August 20 2014

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McQueen, The Showman


Eighteen months ago, Sarah Mower sat down with Alexander McQueen to discuss one of the most remarkable aspects of his work: the staging of his shows. Below, in the designer’s own words, is the thinking behind those extraordinarily intense productions, prefaced by Mower’s reflections on their lasting power.

Everyone lucky enough to have been invited to his shows from the beginning of his career—as I was—is eternally indebted to Alexander McQueen for immersing us in experiences that have burned themselves on our memories for life. From his earliest days in London—on virtually no budget except what could be raised in sponsorship—he made the near-impossible happen before our very eyes. Walk in and sit down, and the sights that unfolded would hit your brain in such a visceral way that it knocked the breath out of you, sent adrenaline streaming through your veins and chills shooting up your spine.

Many well-deserved homages will be written to his incredible cutting and the couture-level romanticism of his dresses, and the fact that his “bumsters” forced women into low-rise pants for more than a decade. I admire all that fully. But for me, the truly unique and indelible side of Lee McQueen’s talent is what he did with his shows—transforming production, with the help of music-video producer Sam Gainsbury, from being a boring old formulaic trot up and down a runway into an experience that went beyond fashion into the realms of a theatrical, emotional, psychological assault.

Gainsbury could orchestrate almost anything, no matter how extreme, to McQueen’s demands, which almost always contained something threateningly elemental—fire, water, ice, flying, wild animals. One show had models dancing in a ring of blazing asphalt, like a vision of hell. Another had girls walking through water, some of them clamped into metal box frames with live butterflies fluttering in them. Once, the audience turned up at a pitch-dark warehouse and found he’d installed a winter wonderland, complete with a frosted forest, frozen pond, to watch a troupe of girl skaters perform an oddly spooky routine. After inviting us to the dungeons of the Conciergerie in Paris, he petrified the front row by sending a pair of wolves, straining on leashes, to sniff along our knees.

At the beginning, all this magic, terror, and spectacle took place in some dump of a place in Victoria in London that was used for the overnight parking of municipal garbage trucks; later, in more sophisticated venues around Paris. Always, no matter how annoying and difficult he’d made it to get there, or how late it ran, your pulse rate was raised by the anticipation that something disturbing, beautiful, and utterly unpredictable could be about to suck you into its vortex.

Sometimes it would be elegiac, poetic, and moving: dancers painfully dragging themselves around in a show based on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, or an exquisitely subtle historical rendering of the colonial splendors of Victoria’s empire. And sometimes, it turned out he’d be harnessing technology in shocking and amazing ways: Shalom Harlow being spray-painted by car-factory robots, or later, the image of Kate Moss floating out of a wisp of smoke and dancing before us in thin air.

Yesterday, I was looking at a photo of that show and what struck me is the pure rapture and amazement on the faces of the audience. Every face in every row is wreathed in smiles. It is for that—the serial outbreaks of delight and astonishment in the ephemeral moment—that all of us in fashion should thank Alexander McQueen most. Eighteen months ago, I sat down with him at a shoot in London (in an underground Masonic temple, where he’d had live snakes writhing over a naked model, much as in his current ad campaign) and recorded his memories about the shows, controversies, and unsurpassable fashion highs that made his extraordinary career. As a tribute to McQueen’s genius, I can offer nothing better than his own words.

On why he loved doing shows:
“I like blowing people’s minds. It’s a buzz. Like a fix, for 20 minutes. I like the spontaneity of doing it there and then. We broke the mold by not using the fashion-show-production people. I found Sam Gainsbury, who’d been doing pop video. So it became more cinematic.”

On the real motivation behind his controversial Highland Rape collection, which caused an outrage in 1996:
“At the time, I was finding out so much about my heritage. My mum was researching our family tree and traced the McQueens back to Skye and the Mull of Kintyre. I learned about the Highland clearances—it was genocide. People still feel strongly about it up there.”

On feminist outrage against his work:
“For the first six, seven years, I was always up against people who didn’t understand. People wrote that I was a misogynist and crap like that. How can I be a misogynist growing up with three sisters? That was tedious.”

On why he came up with “bumsters”:
“It was an art thing, to change the way women looked, just by cut, to make a longer torso. But I was taking it to an extreme. The girls looked quite menacing, because there was so much top and so little bottom, because of the length of legs. That was the concept, nothing to do with a ‘builder’s bum.’”

