By now I imagine you have to be very far removed from not only the fashion world, but also mainstream news outlets and culture in general, to have not heard the tragic news of Lee Alexander McQueen's passing
last Thursday. I have been examining my own feelings and actively absorbing what people have been saying about it--on blogs, in magazines
, and most spectacularly, on Twitter
. The outpouring of grief and shock has been great indeed, but I couldn't bring myself to join in because, to be honest, I found some of these sentiments around it being "so sad," "such a waste," "he was so creative and talented," and simply "r.i.p. alexander," to be neither satisfying nor convincing. And so it has taken me some time to process and share what I think is really behind this terrible sense of loss that we feel.
The death of Alexander McQueen is tragic not because he was, and is, my "favorite designer." That doesn't mean much if you don't appreciate fashion's place in society. But I contend that even for the philistines among us, there's room to mourn creative genius in any form. Many of us are overwhelmed with sadness as we stare at this gaping black maw of a McQ-shaped hole before us, and I posit that the reason we feel robbed is really that we have lost one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
A storyteller, you say? Why yes indeed - I believe Alexander McQueen was a masterful storyteller, right up there with the most skillful film directors, novelists, and painters of the era, before he was ever a designer, or even a tailor (of which he was one of the best). The tales he spun were dark fables and romantic, gothic fairy stories that reached deep into the very underbelly of our cultural consciousness and always left a subtle aftertaste of terror. His stories were the stuff of Bluebeard's castle
, of Jane Eyre's splintered chestnut tree
, of Snow White and Rose Red
's beloved bear, and of Beauty's faithful Beast
. They comprised a very real part of who we are as a society.
The Contemporary Fashion Archive
was one of the few sources I found to accurately describe the full effect of McQueen's work on the fabric of our cultural consciousness: "His 1990s fashion shows became famous for evoking complex narratives and powerful imagery that often seamlessly combined beauty with emotional disturbance, glamour with violence and fragility with aggression."
For his Fall 2008 show, possibly one of his most memorable and magical collections, which Style.com called "a self-imagined fantasy of crinolined princesses and British-colonial romance," McQueen stated, "I've got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden," he told us, "and I made up this story of a girl who lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and become a queen."
And yet, McQueen was always lauded for being forward-thinking, groundbreaking, and evolutionary in his designs. He was doing exciting things in his collections, things most designers would never have the balls to conceive, let alone execute and display. One need only behold the bizarre yet undeniable beauty of the now-infamous 10-inch stiletto "armadillo shoes," from his most recent Spring 2010 collection, so unlike anything we've ever seen anyone put on their feet, to understand that McQueen's ability to explore uncharted territory was unparalleled. And still, the strange new things possess a heartbreaking, breathtaking, extraordinary beauty.
It was his mastery of so many contradictions, including this ability to look ahead at the same time that he reached fervently and reverently into the past, that made McQueen's work so unforgettable
, why these silhouettes seeped deeply into the crevices of our imaginations,
and why they were always managed to unnerve and disturb us at the same time they lit us ablaze with desire
. For in his stories we found not only where we've been and who we were, but new hope for where we might be going next and how those new places might alter us. And in McQueen's hands, we willingly relinquished the fears his designs inspired in us, and trusted his guidance completely on this journey into our own aesthetic future.
And so, while I grieve for Lee McQueen, the man, and the many sadnesses and loneliness he endured as he moved within the shallow and concocted world of fashion, the bigger part of me mourns the passing of a true poet and scholar who had so much left to give the world
. And yes, that part of me feels robbed of the unwritten stories Alexander McQueen might have had to tell me, the loss of which makes me look forward into the empty space with a real and creeping dread.
Explore images and videos of the last 8 years of Alexander McQueen's collections on the official site.
It took me a while to uncover these photos, but I finally found them on the Contemporary Fashion Archive
website. This gallery includes designs from Alexander McQueen's earliest collections
, starting with his innovative graduate collection
(bought in its entirety by the late Isabella Blow
in 1994), to the the infamous "Highland Rape
" show in 1995, into the latter part of the decade. It's fascinating to compare these early works with his later, more mature styles.
The only two celebrity reactions I found remotely interesting,
though they may not be the most appropriate responses to the news:
George Forsyth (Lee's former partner)
: "The truth is, the fashion world is the loneliest place on the face of the planet. It's a shallow world full of party people and party 'friends.'...It's been fashion, fashion, fashion ... but what about him as a person? That's the real loss and the real waste."
“I found his work very interesting and never banal. There was always some attraction to death, his designs were sometimes dehumanised. Who knows, perhaps after flirting with death too often, death attracts you.”
The Best of the Rest: Some favorite picks from McQueen's other shows, like the divine shredded chiffon "oyster dress" from his Spring 2003 collection...
and the exquisite dress he custom-designed for fashion editor/chick-lit "novelist" Plum Sykes:
The Edwardian/Scottish punk aesthetic of his Fall 2006 show:
The abundance of houndstooth during Fall 2009:
And finally, selections from all the other shows:
In memory of Lee Alexander McQueen (1969 - 2010)