The Savage and the Romantic
Suzy Menkes, the IHT’s fashion editor, was among the speakers Monday at a memorial service in London for Lee Alexander McQueen, the celebrated designer who killed himself Feb. 11 at his Mayfair home. Her eulogy follows.
The last words that Lee — Alexander — McQueen said to me, in that slightly belligerent way of his, were these:
“But bones are beautiful!”
This was after his elegant and compelling menswear show in January in Milan, when we in the audience slowly grasped that the prints that extended from the tailored suits to the wallpaper and flooring were a pattern of human bones — like in burial crypts, with artistic arrangements of everyone’s skeletal ending.
I should not have been surprised at this riff on the macabre, for even 10 years earlier, when he left the Paris couture house of Givenchy in the millennial year, I had written about the McQueen mix of “the savage and the romantic.”
He called it his “morbid side” and you can trace harbingers of death and destruction through his extraordinary collections: the set with caged ravens, the scavenging wolves straining at the leash in the Paris Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before she lost her head; the beauty and horror of pitiful scenes, as if in a madhouse, with the models’ hands clawing at cell windows and tearing at exquisite clothes.
I saw every McQueen show from the beginning, including his rage at a historic Highland rape; through the manic magic of a collection based on “They Shoot Horses Don’t They”; to the shivering menace of “Lord of the Flies.”
The imagination and showmanship never drowned out his flawless tailoring, nor the subtle fluidity he learned during his period in Paris haute couture.
I had no doubt — and nor did he — that he was an artist who just happened to work with clothing and whose shows were extraordinary vaults of the imagination. And above all, that his work was deeply personal.
This is what he said about himself in one of his calmer periods:
“Anger in my work reflected angst in my personal life. What people see is me coming to terms with what I was in life. It’s always about the human psyche. My work is like a biography of my own personality.”
Yet his work was also part of the stream of history, not just his Scottish heritage and his obsession with the dark side of Victorian England. There also were his reference to memento mori — the symbols of death that is all around us. Lee could use them light-heartedly — as in the skull scarf or in the X-ray sneakers for Puma, imprinted with the skeletal bones of his own feet. I remember him calling that “very Damien Hirst,” although it came years before Damien’s antique skull, impregnated with diamonds, as a conceptual art project.
There were two memento mori exhibitions in Paris museums this year. And I can’t help thinking how fascinated Lee would have been to see the workmanship and artistry that went into 17th century Italian skull jewelry, into intense paintings of hollowed out eyes and into videos that peeled off flesh to reveal bones.
You can be sure that video would have inspired the designer, who turned Kate Moss into a hologram and was so eager to embrace 3-D technology and the infinite possibilities of cyberspace.
That was the Lee conundrum: a designer with an unparalleled vision of the future, who was dragged down by the demons of his past.
I am happy for Lee — and for fashion — that his final women’s collection was such a vivid combination of imagination and energy, even if Lady Gaga’s online enthusiasm sent the system crashing and even if the shoes he designed were some of the most chillingly misogynist footwear we have ever seen on the runway.
After all, awful and awesome in equal measure, those shoes, with their stubbed toes and tottering platforms, were, as invented objects, quite beautiful.
In thinking about the McQueen legacy, I remember his bravery, his daring and his imagination. But I keep coming back to beauty: the streamlined elegance of his tailoring, the wispy lightness of printed chiffon, the weirdness of animal and vegetable patterns that showed a designer who cared about the planet, not just Planet Fashion.
A deep vein in Lee’s life was brutal, twisted and horrific — not least his sad ending. But he gave so much to the world of style, design and art.
I remember today the angry, pudding-y young man I first met in his cramped East End studio, ankle deep in cuts of fabric, turning his scissors savagely into the cloth he was cutting. I remember a slim, blond Lee cackling with joy when we all rushed backstage to fling our arms around him to celebrate an exceptional show.
And with all the torrid speculation in the wake of Alexander McQueen’s death, I hope we can all remember Lee by these poetic words from John Keats: “Beauty is truth. Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth — and all ye need to know.”
I like to be perfect, but I don’t like perfection. I think it’s dangerous. There’s nothing after perfect