On having Shalom Harlow spray-painted by robots:
“It was my best show, that moment with Shalom! That combination of arts and crafts with technology—that weird unison between man and machine. I remember doing the tests with Katy England before. The insurance was a million pounds that day—a stupid amount! We got the machines from Fiat in Italy, where they’re used for painting cars. And now they’ve ripped it off in a TV commercial, haven’t they? You find a lot of ideas from my shows in adverts now. I find it a compliment.”

On The Overlook, a show on ice:
“Oh, there have been some right old moments! That show, I had Miguel Adrover chucking more and more snow into the wind machine, with me shouting, ‘More snow, more, more! I want it to be like a snow-shaker!’”

On a New York show on Pier 49, held the night a hurricane hit:
“God, I had such a nightmare. All the New Yorkers had been told to stay home. I was on the phone to Mayor Giuliani’s secretaries, in one of my tantrum rages, because he was going to cancel the show for me. I said, ‘Well, you give me the half a million, and I’ll cancel it. But I’m not wasting any of my money—the show’s going on no matter what!’ And that was aside from the technical difficulties. I’d done the walking-on-water thing before in London, so this time I wanted it to be oil, some sort of crude oil. Amie, my PR, phoned up and asked her dad, who works for BP, and he said, ‘What? You’ll kill everyone, it’s so toxic!’ So we thought we’d use some sort of glue. But they wouldn’t give us clearance, because: Where were we going to dump it after? You can’t dump it in the Hudson. So it had to be black water with dye in. Poor Sam Gainsbury!”

The truth about the Conciergerie wolves:
“It was kind of Tim Burton, about little girls, a macabre Walt Disney kind of thing. And I had Little Lilac Riding Hood, with the wolves, but the wolves were her pets! Were they wolves? Ha! Mixed breed, I think. Half wolf, half mongrel.”
See video of the show >

On the Asylum collection, where he forced the audience to sit and confront its reflection in a mirrored box for an hour before the show:
“Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.”

On the chessboard runway he created for his Picnic at Hanging Rock show:
“The concept was kind of Edwardian girls lost somewhere. It came about through Harry Potter, when he was doing a chess game in the film, and I thought we’d reinvent the chess game and distinguish the chess sets by changing the nationality of each row. The Japanese and the Americans faced each other. We had to get the girls off the runway, so what did we do? Have a chess match, with a robotic voice dictating the moves.”
See pictures and video from the show >

On the psychology behind his work:
“There is something sinister, something quite biographical about what I do—but that part is for me. It’s my personal business. I think there is a lot of romance, melancholy. There’s a sadness to it, but there’s romance in sadness. I suppose I am a very melancholy person.”

On going to Buckingham Palace to receive his Commander of the British Empire award from the Queen, accompanied by his mother, Joyce:
“Why they gave me that, I don’t understand—because I wrote, ‘I am a c–t,’ on the queen’s son’s jacket! I was dressed up like a right old banana in a kilt. I had this bloody hat with a feather in it, a big old bonnet, with a hangover. I’d been up at Annabel’s and Claridge’s all night; I was right frazzled. And my mum had me turning up in a Bentley—a right old ‘nana! Thanks, Queenie! It was a funny day, but worth it. My mum loved it.”

See our archive of Alexander McQueen’s collections >

Photo: Ken Towner / Evening Standard / Rex / Rex USA



  1. Arro says:

    he will always be the best, what happened in fashion world, for me…

  2. elm_tree says:

    I hope that during the life he lived, Alexander McQueen knew the impact of his beautiful work… That on the other side of the world an Australian girl would pour over images of his clothing and await each new season, moved by the art and beauty of his designs. I am sad for the fashion and design worlds that we will no longer witness his imagination and vision x

  3. tizzylish says:

    Thanks for the great and insightful interview. He was truly a character that McQueen. It is sad to think that he must of been suffering so silently…

  4. Sukhpreet says:

    Thank you for this articulate and heartfelt article and interview, Ms. Mower. I’m sure that reading pieces like this is helping many of us come to terms with the loss of McQueen’s genius. I’ve linked to it in my post on McQueen’s death:

  5. Sukhpreet says:

    Thank you for this articulate and heartfelt article, Ms. Mower. Reading pieces like this one is surely helping many of us come to terms with the loss of McQueen and his genius. I’ve linked to your article in my post on McQueen’s death: Thanks again.

