The Trappings of Success - 'McQueen'

Published: Fri 7 Sep 2018 10:18 AM
The Trappings of Success - McQueen
"Fashion is a total injustice. It’s like that. And that’s it." - Karl Lagerfeld
This troubling documentary about the extraordinary life and untimely death of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen (1969 - 2010) is a cautionary tale of an extremely gifted, but self-destructive soul caught up in a business that chews up and spits out its creative talent. Together with the tragic denouement of Kate Spade's career earlier this year, it provides irrefutable evidence that material success and popular celebrity is never sufficient to compensate for a deep sense of guilt and self-loathing. A buck-toothed and overweight youth from London's East End, whose precocious talent conquered catwalks around the globe, McQueen was equally vulnerable to debilitating levels of mental and emotional anguish, taking his own life at an age when many designers are just beginning to hit their creative stride. His rapid rise and relentless downward spiral towards self-destruction serves as a sad reminder that no amount of wealth or professional acclaim was sufficient to loosen the grip of his inner demons. Suicide is always an extremely angry act, damaging not only to those who commit it, but also to everyone caught up in its orbit. Reaching out for support often seems an impossible task for those who suffer from the 'black dog' of depression, but disaster is not inevitable if a determined effort is made. Sadly no one in McQueen's immediate orbit seemed willing or able to help.
The pressure to succeed in the glamour business is intense and unrelenting. Anthroplogist Giulia Mensitieri'sThe Most Beautiful Job in the World is the most recent book to rip open the seamy underbelly of haute couture, exposing in harsh detail its cut-throat and exploitative entrails. In a recent Guardian interview, she described having to learn the correct etiquette to engage her interviewees - "When to say ‘darling,’ when to stay silent. Saying ‘no’ is uncool. ‘Yes’ can mean anything. And there is a kind of addiction to this adrenaline, this prestige, this idea of being exceptional. I talk in the book about ‘the jackpot’ - winner takes all. The economy of hope, I call it. ‘Maybe I will be next,’ even though the statistics tell you it’s unlikely ... Fashion is colonised by desirable projection. You are never present, because tomorrow will be better. It’s an addictive way of thinking." Her sources not only recount multiple instances of minimum wage abuse, but also describe the need to invent an individual persona for any hope of success. An assistant makeup artist witnessed with a mixture of dread and awe the tantrums his famous boss threw if his favourite green cotton wool buds were not laid out in a perfect square, while a teetotal model said her agent advised her to be more 'rock’n’roll' - to wear leather jackets and be seen in certain bars drinking beer.
Such experiences are clearly the rule, rather than the exception, and perhaps common to all creative industries, but the high fashion business is dominated by a few enormously profitable conglomerates that can easily afford to take greater care of their employees. LVMH, the French leader of the world’s luxury goods market that owns seventy luxury fashion brands, including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Fendi, saw its net profits rise 41% in the first half of this year alone. Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, who own Chanel, paid themselves a $3.4 billion dividend last year, four times the company’s profits, while Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, has an alleged worth of $200 million. Those on the business and marketing side tend to be well remunerated, but further down the food chain those who work for the top designers constantly struggle just to survive. When the Guardian asked Mensitieri whether the top designers, whose salaries run into millions, are making morally reprehensible choices by not paying their employees more, she let them off the hook. "They are part of a larger system," she replied, "Nobody has said: ‘Yes, I’m now going to pay my staff more'."
Trying to survive alone in such a viciously carnivorous industry is not a realistic option. It sells a myth of grace and impossible-to-achieve perfection, puffed up by publicists who are paid to pander to preening and predatory prima donnas whose antics are lapped up by an insatiable, fawning clientele of narcissistic necromancers. McQueen trafficked in ephemeral illusions, marketing his image of rebellious individualism as an outspoken proletarian with outsize talent. But he was always trapped in amber from the outset, toiling in an artificial and airless hothouse of slinky gangways and glossy magazines that only appears glamorous from the outside. The movie remains silent about this aspect of his career and says little about the remorseless stress of a despicable business model that continually raises the bar, imposing impossibly high demands on its worker bees to "make it new" in the words of Ezra Pound. It is no wonder the queen of the hive, Anna Wintour, feels compelled to hide behind huge black sunglasses - maybe the Devil does indeed wear Prada ...
Following a teenage apprenticeship in Saville Row, McQueen attended St Martins School of Design, where Bobby Hillson (Head of the Masters programme), had seen his portfolio and encouraged him to enroll. He received his master's degree in fashion design in 1992 and his graduation collection was bought in its entirety by the influential style icon Isabella Blow, who persuaded McQueen to adopt his middle name Alexander when he subsequently launched his fashion career. Blow became one of his close friends and early mentors, using her many contacts to promote his work and pave the way for his subsequent success. McQueen soon relocated to Hoxton and launched his second collection, McQueen's Theatre of Cruelty. Shortly afterwards, he met Katy England outside a high profile fashion show trying to "blag her way in" and promptly asked her to join him as his creative director for his third collection, The Birds. England continued to work with him from then on, guiding his work as a trusted 'second opinion.'
