Testament to a tarnished angel

Vivien Lash analyses the legacy of Alexander McQueen, the fat boy who conquered the fashion world, then went back to his closet to kill himself.

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“There is no way back for me now,” are the last words written on the wall at the exit of the Savage Beauty show at London’s V&A. But the exhibit is a celebration, not a suicide note.

The show opens with McQueen talking exuberantly about his hometown of London, his dirty laugh echoing around the gallery. “You have to understand tradition to subvert it,” he says, and the clothes on display show his talent for cutting. Scissors are sexy when they’re slicing something like a dress made of hair.

The highlight of Savage Beauty is a hologram of Kate Moss, in a room of her own, dancing on air in a feathery white wedding dress from the Widows of Culloden collection of 2006. If I were locked in the V&A overnight, as McQueen fantasized, I’d steal this dress and do a Liz Taylor by marrying Mr. Lash again, for the sole purpose of being a McQueen bride.

There’s nothing savage about the beauty of Kate’s performance as she’s transformed from a mesmerizing Miss Havisham into shooting stars, to the music of Schindler’s List — possibly a perverse skeleton-chic reference, or just a haunting melody. And when it ends, Kate’s glass cage turns into a mirror, so you can confirm you’re still the thinnest of them all.

The writing on the wall could be a message to middle-aged Kate Moss, who wore a see-through lace onesie to the launch of Savage Beauty. The pleasure and distress of seeing Mossie looking fatsies made my Schadenfreude day. Lace is so Joan Collins modeling for a catalog, or Liz Hurley looking like a nun on the pull at a racetrack. If there’s no glamour to it, take a hammer to it.

McQueen, the fat boy who conquered the fashion world, became bigger than the Cool Britannia backdrop that launched a million bumsters. My Street Boyfriend hasn’t heard of Alexander the Great, but ass-flash trousers, born the same year as him, were his school uniform. They’re the best fashion joke since a 15-year-old Lee McQueen, still an apprentice tailor, allegedly stitched ‘cunt’ into the lining of Prince Charles’ Savile Row suits. Previously known in England as builder’s bum, slouchy-ass trousers were worn by working-class men whose bellies were bigger than their hips. Lee had to be laughing when he turned this waistline into a world-dominating fashion.

The pressure of success, and McQueen’s appointment at Givenchy as head designer, meant the shows just went on and on and on. The last thing genius needs is a deadline, never mind a treadmill.

The pressure of success can become the fear of failure and a feeling that everyone’s waiting for you to fall. And there’s Henry VIII syndrome — wanting something you can’t have, then when you get it you don’t want it anymore. But wives are easier to discard than fame.

Most choices can be reversed or even erased. The old boyfriend you don’t love anymore can be deleted from your phone. The overpriced handbag can be returned or eBayed. Marriage can be rubbed out with divorce. Even children can be ignored. But death, that’s out of your hands. You don’t know when it is going to happen, unless you are scheduled for a trip to the electric chair.

Suicide, however, is an irrevocable choice. McQueen — and what a great name for a gay designer that is — cracked his last joke by going back into the closet to kill himself. He took an overdose and slashed his wrist before hanging himself with his favorite brown belt. While his death doesn’t make his clothes better, it limits his work to what’s already been produced.

Once in real life I saw the tarnished angel in, of all places, a grocery store near his Mayfair apartment. I almost smiled at him before resuming my too-cool-to-stare pose. I was wearing Mr. Lash’s early period Dirk Bogarde raincoat with biker boots (my own) and a yellow silk shirt stitched in Delhi with fabric from Shanghai. Only the Empress is allowed to wear yellow — not that anybody else wants to, at least not in London when it’s raining. He scrutinized me with his pale-blue camera eyes; maybe he thought I was a banana on the run from the fruit counter.

Another fashion car crash, John Galliano is making a tentative return to what he does best in the theater of materializing our souls. But survival isn’t celebrated in a culture with a death wish. There may be happy geniuses, just not famous ones. He who has never been drunk and said something inappropriate cast the first stone at sacked Saint John. Thank God my aunt Moral Mary has had her throwing arm amputated.

The ladies from the Home Counties come and go, queuing at the V&A to genuflect to Alexander the Great. Success doesn’t guarantee happiness; neither does failure. And when you dream, it’s a form of mourning for all the clothes you will never even be able to imagine. Like McQueen said, “I’m going to take you on journeys you never dreamed possible.”

But of course this isn’t really The End. The sold-out show is a continuation of his canonization.


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