  6. kathelynelippens says:

    Imagination is the eye of the soul

  7. adduy says:

    hhhhhhmmm, i’ll always remember, about his style, his creation and of course..his dedication..
    good bye mc queen..god bless your life ahead..

  8. flashgordo says:

    best words written about Lee. Brava Sarah :-)

  9. MlleChignon says:

    Not only a loss to the world of fashion but to creativity in all it’s rich incarnations, Lee McQueen was so much more than just a Fashion Designer, he was a Master Weaver of daring Dark Dreams, the spinner of Fairy Tales. Doing away with boundaries & beyond, inspiring all who came into contact with him & his work no matter how brief or fleeting, to allow themselves to reach greater plateaus of innovation & dare to make their impossible dreams a reality.

    The gaping hole left behind seems just too great to fill.

    For those of us left behind, we should consider ourselves inordinately privileged to have borne witness to such a beautiful raging, promiscuous talent & beyond lucky in the fact that Inspiration doesn’t have a Sell-By date.

    For that I am eternally grateful.

    Long Live McQueen!! Long Live McQueen!!

  10. Diorable_wondaboy says:

    Thank you for this Sarah. It was very beautiful. You managed to get thee answers that give a better understanding of his brilliant mind to those who knew not the genius that this man possessed.

    How wonderful for you to have spent such a definitive time with him. Thank you for sharing such great experiences and memorable moments. It was so inspiring and refreshing. I’m just so so very sad. We all are.. Rest in Peace McQueen!

  11. jA_1 says:

    way cool. Lovely tribute.

  12. Lighthouse says:

    Your last review of McQueen’s show wasn’t so flattering, Sarah, despite its genius and sheer beauty. I think that you, the fashion journalists should think twice before lashing out with criticism, because you’re one of the reasons people, who work in fashion go crazy. You’re part of this infernal machine and McQueen wanted to get out of it, in my humble opinion.

  13. swimdannym says:

    wow what a tragic loss.

  14. accessfashion says:

    I can not believe he had the audience sit and stare at themselves in a mirror for that long, intentionally. Who would do that and enjoy it. I’m glad he did. McQueen is one of my all time favorite designers.

  15. jewell14 says:

    that man was a genius! he gave beauty a new meaning… i remember the first time i saw his collection, i didn’t understand it at first but, as the time goes by Ive appreciated all his work, ive always fantasize on meeting him someday, too bad it will never happen, kudos on you mcQueen!

  16. daneuyeno says:

    Thank you Sarah Mower, for this lovely piece. I just as sure as many others, are trying to make sense of his loss, knowing there is NO ONE, who could do what McQueen could do.
    My first show of his that I “saw” was Autumn/Winter 2007, with the gigantic pentagram etched in sand. That image of the models walking up and down trying not to bang into each other was just bliss to see. fantastically executed.
    This show allowed to see fashion more than just models, fashion is an all encompassing flow of consciousness that should be highly respected and appreciated.
    That was also the first time I truly experienced the internet, since not having a one at all throughout high school.
    Thank you Lee

  17. Stigl1 says:

    McQueen embraced what is bittersweet in life, which is pretty much everything real. One of the great designers of my generation.

  18. NotMod says:

    If only that wasn’t there. One more for that Jalous God!

  19. Marco212 says:

    Lovely article, all fine, i was also a huge fun of lee’s work.
    BUT, most people do not realize that such talents like him also exist but never had the opportunity nor sponsorship to follow and create. lee was a great showman, there is not doubt but there were other designers who are fantastically talented and are also great showmen but never had financial backing to demonstrate this. when i was at college i have written thesis on work of arkadius in the early 2000 and funnily enough, sarah mower compared him to alexander mcqueen in one of her reviews of his show. i personally think if he were ever given opportunity and support in the way lee had, i am sure he would do very well too. sadly he didn’t and vanished after few brilliant seasons.

  20. Danielles3 says:

    I really enjoyed this article about McQueen. Another opinion of Mcqueen’s work that I really enjoyed was the host of

  21. aadit says:

    Thank you for this article and insightful interview. McQueen is one of my all time favorite Fashion Stylist.

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