After a brief and acrimonious spell at Christian Dior, McQueen was hired as chief designer by Givenchy from 1996 to 2001.Carefully crafting the image of a cocky Cockney upstart, he immediately insulted the founder by calling him "irrelevant.” His first couture collection with Givenchy was not successful, with McQueen himself tellingVogue in October 1997 that the collection was "crap." He later toned down his designs for Givenchy, but continued to indulge his rebellious streak, causing controversy in 1998 with a show that included double amputee model Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs. That year also saw McQueen present one of his most famous runway shows in which a single model graced the runway in a strapless white dress, before being rotated slowly on a revolving turntable while being sprayed with paint by two robotic guns.
McQueen has always displayed a theatrical streak, designing David Bowie's wardrobe for his 1996/7 tour, as well as the Union Jack coat he wore on the cover ofEarthling. Icelandic singer Björk hired McQueen to design her costume for the cover of her 1997 album Homogenic. He also directed the music video for her song Alarm Call and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video for Pagan Poetry. He collaborated with dancer Sylvie Guillem, director Robert Lepage, and choreographer Russell Maliphant, designing wardrobe for the theatrical production Eonnagata. The film Sylvie Guillem, on the edge, traces the history of the show's creation, from the first rehearsals in Quebec to its world premiere at Sadler's Wells in 2008.
Producing clothing that was simultaneously both sculptural and organic, McQueen was fascinated by the anatomy of the body, in a manner comparable to another highly disturbed, but gifted artist of the bizarre, Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps because of his own appalling dentures, he was obsessed by teeth and jaw lines. McQueen was also an avid scuba diver and used his underwater passion as a source of inspiration for his 2010 show Plato's Atlantis. He brought fresh energy, drama, and extravagance to the catwalk, using innovative new technology to add distinctively different twists to his shows, which often left audiences stunned by their bravura showmanship. The silhouettes he created have been credited for adding a sense of fantasy and rebellion to fashion and he was one of the first designers to use Indian models on London runways. McQueen's early collections developed his reputation for controversy and shock tactics, earning him the title "the hooligan of English fashion," after his Highland Rape collection and tartan trousers (aptly named 'bumsters') spawned a trend in low rise jeans. McQueen also became notorious for repeatedly using skulls in his designs - his scarves bearing the motif became celebrity accessories and were copied around the world.
One of McQueen's most celebrated and dramatic shows was his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, named VOSS. Its centre piece was a huge unlit glass box that dominated the room. Because the room outside was lit, the glass walls acted as enormous mirrors, so the seated audience of admirers initially saw only their own reflections. After more than an hour's delay, lights came on inside the vast glass case and revealed a tableau vivant filled with fluttering moths and a naked model on a chaise longue, her face obscured by a gas mask. The glass walls then fell away and smashed to the ground. McQueen chose British writer Michelle Olley be the centrepiece of the show, admitting he stole the idea from photographer Joel Peter Witkin's image Sanitorium.
In 2011, Olley was asked by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to contribute to their posthumous McQueen exhibition,Savage Beauty, and was interviewed for the audio guide. Olley's detailed diary/journal of modeling for McQueen (written while the show was being planned and staged) was included in the website coverage of the exhibition and relates details of McQueen's demanding work rate. It ends with Olley returning home to find "a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers has arrived, with a note saying, "Thank you for everything - you were beautiful! - Lee xxx." Fashion photographer Nick Knight later said of the VOSS show, "Olley ... was a writer and I remember she wrote a great piece on being the Butterfly Girl in the middle of that Glass Box show. I was sat on the front row, in between Alexandra Schulman and Gwyneth Paltrow. It was probably one of the best pieces of Fashion Theatre I have ever witnessed." McQueen later described his thoughts about forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection in the mirrored walls for over an hour as follows - "I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry - turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows."
McQueen was openly gay, saying he first became aware his sexual orientation when he was six years-old and describing coming out to his family at the age of eighteen by saying, "I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I've got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother's womb onto the gay parade." In 2000, he married his partner George Forsyth on a yacht in Ibiza, with models Kate Moss and Annabelle Neilson attending as bridesmaids. The marriage was not official, as same-sex marriage was illegal in Spain at the time, and the relationship ended a year later, with McQueen and Forsyth maintaining a close friendship. December 2000 saw another new partnership for McQueen, when the Gucci Group acquired 51% of his company, with McQueen serving as Creative Director. Plans for expansion included the opening of stores in London, Milan, and New York, and the launch of his perfumes Kingdom and My Queen.
