You had to pity his competitors. Regardless of whether you consider Nicolas Ghesquière’s futuristic panache at Balenciaga or Marc Jacobs’s brilliantly modern take on historic glamour, Alexander McQueen’s runway spectacles were unrivaled in creating fashion’s zeitgeist.
As Lady Gaga debuted her hit single “Bad Romance” at his spring-summer 2010 women’s wear show this past October, an army of 10-inch-heel, hoof-like shoes launched an international frenzy from the very moment the first model clopped past the front row of fashion editors.
While the world’s financial markets roiled and banks screamed for bailout money, McQueen, the son of a London cabbie, extended a taut middle finger to the culture of branded, conspicuous luxury that helped spawn the mess that we’re in. Fashion’s enfant terrible was also a purveyor of exorbitant goods, but that always seemed beside the point.
“He was a commercial brand, but he never compromised his artistry,” Arianne Phillips, Madonna’s longtime stylist, said on the morning in February that McQueen’s body was found at his London apartment after the designer committed suicide at age 40. “When I think of corporate success, I think of compromised integrity. But when you walk into a McQueen store, you always feel like it was truly his vision.”
His was not always a palatable vision—unless you were willing to move past the knee-jerk reactions that come with first glances. “Highland Rape,” the McQueen fall 1995 collection that symbolized the bastardization of Scotland’s culture by its neighbor to the south, featured models who appeared to have been brutalized by unknown assailants. Subsequent shows always delivered something outrageous, and they were fit for a fashion journalist’s lead: amputees strutting with prosthetic legs, mouths bleeding with cartoonish lipstick, bandaged women stumbling aimlessly, as though they had leapt from the pages of The Snake Pit. Accusations of misogyny naturally followed—not uncommon for a gay designer whose runways stray from the conventionally pretty. But McQueen made it clear that he couldn’t have felt more to the contrary about the label people tried to place on him. “Everything I’ve done,” he said in an interview in 2000, “was for the purpose of making women look stronger, not naive.”
McQueen’s death leaves a void in a world that depended on him to shock and seduce, season after season. It’s too soon to say who might succeed him as fashion’s next fearless visionary. “It’s so unfair,” Phillips says. “I can’t imagine there’s anyone in this industry who’s not going to be affected by his death.”
“Nicey-nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” McQueen once quipped. As he was endlessly teased in his youth as “McQueer,” his thick-skinned bravado was perhaps inevitable. Even if at heart he was a sensitive genius.