London Fashion Week was paused this past Monday for the ringing of somber bells. St. Paul’s Cathedral filled with designers, actresses, family and friends gathered for the funeral of Alexander McQueen, the renegade genius designer who committed suicide before his fashion show last February at the age of forty. McQueen was known for a certain macabre attitude toward life and dress. He found the gruesome glorious and found beauty in the shudders and ashes of life.
Although he was revered in the fashion world on the basis of his precise tailoring and perfection of fit, like all great artists he twisted the traditional and even tortured it. Grand theatrics were a consistent theme of his fashion shows, which have variously featured huge living trees, live wolves, holograms and automobile spray-paint machines — not to mention the premier of the Lady Gaga song, “Bad Romance,” which crashed the website where the show streamed live.
Through these eccentric stagings, McQueen always presented a clear message in his shows. From the fleeting nature of celebrity to the promise of soft escape from a painful world, he usually expressed that intersection of life and death known as the bittersweet. McQueen walked fields of landmines and wasn’t afraid to set them off with his walking stick. He usually managed to step away in time.
A fond theme of McQueen was Victorian Gothic, a tale told in raven feathers, lace and binding corsetry. He drew upon the original mourning dress, which became trendy in England after Queen Victoria’s beloved husband King Albert died, and she wore only black for the rest of her life. Ironically, mourning dress became an elaborate ritual with layers of skirts and veils and jewelry made of human hair — all properly coordinated, of course. What was intended to be ascetic became blatantly aesthetic. Humans can try to be somber and silent, but expression is inevitable, and in expression we find joy. This complex darkness resonated with McQueen and, in turn, reverberated throughout the fashion world. Designers such as Rick Owens, Rodarte, Gareth Pugh and Riccardo Tischi are doubtlessly in dialogue with McQueen’s extreme vision.
Tischi, for one, based his recent couture collection for Givenchy on another artist known for her kinship with pain, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. He cited Kahlo’s obsession with human anatomy, stemming from her spinal disease, as his point of inspiration. Kahlo’s life was a documented struggle between the pulls of extreme love and despair. She once noted, “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling.”
In this manner, Tischi exalts both the dark and the bright. In the show, he references anatomy literally in a spinal column belt made of ceramic vertebrae and clustered crystals formed into bones on the back of a jacket. Between the sparkling scapula bones of the jacket lay a tiny ceramic skull with wings. Tischi extended this anatomical theme by looking at skin as well as bones, manipulating nude lace into skeletal forms. His last conceit was gold, another favorite of McQueen. In gold and feathers the final models are resurrected, not unlike in McQueen’s final show last February.
Turning back to the runways of London a few hours after McQueen’s service was the catwalk show of the celebrated enfant terrible Christopher Kane. Royal inspiration was the mood — not despairing Victoria this time but the demure Princess Margaret, sophistication incarnate. However, Kane’s princess was not sipping tea but rather tripping on acid, and the suits that appeared to be lace were actually laser-cut leather, coated in neon gloss. This plays perfectly into Kane’s penchant for taking something “real,” like a leather skin, and questioning its veracity or value. Last season, he played a similarly queasy trick by creating feminine cocktail dresses and printing them with historical bomb explosions in lovely puffy clouds. In this play of organic and artificial, we are left with fashion itself mocking death by dying quickly and offering the hope of renewal in each new season.
At McQueen’s funeral, American Vogue editor Anna Wintour eulogized the designer, remembering his unpredictable antics and concluding that he was always forgiven. This reminded me of a quotation by poet Jean Cocteau, who wrote, “One must forgive fashion everything because it dies so young.”
Forgiveness is given to the worthy, and McQueen will be forever remembered as such. His legacy and his company, held by luxury conglomerate Gucci Group PPR, will continue. The McQueen spring collection will be shown on Oct. 5 at the end of Paris Fashion Week. As we sit here entering the cold months, we watch the dresses for next spring flounce down the runway. Maybe their exuberance will help us through the winter, through the fear. These new styles and accompanying new ideas will fill us until defrost, sun on skin, eventual resurrection.