For a man most at peace with the world when he was scuba-diving ("because I don't see any of the public," he admitted somewhat sheepishly but with a grin to longtime collaborator Nick Knight in THIS FANTASTIC VIDEO INTERVIEW), it was fitting that Alexander McQueen's leap from A-list fashion designer to bonafide genius occurred with "Plato's Atlantis," his man-meets-marinelife meditation for Spring 2010. In reptile-patterned carapace-like dresses and their tresses braided into elaborate aquatic-fin formations, the models strode down the runway in 9+ towering inches of armadillo'ish footwear. Addressing the pressing issue of the ice caps melting and whether we are destined to slither back under the waters from whence we originally emerged, Style.com wondered whether the collection represented "a fantastical breed of antediluvian sea monster." And yet, while the silhouettes and accessories presented were futuristic (ask yourself: what in fashion history can you really compare them with?), they were also strangely familiar, but in a time-dilated way...like a long-buried memory of a future life.
Plato's Atlantis was initially inspired by the Wikipedia version of the philosopher's vision of the lost continent, a former naval power which "sank into the ocean 'in a single day and night of misfortune'" and receded into the mists of time, only to end up "a byword for any and all supposed advanced prehistoric lost civilizations." But whether it actually existed wasn't the point for the designer. "Atlantis is like, to me, a metaphor for Neverland. It can be anywhere in your mind, anywhere where people find sanctuary in bad times."THE START OF SOMETHING NEW:
The difference between Plato's Atlantis and McQueen's prior collections up to - and including - Fall 2009 is startling; while the former referenced an entirely new paradigm, the latter are a series of interesting-to-outrageously fabulous collections, not of something not seen before, but just of really cool clothes presented in a really cool way. His dazzling showmanship titillated a (fashion) world consumed with celebrity, personality, and making money, so it's hardly surprising that fashionistas chose to focus their eulogies on the designer's fantastic show presentations. (image: source via New York Times & Cervantes)
According to a breathless WWD, the most "spellbinding" McQueen moments took place on the runway, including "Shalom Harlow twirling on a turntable as she was spray-painted by a robotic arm; a ghostly apparition of Kate Moss that appeared and vaporized in a glass pyramid to the haunting strains of “Schindler’s List,” and para-Olympian record-holder Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs with integrated boots." (images: source)
Thought-provoking, yes, but still fundamentally superficial - reflecting back at us our tendency as a society to sacrifice the artistic for the commercial; in our snappy Sex and the City world, interesting new ideas are becoming as rare as the black rhino. "His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris. 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," notes Fashion Critic Cathy Horyn. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins." According to Plato, the residents of Atlantis began valuing money over spirituality, and became "faint and weak." Though blessed, they "were filled with lawless ambition and power." Are we any different?
Small wonder we are so quick to confuse razzle-dazzle showmanship with actual artistic genius.
THE REAL GENIUS OF McQUEEN
Not to say that eye candy is all bad. McQueen's critically-acclaimed runway presentations indicate solid instincts about the state of the collective unconscious, but what really matters is his underlying process. "Whenever we've worked together," he explained to Knight, referencing their many collaborations over the years, "I've steered you away from the norm, and more aesthetically into my dreams, having you focus on visualizing things in my head and the way I'd like people to perceive what I think. So I do come off quite surrealist - they are images made of nightmares and dreams."
Exhibit A: the beyond-fabulous cover he designed, and that Knight photographed, for Bjork's Grammy-nominated Homogenic (1998) which explored the bleak future of man melding with machine. A few years prior, in 1995, his much buzzed-about Highland Rape collection delivered a battle-bloodied, tattered tartan commentary on the 1746 Battle of Culloden which ended the Highland clan system and during which McQueen's ancestors, the Jacobite Highland-Scots, were defeated and ousted by British troops under the command of "the Butcher," the Duke of Cumberland.
