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The Kings and McQueens of Fashion

Thursday, 30 April, 2015

Working with fashion legend Lee Alexander McQueen as the print design assistant on London’s Chancery Lane was more than just an insight into how the four-floor institution worked its magic. McQueen and then assistant designer Sarah Burton were running the Alexander McQueen label, before the King of the castle caused his own tragic fall. Designers of shoes, bags and the McQ range all interconnected and worked together like a light bulb circuit, circulating ideas up and down the staircases for the next season’s collection. The print department was especially hectic.

If we weren’t preparing for the next fashion week or brain-storming the concepts for future collections, we were collating images, sourcing fabrics and draping on mannequins. Each intricate process was carried out, of course, in the name of McQueen’s signature, irreplaceable aesthetic.

As McQueen once said, his clothing is like “armour for the female”. Like Boadicea, he produces “warrior women”,  empowering women to dress in the most beautifully feminine way possible. McQueen always had a certain dexterity to reconstruct the silhouette of the body through his exquisite prints, whether they were constructed from crystals, darker images of crows and magpies or the signature Alexander McQueen skull motif. His garments never quite appear as they first seem; on closer inspection, a detailed design would reveal morbid images of entwined forms of dead lambs, for example, with Romanesque bunches of grapes. This macabre theme carries through all his collections, whether on floating, delicate silk chiffon or stiff wool crepe. Ultimately, McQueen was a story-teller.

A master of the craft of tailoring, McQueen used his gift to manipulate the female silhouette, even giving himself the title The Edgar Allen Poe of fashion”. It would be an understatement to say that his shows had elements of drama in them—they were the epitome of theatricality. In 2008, a ballerina wore a plain white dress and continuously pirouetted in the middle of the stage. On either side of her, mechanical arms moved robotically in unison, eventually covering the once white dress with bright paints. McQueen’s shows were always extravagant, and have remained this way even under the direction of Sarah Burton, who has stepped up as head designer.

Alexander McQueen shows hold up a scrutinising mirror to the fashion world, demonstrating to other couture houses how it is supposed to be done. McQueen himself was never one to hog the limelight, though; perhaps it was the fact that his father was a black cabbie that gave him his humble and modest persona. Instead, his garments spoke volumes for him, much louder and more vividly than mere words would ever be able to. 

This month, the Savage Beauty exhibition is on at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and is one of the biggest collections of his work accessible to the public. McQueen’s collections were previously also showcased at New York’s Musem of Modern Art in 2011. The Victoria and Albert is a fitting place to house this spectacle of craftsmanship. A tribute to the Victora and Albert in word and image can be currently seen at Melbourne’s State Library in the Inspiration by Design exhibition, which runs until 15th June 2015.