The spectacle of design, and designers, gone wild
About a year ago, I’d commented on a collection of ideas — and ideals — that emerged in the character of designers — echoing the sentiments of doom, destruction and a kind of dark mythic return.
That sentiment was reflected in others — surely far more expert than I. But my curiosity is always about what lies beneath the swelling waves of design — wherever I might find it. And being a designer means that this exploration is something that should be, must be, a self-practiced form of analysis — practice what you preach, and all that. But what I’m also looking at, and looking for, is passion — passion that might be controlled, disciplined — and then again, it might not: compulsive, and, in other instances, perhaps a balance. I’ve seen all types. And I’d put myself somewhere in the middle. That is — I don’t think that I ever stop “working”, thinking about the work. Anywhere. Anytime. And never-ending.
And surely there is beauty in dissolution. The bleak and disheartened space can be compellingly alluring, in a dark and morbid way perhaps. In my own experience, wandering the peopled and unpopulated places of the earth, the older and dissolute can be far more interesting than the lushly modernist and sanitary conditions of other places. It’s simply not as interesting. Modern Hong Kong is soulless by comparison to the ranker, rustier parts of the city. So to — everywhere.
So McQueen’s typically arrogant and artful offerings in the current season, offered a couple of months back, March 11, 2009, were seemingly meant to throw conventional beauty to the winds — or the wastebins — and to move into a new sentience of a kind of assembled and trashy beauty. But I don’t think it’s trash, it’s assemblage. Alexander is fascinating, on this front — the way that he outrageously speaks his designer’s mind and anarchist points of view. And he’s been defined that way. He speaks of himself in this fashion, too.
According to the trade press, Alexander McQueen is a exhibitionist with spectacularly lofty demands of fashion. His skill in design — for cutting dresses, jackets and a pair of pants is a designing exemplar — that’s rarely enough. There must be more. He forces content on the audience (the market) — and with that, his fashion shows are more to conceptual juggernauts than merely runway programming.
Seeing, scene, for McQueen is about the spectacular and powerful — his ideologies slam art, shock politics, and are sociologically wild — and his concocted imagery can be bizarre.
All the more fascinating, of course.
”I believe in depicting what’s going on,” he once said. “I’m a big anarchist. I don’t believe in religion, or in another human being wanting to govern over someone else. The themes that go through my shows will continue to.”
Conceptually, this content carries over to the clothes themselves, as a direct reflection, or a sense implied in their “meaning”. But the shocking character is still something that reaches, after the opening impact, to a kind of beauty in genius, a profound expression of craft, magical silhouettes and whacking avant garde statements, literally, figuratively and vocally.
That, actually, is what I find compelling about McQueen. The balance between these elements — but that he’s willing to stride out on the edge, in thinking about it and designing to it, and speaking aloud his positioning.
But in general their distinguishing features are beauty; a sense of craft; a strong, confident silhouette; and the marriage of tradition with the avant-garde. These days, the talk of Paris fashion has been less about clothes than about money.
Retailers are worried about sales, and magazines are concerned with the loss of advertising. It all goes together. Most designers, listening to the financing bean counters, have played it so safe with their fall collections that they run the risk of choking up — the wild, the beautiful, the mad — they are set on simmer. Fashion is in a fractured state.
Still, in reflective conversation, few designers are willing to admit that the expectations of fashion are changing, or to honestly question the future for luxury goods if the appetite — largely invented over the last decade with calculated marketing more than innovative design — no longer exists. Alexander McQueen’s exceptional collection shown here in NYC, months back, on Tuesday night, the most ambitious advocation of the season, was as much a slap in the face to his industry, then, as it was brave statement about the absurdity of the race to build empires in fashion. The man has guts. And conviction.
With a runway of broken mirrors surrounding a garbage pile made of props from his own past collections, McQueen created a stage to symbolize the sudden crash of luxury exuberance. The clothes he sent out were a parody of couture designs of the last century, spoofing Dior’s New Look and Givenchy’s little black Audrey Hepburn dresses, as well as their reinventions by new designers at those companies in the last decade — himself included. In looking back, he showed his eye in looking forward — gathering from the past, analyzing it, slapping it around, it was a bit of a riot of Marie Antoinette, poking fun at all the regimes of French fashion.
To McQueen, “This whole situation is such a cliché,” he offered before his show. “The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem. There is no longevity.”
