Alexander McQueen, 40

Alexander McQueen, British fashion designer, dead at 40

Alexander McQueen was noted both for his flamboyance and impeccable tailoring. His death comes just as designers in New York have begun unveiling their fall 2010 collections. McQueen was scheduled to show his line in Paris in March.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

The death of award-winning designer Alexander McQueen strikes at the fashion industry's creative core, not because he had the most lucrative business or because he launched the greatest number of trends to trickle down to suburban malls. Instead, Mr. McQueen represented the kind of volatile imagination that transforms clothes into a cultural tapestry, intensely personal therapy and political provocation.

The British designer, who was found dead Feb. 11 at his home in London after an apparent suicide, was 40 years old. It had been a long time since he'd been considered an enfant terrible. But he, more than any of the 20-something designers working today, was able to use fashion as a tool for agitating folks out of their preconceived notions about femininity, power and even romance.

Over the course of a career that lasted more than 20 years, Mr. McQueen tackled the social impact of body-cloaking chadors, the stigma of disability, the role of technology in dehumanizing our lives, the historical subjugation of women and even the way in which modern women often allow themselves to be victims -- sometimes of society and sometimes of fashion.

In one of his early shows in 1999, which unfolded in a chilly warehouse along New York's Hudson River and drew a packed house despite a tropical-storm warning, Mr. McQueen's models splashed through ankle-deep water in a makeshift pool.

The collection addressed female sexuality in triptych. In one moment, Mr. McQueen aggressively flaunted the female body in a boldly revealing and vulgar manner. Then, his vision of women turned strong and self-empowering. And ultimately, it shifted to sexuality as something completely hidden, as if the very mention of it was cause for revulsion.

Female repression and disenfranchisement in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime had been in the headlines at the time, and Mr. McQueen put chadors in this collection and used them as a tool for exploring the politics of gender.

In his finale, cloaked models swayed from trapeze-type swings, then suddenly the sounds of an electrocution reverberated around the vast room. The models' frail bodies jerked and flailed into stillness. It was a deeply troubling fashion presentation grounded in social consciousness -- and confusion, and frustration -- rather than mere beauty.

Mr. McQueen also had a deeply melancholy and romantic side, which was displayed in his spring 2004 collection. Inspired by the 1969 film "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," the setting was a Depression-era dance marathon. Couples, hoping to win a cash prize, danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. The last couple standing claimed victory. The film speaks of longing, disillusionment, despair, and physical and mental pain. And the title refers to the hard truth that animals can be mercifully released from their misery but that people are expected to carry on.

That spring collection was filled with tattered sequins, faded hues and exhausted sex appeal. As his models danced across a wooden ballroom -- at first elegantly, then frantically -- their clothes became increasingly worn and sweaty. By the time the final note sounded, a single model, with her fiery red hair hanging limp against her pale skin, had collapsed in a heap.

Mr. McQueen based his other collections on films by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock and such psychologically riveting works as the film "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and the novel "Lord of the Flies." He was inspired by chess and mental institutions. He told the London Guardian that he considered his shows "my own living nightmares."

In his work, Mr. McQueen's vision of beauty was often flawed. His models were never at rest or at ease. They were always fleeing some predator: history, social constraints, fashion's confining gestures. Indeed, a McQueen fashion show could easily put even a closet feminist's teeth on edge. He was a fan of deliriously high heels, body casts and face masks. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with women, admiring and fearful, respectful and demeaning. In his work, he was as complicated as the women who would ultimately wear his clothes.

"When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there's a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful," the designer once said in an interview. "It kind of fends people off. You have to have a lot of balls to talk to a woman wearing my clothes."

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