My McQueen: Rob Phillips on the Alexander McQueen Artistry and Legacy

To celebrate the opening of Savage Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum, After Nyne have released the second half of their Savage Beauty feature from Issue 6’s The New Normal. Rob Phillips, Creative Director of London College of Fashion talks about Alexander McQueen, his cultural relevance, and his legacy with a tribute of six sketches created through memory of McQueen.

“I’m not a fan of McQueen’s clothes. Never have been and never will be. When I really look at them, especially in today’s context, I find them somewhat derivative. There are many other designers who I feel are far more significant in terms of the product they design. But McQueen to me was never about that. I always felt the term ‘fashion’ was wasted on McQueen, he was far more than clothes and way bigger than fashion.

Back in 1995 the fashion scene seemed to have yet again, reached a plateau, much like today in my opinion. Everything was very similar, very constructed, polished and finished as clothes are, where trend and commerce meet. Everything was glossy, airbrushed and constantly perpetuating a perfect image, whatever that is.  Even the tail ends of grunge had been fashionably gloss coated. Yes there was the odd designer who challenged these norms but they were either too small to be written about or to quiet to get noticed. Of course there are many ‘in the know’ fashion connoisseurs who did recognise other happenings in fashion but lets think mainstream and in this instance I’ll talk from a very personal perspective; think working class boy, no money, growing up in the urban / suburban midlands, pre mass internet.  I had access to a littering of glossy magazines and the odd art book in the local library, but nothing deeper than that. You only found out about designers when they hit the front pages of my Dad’s Daily Mirror or appeared in editorials of Vogue or Marie Claire, which I would save pocket money to buy. I think we got cable in about ‘98 and that was dominated by rubbish and very little fashion. Beyond this it was hard to find and see fashion in my situation. It’s only when something big happened that you would know about it.

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Society had / has constructed quite a specific image of beauty, clean skin, silky full hair, lean figure etc. Through the ages this image has changed but since the 80’s it seems to have simmered on a simile. This type of beauty has never really appealed to me and neither did it surround me. I have no shame or issue with saying that in my younger years I very much struggled with the way I looked yet at the same time I had absolutely no relationship with or desire to be like images coming from the media. The idea of being like everyone else was just too much for an introverted, poetic romantic teenager like me.  Not only on an image level but also an emotional and intellectual one. What I was seeing in mainstream fashion, TV and the media in general ‘spoke nothing to me about my life’ (thank you The Smiths). I neither wanted to be like the images I saw nor did I find them attractive or sexually appealing, but somehow I felt a certain pressure to conform. Conform I did and it got me nowhere apart from being very miserable, overwhelmed and feeling kind of second class. Cash is just cash, you cant take it to the grave and the idea of insane luxury living where you do nothing but shop and concentrate on your looks I find vacuous and chillingly dull.

Enter McQueen.

I’m going to jump past his initial collections to the ones that made the news at the time I discovered his work.

Fashion Rape! Highland Rape! Did I just read that in my Dad’s newspaper? A sprawling shock tactic headline next to what looked like a alien in a ravaged lace dress was my introduction to Alexander McQueen and I was instantly addicted.

What the papers described as vile, ridiculous and misogynistic, I saw as an anarchic, anti-establishment, anti-fashion, hyperreal and hyper powerful image. I didn’t see woman as object but woman somehow freed from the shackles of trend by being given a different choice from the current status quo, and having choice is imperative. I also saw a much needed different perspective, not rinsed of all its meaning and passionate sentiment, but instead an open nerve of a generation and society that was bored with fashions banality.  From that moment I followed McQueen religiously.

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McQueen’s early presentations were full on spectacles of clever and unique juxtaposition. Without giving you a McQueen history lesson, as you already know it, I will just touch on some poignant moments that really stood out to me.

The SS-RTW-1997 ‘La Poupee’ show referenced, in a trippy way, sci-fi, parts of the orient, punk, nature (insects) and contortion, set in some sort of biblical, walk on water production that McQueen went onto use again. The AW-RTW-1997 ‘Its a Jungle Out There’ collection was a mix of tailored Gestapo like tribes, more religious iconography, bits of animals, namely horns and pelts, bleach and Mad Max. It was like watching a lion being ripped apart by its prey, the Gazelle, with onlookers cheering for more. I loved watching this show just to see people drinking and smoking publicly in the front row and sitting on the floor in puddles of booze! The whole affair was totally different from what the fashion scene was and is about.

In ‘98 I felt McQueen had really arrived.  With a graphically, still taboo, title ‘The Golden Shower’, the SS-RTW-1998 collection appeared almost sacrificial. White gowns on crying models bathed in yellow light and soaked through from the rain above, teetering on a catwalk that was pumped with black ink to the sound of the Jaws attack tune was a heady medley of sinister references.  Then ‘Joan’ AW-RTW-1998 was like watching hells medieval, Scottish eunuchs in some witchcraft summoning of a higher being, with a Carrie like finale displaying fury in a ring of fire.

You can’t not Mention McQueen’s SS-RTW-1997 Collection ‘No13’ where Aimee Mullins walked on specially crafted / carved legs and Shalom Harlow was balletically graffitied by two robots. Was this about new and old Arts and Craft, or more importantly about overcoming something or being overcome by something?

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‘VOSS’ SS-RTW-2001 was a venture into the darkest and lightest recesses of our mind. An elaborate and exaggerated expression of humour and fear that together feel what you imagine madness may feel like. Through a two-way mirror we are made to look at ourselves and then at others. Is it the fear of ourselves that makes us laugh at others? Maybe this was a challenge to our socially constructed norms of acceptable identity and characters alike.

In all the McQueen shows I saw pain, tension and anxiety, maybe that’s just because I work from those feelings, but even looking back at his work now, you can clearly see these are not happy, frivolous affairs. It’s the powerful feelings and emotions that you see in his shows that set him apart from others and why he’s been so successful and what’s helped sell the clothes. McQueen’s spirit was not sanitised or polished. It was gut wrenchingly sickened, fervent, formidable and all consuming.

I was surprised and thankful, though bias, to discover McQueen’s roots obviously played a large part in why and what he created, I’m sure they do with everyone, but I could partly relate to his story.  What’s interesting is when you look at the image of fashion and a lot of the media around it, it’s easy to presume that unless you’re a certain type you will not fit in and McQueen definitely doesn’t fit the fashion stereotype. Don’t believe the hype so to speak, and avoid looking at the front row or socialite columns, because behind this façade there is a plethora of deeply wonderful, empathetic and talented characters.

McQueen’s background obviously had bearing on his attitude to Saville Row and the fashion system. On one side he fits the hard endless graft mentality of the job and has something to say and offer fashion in a very fashion like way through the shows, but on the other hand he was so very different. Each shows immediacy was more than the clothes and styling, but had a deeper, raw energy, that no other designer seemed to have at the time except for Boudicca. McQueen appeared separate from the world he was operating in yet at the same time pandered to its needs and wants. Obscure. The shows personified this and at times it looked like he was sticking the middle finger up to the system. A rebel? Not sure, a man with a dirty sense of humour, some issues and something to say? For sure!

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To me McQueen’s skill for fashion design was insignificant when I think about the bigger picture and impact he has had on fashion and society. Here is a man who was seemingly working of his cuff and following his desire with the help of an amazing team to magnify his vision to a fashion and a mainstream audience. No silver spoon, no major backing, just McQueen, his team and tons of tons of heart. While all others around him seemingly played by fashions rules, typecasts and expectations. McQueen infiltrated the system, played to its timings but the rest was a stage for whatever he wanted to show and this changed things forever.

A whole generation where empowered by McQueen. People, designers realised that regardless of who you are, with the help of like minded creatives all collaborating together you can have a voice and be a part of whatever you want, in this instance, fashion.  Lots of designers where putting on big theatrical shows, McQueen followed suit but with harder, macabre connotations and emotive significance. Regardless of who was promoting him, his work still went the distance because of its uniqueness.

