Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2010

Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

NY Times February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Alexander McQueen, the renegade British fashion designer known for producing some of the most provocative collections of the last two decades, was found dead on Thursday morning in his London home, the police there said. He was 40.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. McQueen became a sensation for showing his clothes on ravaged-looking models who appeared to have been physically abused, institutionalized or cosmetically altered, all while peppering his audience with rude comments. “I’m not interested in being liked,” he said. He once mooned the audience of his show.

But he was enormously creative and intelligent, and he seemed to sense that the fashion industry needed to have its buttons pushed. His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris when, reacting to the recession, Mr. McQueen showed exaggerated versions of all of his past work on a runway strewn with a garbage heap of props from his former stage sets. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins.

“The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.”

In his work, Mr. McQueen drew on Orientalism, classicism and English eccentrics, and also his ideas about the future, combining them in ways that were complex and perplexing.

As designers have done for centuries, Mr. McQueen altered the shape of the body using corsetry and anatomically correct breast plates as a recurring motif. More recently, his work took on increasingly futuristic tones, with designs that combined soft draping with molding, or ones in which a dress seemed to morph into a coat. At his last show, in October, the models wore platform shoes that looked like the hulls of ships.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.

Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.

“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.


  1. With all due respect Louis I think I’ll go with Elaine Supkis’ take on this clown:

    Comment by Coldtype — February 12, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

  2. McQueen mooned the fashion people. He used his talent to make them go along with what scared them personally and commercially. Then he hanged himself to show what he thought of their inane preoccupations. This is called making a statement, not being a clown. In Elaine Supkis’ vapid gush you can feel her relief that McQueen is out the way and the industry can go back to its quick turnover of banality without any grim echos. The fact that McQueen came of a modest background but wasn’t satisfied with joining the rich and famous makes him exceptional and admirable. Supkis has to make him a figure of fun. Otherwise what is she?

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 12, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

  3. Really Coldtype? A blogger who makes sexist comments about this guy’s mother and also is a global warming denier? Really? fucking crhrist.

    Comment by Jenny — February 13, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  4. I admire your courage for touching this.

    Is it possible to untangle the class consciousness and political intelligence and insight here at work, or is to try to fall into the slick-sick con job?

    Comment by Yusef — February 13, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  5. If anything, McQueen’s rebelliousness was the same as that of Mishima, Nietzsche, etc., not at all communist. It’s surely no coincidence that the fashion industry is so full of gargoyles, gorgons, and other assorted grotesqueries. Like fascism, fashion is concentrated capitalism. It’s the epitome of planned obsolescence and consumer capitalism. Did McQueen never think of trying to figure out why the “turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway”? The search for eternal values within capitalism (including before capitalism from within capitalism) typically ends in despair and suicide, collective or individual.

    Perhaps, to his credit, seeing the embarrassingly ridiculous and inept Lady Gaga embracing his life’s work was the final nail in McQueen’s coffin, the final knot in his noose.

    Comment by Alex — February 14, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  6. This is utter bullshit. Mishima was a fascist. There is nothing about McQueen like that. Also, fashion is not “concentrated capitalism”. I can say this based on my wife’s experience teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York for the past four years. Her students are as left-leaning as at Columbia, where I work.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 14, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  7. “Not at all communist”

    Of course not. Who would be foolish enough to claim he was? He probably never thought through the socio-economic problem. But he found the business was rotten and got out. There was nothing clownish about that. It’s true you will find a lot of left-leaning workers in the rag trade. McQueen must have rubbed shoulders with them as a boy in London’s East End. But they are not the deciders who sit in the first rows at fashion parades.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 14, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  8. “Really Coldtype? A blogger who makes sexist comments about this guy’s mother and also is a global warming denier? Really? fucking crhrist”-Jenny

    Yes, really.

    And before you call a radical feminist such as Supkis a “sexist” I’d suggest you read her a bit closer.

    “In Elaine Supkis’ vapid gush you can feel her relief that McQueen is out the way and the industry can go back to its quick turnover of banality without any grim echos”-Peter Byrne

    I’ll make the same suggestion to you Peter, you’ll be better served by a closer reading of Supkis’ work.

    Comment by Coldtype — February 15, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  9. I’ll take your word for Ms Supkis being a radical feminist. But as such she should have been less flippant about a woman with a taxi-driver husband who managed to raise six kids and work as a teacher.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 15, 2010 @ 8:26 am

  10. Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — February 15, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  11. I shouldn’t have suggested, I didn’t mean to suggest, that the fashion industry is a monolith. No doubt it contains a (rather limited) variety of ideologies and individual points of view. And of course it has its own proletariat, namely women working in outsourced Third World sweatshops, and immigrant women working in First World sweatshops. But McQueen, as the son of a teacher and even a taxi driver, and as a tailor, started out in the petty bourgeoisie, and rose to the bourgeoisie proper, or perhaps rather the lumpenbourgeoisie. He may have tried and succeeded, more than any of his peers, to turn fashion into (performance) art (whatever the value of this may be). His art may have reflected struggle and conflict more than anything else. But what was the nature of this struggle? The battle of the sexes is a struggle. Being homosexual is a struggle. (And high fashion looks like nothing so much as the homosexual male’s love/hate struggle with women.) Social Darwinism is a struggle, and Hitler struggled. McQueen was a postmodern nihilist. (For that matter, I’m happy to designate as “nihilist” everyone who is not engaged in the class struggle of the proletariat.)

    Comment by Alex — February 15, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

  12. I don’t know about “concentrated capitalism” and “fascism” as it relates to the fashion industry but Alex does raise some good points. Who can deny that high fashion is the “epitome of planned obsolescence and consumer capitalism” which are concepts that slowly but surely working people are becoming aware of and increasingly pissed off at.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 15, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

  13. Well, Alex, that leaves most of humanity, in its present state of mind, off the map. They are nihilists, in your sweeping use of the term, which certainly simplifies the world for you. Personally, I still find them interesting and able to teach me something. In their various predicaments they even inspire my affection. Thus McQueen.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 15, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

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