It has now been 10 years since the world lost Alexander McQueen.
His story has been told countless of times: Lee Alexander McQueen, born in London to a homemaker and taxi driver, founded his eponymous fashion house in 1992. For the next 18 years, he would enthral and astound the fashion world with his theatrical runway shows and conceptual creations, unparalleled in their brilliance. And then, just as it seemed like fashion’s greatest storyteller had still more tales to tell, McQueen would abruptly close the book on his own life on 11 February, 2010.
To contemplate McQueen’s legacy is to look back on a world of fashion that no longer exists. The British designer’s unbridled creativity translated into sublime, subversive creations, whose beauty it would be a fool’s errand to put into words — even more so to compare with what you see on the runways today. Another marker of the bygone times when McQueen reigned: his elaborate stage designs were not mere fodder for Instagram, but essential extensions of his haunted, gothic psyche.
And yet, as much of a time capsule McQueen’s collections may be, they were precise prophecies of what fashion would look like today. The focus on the environment, the celebration of diverse body types, the hyper-digitisation of fashion — all these ideas have already been explored in McQueen’s oeuvre.
That innovative vision, more than his skills as a couturier or ability to move people to tears with his designs, is the true mark of McQueen’s genius. Below, we look at the avant-garde master’s most defining runway shows and how they presaged what fashion would become.
No. 13, Spring/Summer 1999
By now, the show’s finale would be imprinted in the minds of every fashion enthusiast: Shalom Harlow, rotating and writhing in shock as two mechanical robots defile her white gown with spray paint. But just as powerful was the show’s opening look, modelled by Paralympics athlete Aimee Mullins. Wearing a pair of prosthetic legs carved from elm wood, Mullins became the first amputee to ever walk a fashion runway. In a time when the term “adaptive fashion” was not yet coined, McQueen made an unprecedented statement that beauty could come in all forms.
Voss, Spring/Summer 2001
McQueen would continue to redefine the idea of beauty with his collection, Voss. The runway show was staged within a mirrored cube, where models like Kate Moss, Coco Rocha and Erin O’Connor played the roles of hysterical asylum patients. While their theatrics and intricately constructed garments were jarring enough to leave a lasting impression on the showgoers seated outside, McQueen gave the show an even more vivid finale. The cubic centrepiece of the runway fell apart to reveal a stout model reclining languorously in the nude, her face obscured by a gas mask. “It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within,” explained McQueen. Today, countless plus-size brands would agree.
The Widows of Culloden, Fall/Winter 2006
Throughout his career, McQueen conjured the grotesque just as well as the poetic. And there is no better way to describe the finale of his show The Widows of Culloden, which McQueen dedicated to his late friend Isabella Blow. Out of the darkness emerged a ghostly Kate Moss, weightlessly twirling around in a ruffled chiffon dress. But it was no trick of the supernatural; McQueen had employed a holographic projection of the supermodel. Her virtual presence, the likes of which had never been seen on the runway before, also hinted at what was to rise in the world of fashion years later: the very real appeal of digital fashion.
NATURAL Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection, Spring/Summer 2009
As fascinated as he was with the future and possibilities of technology, McQueen was also conscious of the deteriorating state of the natural world. He addressed the destructive impact of humanity on the environment at his S/S09 show, which featured taxidermy animal models. The collection juxtaposed the natural and the artificial: fabrics were printed with images of nature, while organic forms were recreated with crushed crystals and metal. McQueen’s show notes, which warned that humanity are “in danger of killing the planet through greed”, read like the manifesto of many fashion brands today that champion sustainable practices.
Plato Atlantis, Spring/Summer 2010
McQueen’s last show was perhaps his most inventive. Here, the designer predicted the ecological destruction of the world — more believable to us now than a decade ago. He imagined a race of humans evolved from the sea that would survive the rising water levels. That explained the now iconic Armadillo boots, the reptile-patterned dresses and the models’ distinctively alien appearances. On the runway, the aforementioned robots returned, invasively monitoring each model in much the same way websites now track our online activity. McQueen also broadcasted his apocalyptic vision to the world via livestream, making him the first designer in the world to do so. It was an act of a visionary, and one that changed fashion forever — something we often forget as we stream yet another runway show on Instagram Live.