Alexander McQueen: a career in pictures

The late designer showed that fashion can also be art.

Having worked in fashion, I tend to agree with George Pitcher's opinion in the Telegraph this morning that it can sometimes feel like a "pointless and sordid industry". But that's about as far as we agree. A truly creative mind like that of Lee "Alexander" McQueen, who died last week, cannot fail to be inspirational.

McQueen showed that fashion can also be art. The tributes that poured in over the weekend stressed his ability to shock, surprise and awe with spectacles of insurmountable beauty.

His understanding of fabric and its relationship to the human body was fine-tuned as an apprentice on Savile Row. It was this perfect understanding that brought us low-slung "bumster" jeans, a trick of tailoring that elongated the torso and exposed the lower back, which he thought of as the most erotic part of the body.
 
As much a showman as a designer, McQueen forced his audience to look at things differently. The genius lay in his wacky and stunningly original concepts. Once he ordered car spraying robots to cover the model Shalom Harlow in paint as she stood on a rotating disc. This was long before that advert featuring the machines appeared on TV.

"You find a lot of ideas from my shows in adverts now. I find it a compliment," he said later in an interview with Sarah Mower at US Vogue. In other shows he had models dragged on to the catwalk by wolves and surrounded his audience in mirrors. "It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry -- turn it back on them!"

He did not, as the Daily Mail's Liz Jones says, merely create clothes for us to marvel at but not to wear. Unlike younger British designers such as Gareth Pugh, who has undoubtedly been influenced by McQueen's dramatic and sculptural aesthetic, he transformed his art and passion into a workable and very profitable business.

Fashion labels don't survive because ethereal, long-legged beauties buy their clothes; they profit when ordinary people buy in to that vision with their cold, hard-earned cash.

Below is a selection of highlights from McQueen's career.

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Alexander McQueen and Sarah Jessica Parker attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit Gala in New York 2006. Evan Agostini/Getty Images

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McQueen's ready-to-wear spring/summer 2010 show in Paris. FRANÇOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

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McQueen salutes his audience for the last time, during men's fashion week in Milan. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

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One of McQueen's signature hats at his ready-to-wear spring/summer 2008 show.

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Models at his autumn/winter 2009 show.

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With the stylist Isabella Blow in 2005. Blow, a close friend, committed suicide in 2007.

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The ready-to-wear autumn/winter 2009 fashion show at Paris Fashion Week.

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With the models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss at a charity auction and fashion show in London, June 2004.

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With his mother, Joyce, who died shortly before Alexander's suicide.

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McQueen receives a CBE from the Queen, one of many awards honouring his contribution to fashion.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times