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Alexander McQueen, Empowered

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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From the mid-1980s until roughly 2010, the fashion business changed. What had been relatively small, privately held companies catering to niche markets became huge global brands owned by public conglomerates. Instead of annual sales in the tens of millions of dollars, fashion houses strove for sales in the billions, with spectacular couture shows providing the buzz that lured customers to more affordable accessories.

In her new book "Gods and Kings," veteran fashion journalist Dana Thomas recounts the rise and fall of the two British designers at the center of what she calls this "long, fabulous moment": John Galliano and Lee Alexander McQueen. McQueen committed suicide in 2010 and was the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year. An expanded version of that massively popular and critically acclaimed show opens this weekend at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which had already sold 65,000 advance tickets as of March 10, according to the museum. In advance of the opening, I talked to Thomas by phone. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Question: You quote Andrew Groves, McQueen's boyfriend in his early days as a designer, as saying that “Lee had the ambition to be the best designer ever.” What would it mean to be the “best designer”?

Answer: He wanted to outdo all of his predecessors and his peers. I think he realized it [posthumously] when they had the exhibit at the Met that drew more than 600,000 people and became the eighth most visited exhibit of all time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was breathtaking to see that line snaking through the museum and out into the park. That was amazing.

I don’t think he was thinking of designing for a museum. He just wanted to make things and do things like nobody else ever had -- walking down the beach and seeing seashells and saying, "Let’s make a dress out of these seashells."

Q: Why was the Met exhibit so popular?

A: At the end of the show I stood outside, and I asked people, “Who are you and why are you here?” It was really an interesting mix: retirees, students, secretaries, construction workers, men, women, old, young, every race, every creed. Many of them had never heard of him. They said, “I kept hearing about this amazing show at the Met so I stood in line to see it.” Or, “My wife brought me, although I’d never heard about him, but I thought I should go check it out.” They all said the same thing: “My God. What an artist who invested so much of his creative soul into his creations.” And that these weren’t just clothes -- that these were really works of art, and they deserved their place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That’s why people are still so interested in him and his work -- because it wasn’t about making clothes. It was about something far deeper that we’re still trying to understand. He used clothes as his medium. He could just as easily have been using clay, wood, paint, pastels, film. But because he was trained on Savile Row in the art of tailoring, he used clothes as his medium. Fabrics and fashion.

Q: When I saw the Met exhibit, I was so struck by the tailoring. Yes, he’s breaking all the rules, but he’s also following--

A: He knew the rules he would break. There was this really famous quote by Picasso, who said, “At 14 or 16 I could draw like Raphael. But it took me a lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.” McQueen knew the rules. But he said, like with the "bumster," what if you just drop the waistline super crazy low and do some architectural thing to hold it up that no one’s ever done before? So let’s experiment until we can figure out how to hold them up. And then let’s drop the waist of the jacket to meet that. So we’re changing the focal point of the eye to a different place on the body -- for the first time since the empire waist was up near a woman’s boobs. And he did that in his first collection.

Q: The villains of your book are the fashion tycoons Bernard Arnault of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and, less prominently, François-Henri Pinault of PPR [now Kering].

A: No, there are no villains. I think the British fashion media were putting McQueen down for a long time, too.

Q: Well, you write that “The compromises the designers were forced to make in the name of commerciality were soul crushing,” and that “The go-go pace was unsustainable and the wreckage it caused astounding” -- lots of drinking, drug addiction and depression. I wondered: What’s the counterfactual? Could Galliano and McQueen have survived as independent artists turning out couture for a few extremely rich ladies?

A: No. They had to make their Faustian pact to do what they needed to do. And at the same time it wound up being their undoing. McQueen in his first few years was making things and never producing them, never making any money. The only way he made any money was by doing special orders for friends. He couldn’t have kept on going like that, paying everyone in clothes.

McQueen couldn’t have done all of the things he did later on that were so spectacular had he not had the money. And he knew that. That’s why he made that deal [to become chief designer for LVMH’s Givenchy]. Because he realized that his job at Givenchy would help him underwrite what he wanted to do in London [for his Alexander McQueen label]. He didn’t just use his paycheck to help his London company -- he would actually take couture fabric from Givenchy and schlep it back to London.

