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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster