McQueen reenacted


It seems that the title of  “The man of the year 2015”  (at least in London) goes to Alexander McQueen, the designer who passed away 5 years ago! This year there are several exhibitions in town to celebrate his life work – his grand design exhibition at V&A and behind the scenes photography exhibition at Tate Britain. And now it is possible to meet the designer “in person” at St.James´ Theatre, where he gets personalised in the play “McQueen”.

The playwright James Phillips took the story of Alexander McQueen´s AW 2008/09 collection “The girl who lived in the tree” as the base for his play. “I’ve got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden. I made up a story: a girl lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and becomes a queen.” Alexander McQueen, 2008. “McQueen” takes you on a journey for one night into the dark dream world of Alexander McQueen´s mind, the landscape of his immortal shows, where the right dress can change the wearer´s personality and the course of faith.

In the play there is also a girl – a young stalker, who has been sitting on a tree watching Lee McQueen work at his studio for eleven consecutive nights. This must be timed to take place in Autumn 2007. On the particular night the girl breaks in to the studio to steal a dress, but finds Lee there sitting in the dark, struggling with creative challenges and his mental health issues. Somehow, instead of calling the police, two of them embark on a journey around London town, to formidable places of Lee´s past, bonding and becoming friends in the process. They visit the shop on Savile Row where he gained his masterous pattern cutting skills. There he creates a dress for Dahlia on spot, draping it on her body. The pair ends up giving an interview to an annoying journalist, they pop into a nightclub and swirl all around town.They meet the ghost of Isabella Blow, who first “discovered” Lee McQueen and made him into Alexander. They go to Lee´s childhood home in Stratford and do some bird-watching(as Lee was famous for his love of ornithology, that reflected in his work) from the rooftop of a high council estate, while both battling with a question – to be or not to be. The girl turns out to be suicidal herself and Lee actually saves her from doing the fatal mistake – something he couldn´t save himself from eventually. Even though it is a bio-play, it does not turn Lee McQueen´s life inside out with dirty little secrets. Much of what we learn about Lee is seen through the eyes and actions of others. Filled with his artistic genius, as well as dark metal struggles, it also has a good dose of tonge-in-cheek humour. But also it shows how lonely and difficult a life of an artist can be, constantly criticized and misunderstood. And of course there is fashion. But not in a show-offy way, rather the haute couture just creeps in as part of everyday life.

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Lee McQueen is played flawlessly by an award-winning actor Stephen Wight. The similarities between the actor and the passed designer in appearance and manners are remarkable! The young girl Dahlia is played by an American actress Dianna Agron, whose breakthrough role was playing Quinn Fabray on the hit series Glee. This role is her British stage debut. The character of the girl is loud and annoying – a typical teenager you might say. Someone who is so obsessed with her appearance, who looks for validation outside herself and wants to kill herself coz “life is too hard”. Could say her role brings the play down a bit. Luckily the performance of Stephen Wight´s character Lee is very deep, as well as flamboyant appearance of Isabella Blow.Talented dancers troupe, the costumes and extraordinary visuals add the necessary must-see effect. This play is something to see for anyone passionate about McQueen´s work, and who wants some back story on what made the designer “tick”.

The play runs nightly(except Sunday) till 27th June 2015.

This story was also published in Estonian web magazine Femme.

Behind the Scenes – Creation of a Masterpiece

Parallelly with Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at V&A, there is a behind the scenes photography show running at Tate Britain. The exhibition of Nick Waplington´s photos takes a sneaky peek behind the glamorous polished face of Alexander McQueen´s collections, to give an idea of his inspirations and working process, which is far from fancy – instead being raw, bold and thought-provoking, including a lot of hard work. In 2009 Nick Waplington was invited to the House of McQueen to document the creation process of the final Autumn/Winter collection created by Lee himself, a year before his death – “Horn of Plenty”. McQueen was generally very secretive about his working process, so having such an access is something not many photographers have been allowed to witness. Nick captured an intense and theatrical working process, from sketching to production to the Paris catwalk show.

Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process, Untitled from the series 'Alexander McQueen Working Process' 2008-09

The critically acclaimed collection had recycling as the heart of it. As a retrospective season, Lee McQueen reused his ideas of the past decade –  updating silhouettes and cuts, copying fabrics from his earlier collections. The idea of recycling as such was central, provoked by post-credit crunch attitude in the UK. The catwalk was set out of discarded elements from the sets of his past shows and broken mirrors, with a kitchen sink crowning the pile of “junk” in the middle of the showroom. Even though there are dresses that look as if they have been created of black bin bags, best Italian silks were used as the material.

Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process, Untitled from the series 'Alexander McQueen Working Process' 2008-09

At the exhibition space images of working at the studio alternate with shots taken at the landfills and wastegrounds full of broken bottles, compressed trash and a huge bulldozer, that is supposed to symbolise Lee McQueen himself. The designer liked this idea. This radical theme provided inspiration for Waplington, best known for his photographic work centered on issues of class, identity and conflict.

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To be honest, if you expect the same grandiose impression from this exhibition, as from the V&A showcase, you´ll be greatly disappointed. However, if you are a fan of Lee´s work and want to have a peek into his everyday life, this will be just an exhibition to visit.

Open till 17th of May 2015

Morbid fashion

Recently i came across an interesting exhibition that is currently open in Lintz Art Museum, Austria.
“Love and Loss. Fashion and Mortality” deals with fashion´s everlasting game with transience. According to the curator of the exhibition Ursula Guttmann, dark tendencies started to appear in fashion in 1980s, before that it was a subject dealt with primarily in art and literature. Concept of beauty in fashion underwent a radical makeover, turning towards deconstruction, decay, animalism and naturalism, morbid fascination with perishability, romantic sadness and black humour.

“Fashion becomes a mirror in which we come face to face with our own mortality. It emphasizes the traces of time, praises transience and flirts with death.”

Mariana Fantich and Dominic Young Apex Predator male shoes, 2010 Loan from the artists © Fantich & Young

The exhibition consists of over 150 pieces of artworks of High Fashion and Street Fashion, photographs, videos, sculptures, paintings, graphic works and installations by 52 artists and artist groups. Artists incude Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, Iris van Herpen and many others.

Although the curator has looked at fashion from 1980s onwards, it seems to me the destructive tendencies started already mid-70s with explosion of the punk scene in London and New York, when street style took on an aggressive  “urban warrior” disguise. Back then it was the rebel against the society and current political system, with distressed and torn clothes and bone-applique T-shirts. There is a section at the exhibiton dedicated to punk fashion.

In 1997 Martin Margiela injected eighteen articles of clothing from past collections with bacteria that reacts to oxygen, thus staining the fabric. Slowly – documented by the photographer Bob Goedewaagen – the clothes began to decay and dissolve.

Hussein Chalayan also played with the concept of decay while making his graduate collection „Tangent Flows“  in 1994. He covered the silk gowns with small pieces of metal and buried them underground for several months, so when they were dug out, they were rusty and partly dissolved.

Hussein Chalayan

Among other designers Alexander McQueen is famous for his (emotionally and physically) destructive approach to fashion and “reincarnation” of animalistic features, mixed with skillful craft and advantages of modern technology.

It is interesting how Japanese appreciate traces of time and wear even higher than of the new product. This has been shown in the works of several designers who celebrated the signs of time, as well as deconstruction of the silhouette.

As morbid as the exhibition sounds, there is a special corner for dark humor. Some designers prefer to confront the fact of mortality with sarcasm and life with irony, celebrating it or making fun of things some find inappropriate. Some escape to parallel syrreal worlds to avoid reality.