Highland Rape was incorrectly interpreted by pundits as "a perverse and misogynistic celebration of the sexual violation of women" when, in fact, it was actually McQueen's longtime practice of trying to bring an interior world to the surface and then give it form. "I've done that before, where you take inspiration from a native source," he explained to Knight about why he disliked mining a culture's surface for design ideas, "but I get more inspiration out of the personality of the region than the actual ethnic origin. I think it's more important for the evolution of any situation if you acknowledge the people...rather than a print or some North American Indian weave. If you were to give me a briefing on an American Indian tribe, I'm more likely to give you the back the part about the tribe that's been destroyed by American culture than give you a weave...I try to look above and beyond the surface of the situation." (Highland Rape collection: source, source & source)
Similarly, in attempting to plunge into the murky depths of the minds of the women who wear his designs, he was far more interested in creating something beyond this year's hemline or "it" piece. "When I visualize a woman, I'm visualizing a woman's mind and her personality, more than her physical self...You try and get into their minds about exactly what they need, want, and would like to achieve. It's like being a surgeon of the mind...It's about making clothes that aren't just part of a wardrobe, but part of a person."
Rather than merely adding to our closets, he wanted to add to our lives.
CLOTHES FOR CLOTHES SAKE
Contrast that perspective with the machinations of New York Fashion Week. "One steels oneself to see collections by so-called wunderkinds that resemble glorified fare from Urban Outfitters," the Huffington Post opines (correctly, we think) about NYFW. Relentless promotion of NYFW's sponsors has eclipsed its original purpose as an industry trade show. Now, the mission of NYFW is to showcase sponsors and profit handsomely off the front row. “If you see an A-list star at a show, that’s because she’s making $100,000 on the deal," MAO PR's Roger Padilha recently explained in an interview. “Their managers and agents realize fashion shows are a money-making opportunity." (For more fun with Fashion Math, check out this cheeky list of the going rates for Front Row appearances as of Spring 2010, courtesy of Catwalk Queen.)
Instead of comfy places for editors and buyers to attendees to network, conduct interviews, file stories, and keep up with business, the NYFW venue is a bazaar teeming with sponsor booths, and cluttered with shiny new Mercedes cars on display that take up so much venue space, there's often nowhere to sit between shows but on the ground. But then, if the point of NYFW is to promote and entertain, why would you need a place to work?
What once was the realm of actual fashion insiders and tastemakers is now no different than a fancy film festival or even the Super Bowl. "That fortress was breached long ago, about the time Paris Hilton and her Chihuahua showed up," says NYT's Cathy Horyn. "More recently, bloggers and Real Housewives of New York have plunked themselves down." And they were able to plunk down en masse because Fashion Week is no longer about the content of Fashion Week, but the promotion of it - the primary reason that the once closely-guarded gates of access have been replaced with a giant WELCOME mat for celebs, paparazzi hounds, and anyone with a blog.
Has Fashion Week become the fashion industry version of the American Idol ride at Disney World?
Consider: the American Idol Experience is held in an auditorium (just like the real thing), and Park guests can "audition" for the show and perform for "judges" who are actually actors playing the role of Simon Cowell and company (just like the real thing). "Spectators" (other Park guests) use the console on their chairs to vote (just like the real thing). Not exactly the actual American Idol, but a competently cozy approximation. To paraphrase Douglas Adams: almost, but not quite entirely unlike American Idol, or, in this case, a bonafide Fashion Week. (Which begs the question: just how long before Disney does unveil New York Fashion Week: The Experience?) (image: source)
As the fashion industry continues down this Path of Profit, where does a future Alexander McQueen fit in? “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment," he told WWD last year. "I wasn’t born to give you a twin set and pearls." But twin sets and pearls are what sells, not runway shows so bursting with authentic flavor, they elicit an actual physical response. "He could distort the woman’s body and push the boundaries in cutting and tailoring,” remembers Professor Louise Wilson, course director at Central Saint Martins where McQueen received his masters degree in Fashion Design. "His seminal shows sent a shiver up the back of my spine and that doesn’t happen very often."
- Lesley Scott
(images: Alexander McQueen Spring 2010 via style.com; McQueen runway show presentations - via WWD.com)
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