He had a golden era in the early 2000s when Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole bought his company for Gucci Group, because Domenico De Sole was this lovely, patriarch-like CEO who really liked McQueen, and McQueen respected him. He got his business education in Domenico De Sole’s kitchen over drinks before dinner. And when Ford and De Sole left -- when they were fired or pushed out of or left Gucci Group -- it was a really hard period for McQueen. The new people who came in, while very good at running companies, just didn’t know how to handle him. They knew how to create spreadsheets and come up with marketing budgets and all that MBA stuff, but they didn’t know how to work with an artist like McQueen. And that’s when it all started spiraling downward.

That Faustian pact suddenly turned dark and menacing for him. And I think the same thing with John when he got to Dior and he had carte blanche and everything was going great and he had a great time and then he just pushed it too far and he got a little bit too megalomaniacal in his job because that carte blanche was a little too liberal.

Q: So Galliano got to live what people imagine would be the artist’s dream -- just let them do what they want and they’ll be geniuses. But that destroyed him in a different way, because he didn’t have the discipline.

A: He didn’t have the discipline, and he needed some sort of boundaries. I’ve watched most of John’s shows -- thank God for YouTube, from about 1993 or 1994 onward, the shows are there -- and [at first] there’s great energy, and you feel their enthusiasm and their creativity, and then you move into the point where the big money’s coming in and you get this initial boost where you’re like, “Wow, look at that!” I remember covering those shows, and that was incredible. But then with John, it sort of turned a corner and became almost cartoon-like, because he had way too much money and way too much freedom.

Meanwhile, because McQueen was reined in so strictly by the Givenchy people, his shows became far more poetic, because he had to really make the most of what he had. Then he got frustrated, and you see the frustration very clearly in his shows. And then he left, and it was like a new lease on life. You see that in his shows with Gucci Group and Domenico De Sole helping steer his company. And then Ford and De Sole left, and you see his disappointment and his utter disregard for the new team, because that’s when his clothes got really boring and commercial.

Then he decided to turn it around and make the most of it and spend their money. He became far more introspective and was using the shows as a social commentary, as opposed to [a representation of] his inner anger or his personal story. He started doing things based on Darwin and survival of the fittest, and "The Horn of Plenty," which was about consumption. They were all direct shots at the people sitting in the front rows, and they didn’t even realize it.

When you watch it once every six months, you don’t piece it together. But if you watch it as a narrative, it’s a full long narrative with a beginning, middle and end -- it’s obvious. Each show is like a chapter of a book he was writing. And you could see the arc of his career and his life very clearly. And he was winding down. Not necessarily his life, but his career was winding down. That’s why the work was so stupendous. That last show, his "Plato’s Atlantis," was monumental. Creatively, culturally, sociologically. It makes you think like a really great play, or a really great piece of music or a really incredible drawing or a spectacular speech, and you just go,"Whoa, that was really something." He was planning on it being his last show, so he put everything in it that he had to say.

Q: But it’s not his last show. When he killed himself, he was working on the "Angels and Demons" show--

A: That was really a requiem.

Q: What was McQueen’s “powerful...impact not only on fashion but on society”?

A: It’s like asking: "How did Picasso affect society in general?" Or, "How did Matisse affect society in general?" Their work was so spectacular, and we’re still referencing it and we’re still looking back at it. And I think that that is what’s happening with McQueen. He did a show in January 1997 -- his first Givenchy couture show. It was all gold and white, based on the idea of the Golden Fleece. It was completely savaged, savaged by the press, in a way that I’ve rarely seen. Negative, negative reviews. And it was because they just didn’t understand it. Nobody did. But he realized that haute couture wasn’t simply for the socialites. He was the first one to really see that haute couture was not about a woman’s trousseau anymore.

His theme [in 1997] was very intricate and complicated and sharp. It just was too modern. Recently, this last season, a young designer copied almost 99 percent line for line one of McQueen’s suits from that collection. It was sort of cut out and twisted on the front of the bodice and open on the sides. It was a very sharp, white suit. It was hailed as really brilliant. Then somebody said, “Hey, we’ve seen this suit before.” Basically, he plagiarized. What it meant to me was that it took more than 15 years for that suit to seem “of today.” Before, nobody could understand it. That’s how far ahead McQueen was. And I think that’s going to keep happening. The things that he did that nobody got will eventually enter into our vocabulary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net