At last the exhibition looks at the morbidity of fashion as business itself. Nowadays attitude to fast fashion and intolerable conditions that people who produce it have to suffer. Interchangability and disaposal of clothes, fashion styles, as well as runway models. The doomed industry of superficiality that is running after a dream that in reality is the nightmare of doom.

The exhibition stays open till 7 June 2015

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The question of mortality for the purpose of fashion has been quite important for me too. Firstly, because being a vegetarian and a leather accessories designer there is a slight contradiction between those two. The dilemma of how to justify these choices to myself got somehow answered one day when I visited a friend in the countryside of England. Her son had been out hunting(a pastime I do not personally approve of and would not take part of, but this is not my place to judge) and brought back two freshly shot pheasant birds, that were hanging on the wall of the house, as I arrived. The sight was so tragic and beautiful at the same time. While it made me wonder about the perishability of life as such, it also made me wish to immortalize the beauty, by creating something lasting of the magnificent bird´s feathers. It felt that if a designer or maker can “reincarnate” the beauty, once the life has run out, it would be as if giving the animals a new life as leather accessories.

Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty”

“I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when i´m dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.”

The retrospective exhibition of Alexander McQueen´s works called “Savage Beauty” finally came home to London. When “Savage Beauty” first showed at New York Metropolitan Museum in 2011 it became one of the most successful exhibitions in the Museum´s history. I think of the same fate for this exhibition at V&A.

You can feel tension in the air as you walk in through the doors into the exhibition room. Muzzled mannequins at one wall, with Lee McQueen himself talking on tape about making his first collections off his dole money. Creating gorgeous clothing pieces off absolutely no budget.
Shows were his playground to do whatever he wanted, go wild and stage a performance – never dull.
As you walk through the rooms of perfectly tailored jackets – a skill he learned while apprenticing at Savile Row even before starting his career as a fashion designer – you enter another room titled “Romantic Gothic” followed by the sound of classical music with mannequins wearing gimp masks and couture. The keywords here are: Victorian Gothic inspirations, Edgar-Allan Poe, dealing with dark side of his personality through fashion.
“There is blood beneath every layer of skin.”
McQueen´s women are never naive and innocent, they are dominating, aggressive, tough, someone who won´t go down without a fight and often come out as a winners.

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Then you continue to  the darkened corridor into the room with walls covered in bones, like Parisian catacombs. It is a fully engaging exhibition space with aquarium-looking screen in the ceiling, inspired by his “Irere” collection. “Romantic Primitivism” room explores tribalism in McQueen´s collections. Primitivism of noble savage, Yoruba mythology is used as inspiration for mannequins with horns in the middle of their face. Exotic pieces include beaded pony skin evening dress, a coat made out of hair, crocodile heads on the shoulders of a garment, etc.

4. Romantic Primitivism Installation view of London gallery Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty. Victoria and Albert Museum London

And you proceed to another room accompanied by the sound of classical music again that leads you to experience his “Romantic Nationalism” of his last, post mortem collection. Utterly royal. McQueen tartan mixed with lace and crystals.
“It was time to come out of the dark and into the light”.

5. Romantic Nationalism Installation view of London gallery Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty. Victoria and Albert Museum London

“I want to create pieces that can be handed down, like a heirloom”.
“The Cabinet of Curiosities” filled with a selection of his most creatively outrageous pieces and collaborations with other craftsmen and designers. Wooden dresses, leather molded body pieces, tops made of sea shells, metal pipes or crystals, unbelievable 3D-printed shoes.
“I find beauty in grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.”

6. The Cabinet of Curiosities Installation view of London gallery Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty. Victoria and Albert Museum London

The maze of the exhibition continues into the dark room with a glass pyramid in the middle with a hologram of Kate Moss “dancing”. This was created not digitally, as one can assume, but using a “Pepper´s Ghost” technique from the 19th century, involving projectors and mirrors that at a time was believed that real ghosts were being called back from beyond the grave.

Kate Moss hologram

Just when you expect it to be the end you step out into the mirrored room of pastels inspired by the Far East, Japan in particular. It is easy to spend hours there looking at every stitch and guessing the source of inspiration for every pattern or detail.
This is followed by a room of “Romantic Naturalism” with real(or probably artificial) flower dresses from “Sarabande” collection, sea shell dress and feather dresses. McQueen´s love for ornitology and savagery of animal world and nature. You can only wonder which unusual materials did McQueen not use in his collections…
The final room displays his arguably best collection of “Plato´s Atlantis” early era of digital print, and 3D-printed footwear, perfectly captured and evolved within itself.
“There is no way back for me now. I´m going to take you on journeys you never dreamed possible”.

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5 years since his death McQueen´s star shines brightly. During his short life he gave so much to the world of fashion. He was without a doubt one of the most talented, creative and masterous designers of our times.

Utterly inspiring exhibition! I would recommend going there alone to fully experience it, breathe in all the details of his craftsmanship and absorb dark and savage concept.

This story was also published in Estonian web magazine Femme.

Paris´ best hidden secret

Waking along walls of human bones with a slight smell of mold in the air. Bones of people who once were rich or poor, powerful or simple, lie mixed with one another, symbolizing human equality – if not earlier, then at least after death. Literally under the beautiful city of Paris there is another secret town with about 300 km of secret passages that have streets running parallelly under the ones on the ground, often bearing same names. Parisian catacombs are former quarries, dating back to Roman times. Strictly regulated stone digging went on until the prohibition at the beginning of 19th century. At the same time several Parisian cemeteries were severely overcrowded, starting to cause diseases to their living neighbours. It was then decided to turn the catacombs into common graveyard and transfer the bones underground. Additionally the underground space has been used for other purposes, such as covert during the Second World War. A small part of the catacombs have been open to public already since mid-19th century.
Public entrance can be recognised only by a long winding queue in front of it. Other than that it´s just an unremarkable black door of a random small house with a spiral staircase leading underground as you enter. The corridors are cut off with prison doors that trigger paranoid thoughts of getting locked up for good. However, excitement beats claustrophobia, urging to continue deeper and deeper underground.
“Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.”
Bones of approximately six million people are laid out as straight wall of 18-27 meters in width, next to the side of a kilometer long passage. All of the bones are systematically grouped according to the cemetery where they are from. The first impression is quite appalling, but it is easy to get used to the surroundings. After a while you tend to forget that these bones ever had in fact belonged to people and this seems to be just part of setting.

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Most of the catacombs are closed to public. Despite it being illegal there are several secretive bands forming a subculture of cataphiles. Those are the people deeply into discovering catacombs through and through, having carefully mapped out the entire area. There is a danger of getting lost underground without knowing the passages. In the shadows of the night cataphiles crawl underground using drains and ventilation shafts. Although it is easy to imagine people holding extreme rituals, the main interest of cataphiles is just discovering secret passages, having underground picnics or throwing raves. Some of them even live there.
In 2004 police in Paris had discovered a fully equipped cinema with a small couscous restaurant in a large and previously uncharted cavern. It looked like an underground amphitheatre, with terraces cut into the rock and chairs. The whole thing ran off a professionally installed electricity system with several phone lines underground. There was a selection of movies from 1950s film noir classics to more recent thrillers. None of the films were banned or even offensive according to the spokesman. Three days later, when the police returned to investigate further, the place was cleared out with all of the phone and electricity lines cut off. On the floor they found a sign “Do not try to find us”.

Looking at Parisian catacombs from the style perspective, Alexander McQueen´ s sculls come to mind. Particularly his men´s AW 10/11 collection that was directly inspired of the catacombs with graphic prints on the suits.

Recently Riina O had a lookbook shoot collaboration with Belle Sauvage. Some of their AW 15/16 dresses suggested they had also used catacombs as one of their inspirations.

Parts of this story were published in Estonian newspaper Eesti Ekspress.