McQueen was visually talking about people in a more visceral way and exploring parts of the mind that no one else was communicating; highly, aggressively sexual, twisted, perverted, poisoned angry, violent and nihilistic. Showing not an image of perfection but instead more animalistic, cannibalistic, satanic, scientific and fearless and somehow through all this destruction of image norms, he created a forbidding, very constructed figure with a real edge of heart breaking romance. I’d never seen this in fashion, even now being older and not so much wiser; I’d struggle to pull out the pages of any history book someone like McQueen. Yes the clothes played a huge part in his importance, and in my head when I reflect on McQueen’s clothes I think the obvious signature sharp tailoring, waist definition, pointed shoulders, bumsters, all archetypal McQueen but at the end of the day these are just clothes. It was the whole picture, the meaning behind it, the punch his work packed, is where he came into his own. To me McQueen is more akin to an artist; he lay out and played out his soul through fashion.

In my first year second term of university I was asked if I could go and do an internship at McQueen whilst studying, because they wanted someone who could draw and sew. I felt this was way to challenging but could not resist the opportunity so I went for interview and I was working there the next day. There’s very little I can legally say about my time at McQueen because of confidentiality agreements and my respect for internal privacy. However on my first day I was like some ridiculous quivering wreck of a McQueen fan, totally in awe that I was in the studios where so many amazing things had been created. It was pretty magical to be in those studios. From day one, I was busy right through my time there. I used every skill I had and learnt even more. It was an intense high stress environment, long hours and hellish amounts of work, but to be in a place where there was so much creativity, energy and love for McQueen, it was a privilege.

It was a strangely well-orchestrated yet at times free style operation. There was a story being told and every now and again McQueen would throw in a different line or a cliff-hanger, a bit like a film where you simply don’t see something coming. At the time we were working on ‘What a Merry-Go-Round’. The studios walls were full of images that ranged from war uniforms, Edwardian and Victorian funeral wear, the history of clowns and more. We all worked round the clock creating a variety of things, some random, some used, some not. The process was about building and editing. Experiments could take days and end up in the bin in seconds. As line-ups were being produced and fittings took place the story became more finalised. But the collection was not over until it went on the catwalk. Things would still be being made last minute backstage.

I did a bit of everything while I was there, ran around London doing chores, I drew, designed, sewed, cut, shredded, sequinned, glittered, sprayed, laughed, cried and more. McQueen had the dirtiest of all the laughs and whilst a very veracious and comical character you could see the cogs in his head thinking and over thinking his plans. Seeing him in action cutting a one-shoulder coat was pretty phenomenal. He literally created this piece in 5 minutes, pattern perfect. He was absolute proof to any aspiring designer that regardless of the rhyme and reason, concept or theme, skill is your backbone and so utterly necessary to make your vision come alive. Without it you’re on the back foot totally reliant on others understanding you.

As his collections grew bigger and more professional and he became cooler I felt the work lost its edge of what it originally stood for. This was bound to happen and it would be foolish to keep doing the same thing.  But I have a very romantic view of what McQueen is and it’s hard to let that go.

I left McQueen still not liking the clothes but as I began saying, to me McQueen was not about that.  He stood for something profound that he symbolised through clothes, sound, styling, production etc. In my eyes he was a revolutionary, a role model, a visionary who actually evolved us, changed things, developed fashion and society.  He was manufactured by his times and reacted to them, even fought them through design. He gave me hope that there was depth and meaning in fashion beyond what I was seeing on the surface. That emotion played a vital role in the process just as it does in truly connecting to consumers and, like me, fans. That you can create an image, not let it create you, and that you don’t need to play by all the rules to become something, that in fact it helps not to.

Intrinsically attuned to his emotions and fantasies his work was poles apart from his contemporaries. Without McQueen I would have never entered fashion. I don’t think in my lifetime I will see another McQueen.  Times have changed, and so has fashion, rightfully so. But what I do hope to witness is more people tuning into to their feelings and expelling them through design, if only to bring more meaning and understanding back to who we are and what we personally and individually stand for, rather than what’s cool or trendy.

That’s my McQueen’s. That how his work speaks to me, through my youth, right up to now.  Never forget his importance. The reign of McQueen will be a long one.”