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Exploring the eternal fascination around designer Alexander McQueen

By FashionUnited

21 May 2021

Culture

Robert Fairer is a fashion photographer known for capturing the drama backstage at John Galliano’s shows for Christian Dior, and at Marc Jacobs, which he collected in the technicolor tomes, John Galliano Unseen and Marc Jacobs Unseen. A recent addition to the series, is Alexander McQueen Unseen, featuring previously unpublished photos. John Matheson is the founder of Instagram account @McQueen_Vault, which he describes as “An exploration and social collage of Alexander McQueen” which features runway images, shots of garments and footwear, old interview footage, show invites, and editorial from the late designer’s 20+ years of creative output.

In a conversation facilitated by Museum at FIT, to premiere Fairer’s book, these two McQueen experts describe why the designer is more ripe for exploration than ever. His appeal seems to know no end.

“We can all agree Alexander McQueen was a genius,” begins Fairer who describes the designer’s fashion shows as “ferocious and tender at the same time.” For him, they were a form of storytelling, both provocative and absorbing, filled with narrative, symbolism, potent imagery, hidden meanings. “The shows were titillating, shocking, headline-grabbing and spectacular,” he says, but his impression changed when he went backstage and the designer’s passion for craft was the only thing on display. He noted the absence of idle chit-chat from the designer, his singular vision and total concentration, how he would be painstakingly stitching a model into her look 15 minutes before she was due on the runway.

Claire Wilcox, co-curator of the record-breaking Savage Beauty exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum, whom Fairer describes as having an encyclopedic knowledge of McQueen, wrote the text to accompany his photos. It is difficult to think of another designer who inspires such scholarly devotion as that shown by Matheson and Fairer and the community they inspire.

A self-confessed geek for the detail within McQueen’s creativity, Matheson describes the archive content he posts as “moments trapped in amber” for his 165,000 followers. He particularly appreciates the collections credits in the back of Fairer’s book which act as a timeline while also detailing the universe of people involved in the designer’s artistic process. “It’s McQueen at the center of a very elaborate spider’s web.” The dark side of McQueen’s creativity is often discussed, but Fairer also has snapshots of emotional moments, like the designer in a bunny suit, laughing backstage with models and his team.

We have lost many beloved designers in recent times, Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaia, Oscar de la Renta, Alber Elbaz to name a few, but the legend of McQueen, who died 11 years ago, casts a long shadow. No other designer has incorporated charred volcanic rock, fire and rain into their fashion shows. Fairer describes the fall 1999 finale, which brought audience members to tears as they watched a robot spray model Shalom Harlow who was spinning on a turntable, as “performance art at its finest.”

Alexander McQueen’s world of inspiration

Matheson remembers seeing his first McQueen show, Dante, with its themes of war and religion: “It instantly lit a match.” His account is an attempt “to understand the mythos, the techniques, the genius brain.” When Dazed referenced the account after only 9 months, other media soon followed and a community of McQueen nerds blossomed. Matheson believes in the importance of recording moments in history that effect pop culture, for creatives, journalists, and students, without sensationalizing the designer. “It goes beyond mere fashion stuff.”

“You would always hear him say Mother Nature was the best designer,” says Fairer. Indeed McQueen was a fan of National Geographic which was where Fairer wanted to work when he graduated from the London College of Printing so he went to Africa for three months shooting wildlife with a wide telephoto lens. Antelope horns, skins, scales, fins, tails, wings, amphibian prints, crystals, flowers, all adorned the late designer’s work. “It was kind of a jungle-like atmosphere,” says Fairer, and his photography was a way of ‘capturing fleeting creatures, rare sightings.”

In another breath, Fairer describes the scene backstage as like being on a sci-fi set, and the models like some species of beautiful aliens lined up in the cafeteria for lunch. The shoes when viewed on the floor were like intriguing objects. With such spirited recollections bursting forth at the mere mention of certain shows all these years later, Matheson asks the question many of us want the answer to: “What would he be doing in these strange times?”

We can only wonder.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry