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Cult of Controversy

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

How Alexander McQueen made controversy his brand

A few nights ago, I rewatched one of my favorite documentaries for the third time: McQueen (2018). The documentary's subject is the late, unequivocally genius British fashion designer, Lee Alexander McQueen, known professionally as Alexander McQueen. It charts McQueen's unlikely journey to the world of high fashion, from his time as a tailor on Savile Row in his teens to creative director of his own iconoclastic brand.

A model walks in the Highland Rape show. Credit: Vogue

McQueen is, hands down, my all-time favorite designer. His vision goes beyond just clothing. First and foremost, he is an artist, expressing and exploring his deepest emotions through fashion. His designs, however, were extremely controversial. His first show, his finishing project at Central Saint Martins, titled Highland Rape (A/W 1995) was the product of countless hours of research into his Jacobian Scottish lineage, and his childhood, in which he witnessed his sister fall victim to the abuse of her husband.

A model walks in Highland Rape. Credit: CR Fashion Book

The collection itself was masterful. McQueen's incomparable tailoring, for which he became so famous, was on full display. Dresses were slashed, suits projecting the extremes of the human physique, and waistlines on pants dropped so low you could see models' pubic hair. In fact, most of the looks exposed the models in one way or another. McQueen even went so far as to have the models stumbled down the runway, distraught or in tears, a theatrical element for which his shows would soon become famous.

As an upstart brand of the 90's, McQueen marched to the tune of his own drummer. Unlike at heritage houses like Dior, Balenciaga, and Lanvin, as creative director of his own brand, McQueen had free reign to exercise his creative genius, unbeholden to the design history of a certain house or the desires of its clientele. As a result, McQueen was able to build a controversial label that not only survived, but thrived.

A model in It's a Jungle Out There. Credit: Pinterest

During his time at Givenchy, McQueen was forced into the dreaded mold of the French maisons. Though this frustrated him creatively, it gave him the opportunity to explore softer, more feminine silhouettes and delicate details, allowing him to show his incredibly versatility as both an artist and designer.

At the same time, McQueen's collections at his own label became darker and wilder than ever before, seemingly a direct backlash against the creative confines he felt at Givenchy. Of the many collections the documentary highlighted from this period, my favorites are Voss (S/S 2001) and It's a Jungle Out There (S/S 1997). It's a Jungle Out There was beyond avant-garde; it was insane. McQueen attached gazelle antlers to the shoulders of suit jackets and tufts of animal hide to dresses. Voss, however, was considerably darker. It began to show McQueen's demons, blending the chic with the eerie and surreal to mimic an asylum.

A model in Voss. Credit: Pinterest

McQueen's infamous Horn of Plenty, one of his final shows and arguably his darkest yet, divulged his demons. Many of the models walked the runway in dresses made of trash bags, with fascinators made of cans. The focal point of the runway was a large pile of garbage, spray painted black, seemingly a commentary on the wastefulness of the fashion industry.

Alexander McQueen is undoubtedly one of the greatest fashion designers of all time. Though he was troubled, his ability to tap into his emotions and create without a care for public opinion are what made him so revered. While many designers cower to their critics, McQueen ignored them, continuing to create emotional, theatrical, fantastical collections, the likes of which the fashion world had never before seen. Ultimately, Alexander McQueen reveled in the controversy, making it his brand rather than shying away from it. To this day, the McQueen house is known for its avant-garde designs; however, no one has yet rivaled the incomparable genius of Alexander McQueen, nor have any other collections elicited such a contentious response as those of the late designer.

McQueen's Horn of Plenty Show. Credit: PBS

As McQueen himself said, "I don't want you to go to a show and feel like you just had Sunday lunch. I want you to feel repulsed or exhilarated."

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