorned a floor-length fishtail gown, in colours reminiscent of an Escher print.

All the prints were remarkable, from a vibrant white and orange harlequin to the garish clown faces appliqued onto a leather frock coat.

But it was the eveningwear – if you can call it that – that most deftly illustrated the vaunting imagination of McQueen.

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A gown made entirely of swan feathers was so curvaceous it looked hewn from marble, while elsewhere harlequin prints contrasted with houndstooth.

Given a gown made entirely of swan feathers, its shape so curvaceous that it looked hewn from marble, would your first instinct be to wear it, or archive it in a museum? One strapless gown, crafted entirely from tiny hen feathers dip-dyed red and worn with a metal body harness underneath, was remarkable in its intricacy.

In a season so bereft of surprises, the whistles and cheers that rained down on the designer as he took his bows proved just how sorely this level of creativity has been missed.

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In such a magpie-like collection, it was no surprise to find a magpie print dress, while right, a hat made from what appears to be a lampshade topped one outfit.


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