For Christmas 2015, I received one (very heavy) present. This was the hardback book that accompanied the V&A’s landmark Savage Beauty exhibition on the late Alexander McQueen. Christmas day and almost every subsequent evening was spent reading the tome from cover to cover, transporting me to a different place. To me and many others, McQueen’s shows are not just creative masterpieces – they are escapism at its finest.
McQueen taught me that dark moments of anxiety and self-harm were not something to be ashamed of, but something that could be unleashed through a powerful creative medium. When most fashion shows were aiming for unattainable beauty, McQueen was transforming his women into fearsome animals (It’s A Jungle Out There, 1997), patients in a mental asylum (Voss, 2001) and ethereal sea creatures (Plato’s Atlantis, 2010). Rather than being ashamed of the darkness and anger within him, he laid his raw emotions down for the world to see. Bravery is not a word we normally associate with the world of fashion, but it is inextricably tied to Alexander McQueen.
As it currently stands, the fashion industry is a frenzied, exhausting and endless hamster wheel spinning out of control. S/S and A/W are no longer enough, with designers having to work on diffusion lines, perfumes, makeup, resort, and separate men and women’s collections. Each collection must top the last, with a demand for fashion that is more creative, more wearable, more exciting. However, whatever designers do is seemingly never enough. They are ballet dancers performing endless pirouettes, spinning and spinning and spinning and until they collapse. Within such a vicious cycle, it becomes clearer why designers see suicide as their only route of escape. McQueen was not the first to take his own life, and certainly not the last. The death of Kate Spade in 2018 demonstrated that the industry learnt nothing and continues to push designers to the point of no return.
McQueen’s collections reflect how he saw beauty everywhere he looked, from a beach covered in razor clams to the falcons he was so fond of. Yet even he could not find beauty in fashion’s unsustainable excess. His 2009 collection Horn of Plenty was as irreverent as it was avant-garde, with models strutting around a black spray-painted pile of rubbish. McQueen took the rubbish and the waste the fashion industry tries so frantically to ignore, and forced them to (quite literally) look it dead in the eye. With Extinction Rebellion and environmental movements only gaining major momentum now, McQueen was desperately ahead of his time.
Since his death, McQueen’s legacy has been continued by the exceptional Sarabande Foundation set up in his name. The foundation funds young artists of all crafts, forming a creative community. It provides hope that the next generation of artists will be supported, rather than worked until they can take no more.