The death of Alexander McQueen came as a shock. He was such a force, such a talent, and such an underappreciated wizard of the wearable that it seemed impossible that he was gone, and worse, that he had chosen to go. Didn’t he know how passionately we felt about his work? How much we wanted to wear his next fetid fantasy, his macabre skull scarves and animal-claw amulets? Didn’t he know how distinctive his clothes were? Didn’t he understand the depth of his own ability?
I don’t believe McQueen was a “designer,” per se. I believe he was a talented, tortured artist who chose to work in the medium of clothing. He was a different order of mind from nearly every designer I have ever examined or appreciated.
Photographed March 7, 1997 in London
Wearing McQueen was never easy. You had to get your sass on, and muster your girl-courage to walk into a room, your clothes saying, “Look at my curves. I’m not afraid to show my shape.” His clothes took confidence, even arrogance to pull off. Even at his most ladylike, in the iconic “Birds” collection, where he riffed on Tippi Hendren-in-a-rowboat-in-Bodega-Bay, his pencil skirts hugged your hips, his demure twinsets curved around your breasts like a lowbrow lecher.
He knew how to cut a sleeve, or set a shoulder, having apprenticed on Savile Row at age 16. It is said that he was instructed to cut a suit for Prince Charles; he later told friends that he scrawled obscenities all over the inner batting, and then stitched up the suit with noone the wiser. He was known for his volatile or outrageous or shocking things, but friends said he was fragile, sensitive and easily hurt.
Photographed February 20, 2000 in London
His collections were the embodiment of a vision so complex that they were hard to follow: in his Pirate collection, long before Johnny Depp began to swashbuckle, he began the show with canvas and denim, peplums and knee boots. He imagined the pirates were shipwrecked on an island, and so the clothes were sun-bleached beige and darkest black, tattered and weathered and held together with rope. But then the pirates discovered a flock of wild parrots on the island, and they adapted to the parrots’ coloration, a rainbow of multicolored feathers printed on lightest silk. When you saw it on the clothes, the narrative made sense.
Photographed June 3, 2004 in London
Each collection had a name, and a theme: Highland Rape, a metaphor for the English ravaging his Scottish ancestors, or A Game of Chess, where fairy-tale princesses made their moves on a giant board, or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in which the models reenacted a Depression-era dance marathon arrayed in patchwork, paid, and ballroom chiffon.
I always adored McQueen’s clothes, but I never hoarded them. They were always too expensive for my budget, or often sized too small for my womanly frame. My greatest motivation for a diet was to fit into his largest size, 46, which is really about a size 8. Ironically, his draping and bias cuts often made me look slimmer, taller, sexier than I was. His clothes responded to the body, sometimes covering up and sometimes exaggerating, but always making a point. His shoulderpads gave you Amazonian resolve.
Photographed October 5, 2007 in Paris
The only reason you didn’t buy this season’s McQueen was that next season’s was just around the corner, waiting to fill you with shock, awe, and a burning hole in your credit card. I would pick out my favorites early in the season, and pray for favorite pieces to remain unnoticed as the weeks wore on.
My greatest score was the “Parrot” evening dress that was featured in every magazine. His manufacturing had been so late that the dress arrived in store just in time for last markdown; I snatched it up as it was being rolled on a garment rack onto the sales floor for the first time. Two years later, it appeared in SFMOMA’s “Glamour” show, “from the collection of Jennifer Raiser.” If they had put my name next to a Picasso, I would not have been as proud.
Photographed February 28, 2008
He came to San Francisco once, for 72 hours, nursing a horrible flu that made the 15-hour flight to and from London that more miserable. His friend and colleague Simon Ungless, who directs the fashion program at Academy of Art University, persuaded him to come to receive an honorary degree. He said he wanted to return, to explore Hitchock’s sites for Vertigo and The Birds, and to swim with the sharks off of the Farrallon islands. I only read that he was here after he had left, and felt desperately frustrated that I had missed the chance to glimpse at him.
Photographed October 6, 2009 in Paris
If I knew that we would only have Alexander McQueen for forty years, I would have done what Tatler editor Isabella Blow did: she bought every piece from his graduate collection at Central St. Martins. Then she mentored him for 17 years. And then, facing a diagnosis of cancer, she killed herself. He dedicated his next collection to her, and many said it was his best.
Photographed January 24, 2010 in Milan
In thirty years, when Alexander McQueen should have been pondering succession and retirement, he will be lauded as an unquestionable genius. It will take us that long to catch up with all that he imagined for the past twenty years. We should only be so fortunate to understand what we have been given, and what we have had taken away with the foreshortened life of Alexander McQueen. I can only hope that his spirit is flying through the salt-kissed air with the parrots, who knew so much more than the pirates digging their trenches in the sand.