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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder