At times seeing can transport us to a different dimension entirely. It could be initiated by visual exaltation, enthusiasm, surprise or the opposite as repulsion, disgust and outrage. Aided by soundscapes, tactile temperatures, dynamic movement, staged performance, aroma and visual vibrancy of colours, textures and shapes it results in a holistic emotional stimulation.
All of the above were the bread and butter of Alexander McQueen’s theatrical aesthetics. By interweaving his fabrics with threads of visual dramaturgy, McQueen, was able to conceive sight stimulation to a level never witnessed beforehand. At the same time, he was responding, like an artist, to the chaotically beautiful madness, horrors and insanity of the contemporary culture.
Riding on the high after watching “McQueen” by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, this Material Monday, we look at the ‘sight excite’ genius of this acclaimed designer by investigating tools of his aesthetic stardom. These included thematic juxtapositions, outstanding CMF (colours, materials, finishes) innovations, thought-provoking performances complemented by finely executed theatrics, and grounded in sculptural tailoring. Please find a more detailed analysis of some of these below.
Reviewing McQueen’s work we witness a portfolio of designs characterised by a set of aesthetic juxtapositions as strength and fragility, tradition and innovation, the fluidity of draped fabric and the severity of his signature sharp tailoring.
Reliving the stories depicted through each collection the audience witnesses a world guided by the honest influences of social highs and troubles, which ultimately were the source of portrayed paradoxes. Furthermore, driven by his ambition to change peoples public opinion of fashion world being shallow, McQueen did not capture just the black or the white of the world, he captured both in the most poetically dramatic and elegantly obscene of compositions.
To him the fashion was equally about the beauty and the ugly, which was perhaps most prominently exposed in VOSS. This collection – inspired by Victorian madness, ‘Sanitarium’ by Joel-Peter Witkin, ‘The Green Mile’ by Stephen King (and televised by Frank Darabont) – was the ultimate juxtaposition of sickly insanity and ethereal grace.
Contrast between both worlds was achieved through (a) setting bandaged heads of models against the delicacy of ostrich-feather dress, which erupted through the confines of a narrow silk coat; (b) staging the catwalk to resemble an asylum for insane yet populating it with sensually evoking materiality that dressed the models; (c) and lastly finishing the show with unravelling the fashion world’s nightmare – an obese naked female body that appears unwell and rotten vs. slim and desirable bodies of models.
2. Material Innovation
A mix of numerous nature-based references can be found throughout McQueen’s collections. These inspirations, supported by the desire to create looks that promoted female confidence, were what advanced designer’s application of colours, use of finishes and ignited surprising material innovations.
An evidence of the aforementioned characteristics can be viewed across jewellery and garment embellishments, both of which utilised either organic materials or configurations found in nature. Some of the materials used often by the designer included, but where not limited to feathers, horns, shells, hair, wood, leathers and metal. As accurately observed by V&A “in McQueen’s hands, these materials could transform and transfigure the wearer into something other than human.”
One of the pieces that had been shaped by this approach was a necklace from Autumn/Winter collection titled ‘What a Merry go Round’. The piece was lined with a long strand of Tahitian pearls and embellished with lacquered pheasant claws at the top. The first referenced the craftsmanship of the drapery of the 1920s, while the other framed dark mysticism. What is more, the claws where used to purposefully deceive sight and disguise as feathers when viewed from distance.
Such visual ingenuity can also be seen in ‘Moon’ and ‘Star’ from Autumn/Winter 2007 collection titled ‘In Memory of Elizabeth How’. When viewed from the front, these headpieces appear to have been pierced through the model’s head, while in reality, they incorporated a clever lock system that clipped to the model’s body. Both accessories drew from Victorian brooch styles, while utilising half form and materials such as silver sheet and Cabochon Swarovski crystals to convey heightened sense of modernity.
Other prominent examples of innovative supremacy of McQueen’s work include:
- ‘Spine’ corset made out of Aluminium and leather, Spring/Summer 1998 – ‘Untitled’
- Prosthetic leg made out of carved ash wood, Spring/Summer 1999 – ‘No. 13’
- ‘Coiled’ corset made out of Aluminium, Autumn/Winter 1999 – ‘The Overlook’
- Earrings made from Silver and porcupine quills, Spring/Summer 2003 – ‘Irene’
- Orchid shoulder piece made with Electroform silver, Autumn/Winter 2004 – ‘Pantheon ad Lucem’
- ‘Bell Jar’ dress made out of Swarovski crystals and net, Spring/Summer 2009 – ‘Natural Dis-tinction and Un-natural selection’
- Armadillo Boot made out of leather and iridescent paillettes, Spring/Summer 2010 – Plato’s Atlantis
- Titanic Shoe made out of leather and metal, Spring/Summer 2010 – Plato’s Atlantis
- Shoe made out of resin, leather and silver thread, Autumn/Winter 2010 – Posthumous Collection
- Gauntlet made out of digitally printed leather, Autumn/Winter 2010 – Posthumous Collection
Credited as the Bad Boy of British Fashion, loutish, romantic, provocative, foulmouthed, gifted, rude, influential, the King of Shock, innovative, a brat, a media player, agent provocateur, and the Damien Hirst of fashion, Alexander McQueen’s creative toolbox was laid with the linguistics of provocation.
Pulling inspiration from traumatic inner familiarity and mixing it with contemporary or historical influences, he championed the thought-provoking flair. His narration of each collection would begin with captivating title, which would further translate into sound, fabrics, smell, colours, cuts and staged performance.
Some of the collections, most widely recognised for their shocking aesthetic-storytelling, include ‘Jack Ripper Stalks His Victims’, ‘Nihilism’, ‘Highland Rape’, ‘Dante’, ‘It’s a Jungle Out There’, ‘The Dance of the Twisted Bull’, ‘Widows of Culloden’ or ‘The Horn of Plenty’ and resulted in some of the press and industry questioning whether he feels hatred towards woman. Designer confronted this by saying that: “I need inspiration. I need something to fuel my imagination and the shows are what spur me on, make me excited about what I’m doing.”
Given McQueen’s macabre bent when the industry received an invitation to ‘Highland Rape’ everyone felt the chill going through the spine. The invite was executed on a photocopy paper and featured a five-inch long surgical wound surrounded by scabby holes left by the suturing needle.
The audience was expecting a provocative act of brutalisation of women, however to McQueen, this show was about subjugation of the Scots to the British Empire. He took over-romanticised Scottish highlands and turned them into a protective layer against the external elements.
Catwalk was strewn with heather, swatches of tartan served as armour, eyes were embellished with black lenses, bodies appeared elongated and models appeared full of rage, anger and seemed like they had nothing to loose. Entire provocation stirred sensations of spookiness and elevated tragedies that Scottish people endured, at the same time equipping the scene with otherworldly powers
If you are interested to find out about other exciting opportunities for designing for sense of sight with colours, materials and finishes in mind, or you would like to book one of our London Design Festival 2018 workshops, please feel free to get in touch.