McQueen earned four British Designer of the Year awards, as well as the CFDA's International Designer of the Year award in 2003. His reputation as a renegade enfant terrible was only enhanced in 2004, when journalist Caroline Evans wrote of his "theatrical staging of cruelty" in 032c magazine, referring to his dark and tortured renderings of Scottish history. He became known for his lavish, unconventional runway shows, such as a recreation of a shipwreck, a human chess match, and Widows of Culloden, which featured a life-sized hologram of Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric. In 2005, McQueen collaborated with Puma to create a special line of trainers and the following year launched McQ, a younger, lower-priced line for men and women. In 2007, he became the first designer to participate in MAC's promotion of cosmetic releases created by fashion designers. McQueen himself handpicked the make-up which was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor's face in Cleopatra, with models sporting intense blue, green, and teal eyes, and strong black liner extended Egyptian-style. By the end of 2007, he had opened boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and Las Vegas. Celebrity patrons, including Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rihanna, Monica Brown, and J-pop queens such as Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro, and Koda Kumi have frequently been spotted wearing his clothing to events and in their music videos.
In February, 2010, McQueen's housekeeper found him hanging from the ceiling of his Mayfair home. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene and found a short note that simply said, "Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee." His friend David LaChapelle said that McQueen "was doing a lot of drugs and was very unhappy" at the time of his death. McQueen had been diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder and had previously overdosed twice in 2009, so it was hardly surprising that the coroner reported finding "a significant level of cocaine, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers" in his blood. Eight days earlier, McQueen had written on his Twitter page that his mother had died the day before, adding: "RIP mumxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx." Four days later, he wrote that he had had an "awful week," but said "friends have been great," then added, "now i have to some how pull myself together". He was forty years old.
McQueen's funeral took place on at St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge, and his ashes were later scattered at sea in the Isle of Skye. His Scottish heritage was evident in such collections as Banshee and Highland Rape, both of which drew on Celtic culture and dark periods of Scottish history, notably the 18th-century suppression of the highland clan system following the final defeat of the Jacobite rebellions. In asking for his remains to be interred in Kilmuir, McQueen joined members of his family going back over many generations. His memorial service was held later that year at St. Paul's Cathedral. It was attended by Kate Moss,Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, Stella McCartney, Lady Gaga, and of course the ubiquitous Anna Wintour, among 2,500 other invited guests. The BBC reported that McQueen bequeathed £50,000 to his pet dogs so they could live in luxury for the rest of their lives, as well as £400,000 to be split between four charities; including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Blue Cross animal welfare charity.
Co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgu, the documentary reveals tantalizing glimpses into McQueen's tortured soul - as well as that of poor Isabella Blow, whom he unceremoniously dumped after becoming famous. McQueen received a great deal of negative press coverage after her 2007 suicide, with rumours flowing freely about the rift that had occurred between them. In response, McQueen told an interviewer, "It's so much bollocks. These people just don't know what they're talking about. They don't know me. They don't know my relationship with Isabella. It's complete bullshit. People can talk; you can ask her sisters ... That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella's life. What I had with Isabella was completely dissociated from fashion, beyond fashion." The connection between Blow's display of McQueen's creations as day-wear and the fact she wore the heels of his designer shoes down to the ground is briefly acknowledged. She inhabited his designs to such a degree that McQueen's obvious desolation after her suicide (glossed over in the movie as “death from illness”) was clearly devastating.
This transfixing film presents a heartrending timeline of McQueen's career, not only as an infamous designer, but also a sadly flawed human being ravaged by the demands of a sacrificial industry. It revels in the spectacle of beautiful imagery, including his iconic skull motif, his revolutionary fashion-dramas, visual designs fit for MOMA, and a frenzied backstage world of passion and pain, befitting an original talent who could barely keep pace with his own gifts and those the world bestowed on him. McQueen's life was a fascinating mixture of Faustian triumph and tragedy in equal measure. He literally lost his soul to his genius, launching his career by cleverly exploiting the media, then proceeding to present each new fashion line as a highly theatrical statement about abuse, the burdens of beauty, gender norms, and death.
McQueen provides a rare 'inside' look into the private world of a constantly shape-shifting, elusive, and misunderstood pioneer. It is a relatively straight-forward documentary that strips bare the hours of grueling preparation necessary to succeed in a business that places a premium on surface appearance and is rarely interested in the human cost. Making exemplary use of film and video footage of McQueen's life and work, it captures all the drama and excitement of life in the fashionista fast lane, as well as the constant and debilitating pressure of a brutal and cannibalistic industry that deliberately emaciates female models to the point of anorexia. It amply demonstrates the frenetic pace at which McQueen lived his life. Neither liposuction nor drugs enabled him to deal with his pervasive sense of guilt and low self-image, physically embodied in his impossibly poor posture and shambling gait. As Richard Pryor trenchantly observed (and he should know), “cocaine is God's way of telling you you're making too much money.” McQueen's abiding genius was to turn the catwalk into a performance space in a way that no other designer had previously imagined possible. His concomitant anxiety came from constantly feeling he had to reinvent himself and leave behind the pudgy working-class lad who felt unworthy. In the end, like a scuba diver coming to the surface too quickly, he inevitably imploded under the immense pressure, entangled in the trappings of material success
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
Contact Howard Davis

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