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 >