He Makes Dresses, Doesn't He?

Fashion has long been overlooked as self-indulgent frippery, its creativity, drama and emotive power undermined by trend forecasts and obscene price tags. But some designers have elevated the sartorial to the level of high art, so skilled is their craft, so expansive is their vision. Alexander McQueen is one of those designers, a rare breed who saw any cut of cloth as a canvas on which to project a story.

McQueen

Beyond his garments, McQueen’s inclination for spectacle and showmanship brought his runway shows closer to cinema than perhaps any other designer. His catwalks were as idiosyncratic as his trademark skull motif and his bumster trousers, as authored and narrated as a film.

I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it’s an emotion

To compare him to a director...

McQueen could be as provocative as Lars von Trier. His 1995 Autumn/Winter collection ‘Highland Rape’ caused a sensation for its violent imagery. Seen by many as horribly misogynistic, for McQueen the collection harked back to his own Scottish heritage and the MacQueen clan, and was a way for the designer to publicly pour scorn on what he saw as Britain’s barbaric mistreatment of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The presentation of his 2006 Autumn/Winter collection ‘The Widows of Culloden’ for which McQueen famously turned Kate Moss into a ghostly hologram, was as ethereal and haunting as the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

With his 2001 Spring/Summer collection ‘Asylum’ McQueen's vision proved as uncanny and nightmarish as David Lynch. It's easy to see how 'Asylum' would later influence the fashion designer turned director Tom Ford, whose Nocturnal Animals borrows admiringly from McQueen's imagery.

But it was his 2004 Spring/Summer collection ‘Deliverance’ where McQueen made his most overt cinematic homage. No, he didn’t recreate the outback horror of John Boorman’s survival flick, but the subtle and exhaustive nightmare of Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? 

Pollack’s 1969 satire, set during America’s Great Depression, centres around a community dance-a-thon which sees the destitute residents of a small town take to the dance floor for a brutal test of endurance, each hoping to take home a life changing $1,500 in cash. Such are the times, they are dancing for their lives on bleeding and broken feet.

The film's allegorical power has been felt widely, the title having been referenced numerous times in popular culture, such as 'They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?' that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie ends up on the cover of New York Magazine and is not happy at all happy about it...

Sex and the City

Despite the film's sentiment echoing long after its 1969 release, its poignance was never again more greatly felt than in McQueen’s show. A Baroque nightmare on the catwalk, his silver screen. Why did McQueen pick this film? Why would he unveil his lavish collection (that included the famous Swarovski encrusted dress) against the backdrop of the Great Depression?

His models recreated the frenetic and desperate pace of Pollack’s film across a near 20 minute showcase, climaxing with one performer collapsed on the floor in mock exhaustion. In sync with Pollack’s film, McQueen’s show became a comment on the relentless demands of life and, more specifically, of the fashion industry that treated his deeply personal works of art as a product to be churned out on a seasonal basis, year in year out. McQueen was the exhausted performer, dancing broken footed for his livelihood. 

The story of Lee Alexander McQueen, the East End 'yob' (his words) who rose to the highest ranks of the fashion world thanks to a punishing work ethic and a rare talent is told in Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui's McQueenthe definitive documentary of the life and the tragedy of a storytelling visionary.

McQueen plays on our screens from Friday 8 June