McQueen, in effect, called fashion’s bluff when he opened his collection with a suit in a 1940s silhouette, a nipped waist and flared skirt in houndstooth wool, worn by a model who walked with her hands on her hips and posed with the exaggerated gestures of an Irving Penn photograph. There were classics, a coat in a Poiret shape and wool jackets that were defaced — or newly balanced — with embroidery that looked like the splattering of a Jackson Pollock painting.
More wild invention — each of the models wore hats by the milliner Philip Treacy; these were fabricated of trash-can liners and aluminum cans, or recycled household objects; according to the NYTime review, “the makeup, inspired by the mad look of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” gave the models the appearance of plastic faces that were all lips. The music, as well, was a mash-up of songs from his prior shows, with bits of “Vogue” and Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.”
An ironic exploration of a designer’s reinvention.
To McQueen’s offerings — and to the nature of the work, the irony is that designers say that fashion is constantly being reinvented. They continue to show the same shapes and trends of decades past.
Throughout his career, Mr. McQueen has relished pushing people’s buttons. Though maybe less obviously since moving his shows from London, where he had developed the reputation as the enfant terrible, to Paris in 2001 after he sold his company to the Gucci Group. Mr. McQueen turns 40 next week, so he is no longer an enfant, though his work remains challenging and confrontational, especially this season, when it seems like the right moment for a deeper exploration. And over he goes.
While he is mocking the establishment for running circles over fashion history, surely he’s doing the same thing?
Historically, from 1997 to 2001, he was the designer for Givenchy, one of the luxury brands owned by LVMH, and during that time, there was a lot of turmoil — frequently marked by conflicts with management and mostly negative critical reviews.
Standing tall in his measure, before he showed his first collection, succeeding Mr. Galliano, who had moved to Dior, McQueen offended many French journalists by declaring that the original work of Hubert de Givenchy was “irrelevant.”
Amy M. Spindler, the New York Times fashion critic, wrote of Mr. McQueen’s couture debut in 1997: “This was basically a pretty hostile collection from a gifted designer who seems in conflict about his role in the Givenchy studio. How members of the audience responded to the show depended on whether they were fascinated by that hostility and vulgarity or repelled by it.” That patterning, to the human brand that is the genetic code of Alexander McQueen, is repeating itself.
During his early days in London, McQueen’s shows made audiences uncomfortable, and equally fascinated, most controversially in 1995 when he referenced the ravaging of Scotland by England by showing brutalized women in a collection called “Highland Rape.”
Later, he transformed models into animals with horns on their shoulders or wearing leather masks like falcons; and in a 2000 collection, he showed models in a setting that looked like a mental hospital.
The design and fashion historian Caroline Evans, in “Fashion at the Edge,” observed that McQueen’s aesthetic of cruelty was actually culled from historic sources, “the work of 16th- and 17th-century anatomists, in particular that of Andreas Vesalius, the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin from the 1980s and ’90s, and the films of Pasolini, Kubrick, Buñuel and Hitchcock.”
That’s quite the scholarly positioning.
And it’s true that there’s profound depth to the work. So much informs Mr. McQueen’s collections that things get lost or obscured. It’s all overwhelming. And that is the excess that lies in the passion of the work.
“I’ve never been this hard since I’ve been in London,” Mr. McQueen said. “I think it’s dangerous to play it safe because you will just get lost in the midst of cashmere twin sets. People don’t want to see clothes. They want to see something that fuels the imagination.”
It’s an intriguing positioning — McQueen challenges the status quo — he stays on the proposition of pushing himself, and the edge — and in a way, parodying what he does. So he plays along — and in a manner, it’s archetypal for the strongest accusation to come from the person that is right in the middle of the personal complex. If there is a criticism made, how often does it actually find intonation from the person that is the very reference to the problem in the first place?
He does not exactly propose an obvious solution for the times, he — at least –suggested a viable alternative. The repetitive, never-ending recycling of other designers’ fashion — he cast the lot to himself, and in that self exploration — which was to recycle his own.
What that means, for me, is that the nature of personal creative exploration — being a designer, it’s either that you are in, and committed to the work, or you are out. I don’t really believe that there’s a middle ground. And that the exploration of design — and the creativity that’s locked up in the process — is perpetually about returning to roots; it’s a going back; it’s a returning to your heart. And hopefully, in your journey, you will find it.
That’s what I’m thinking about. What’s your take?
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