January 8th, 2013: London EC1 - Alexander McQueen and the Shock of the Old
Alexander McQueen, Winter 2013 | Stuart Wilson
To get from Covent Garden to Clerkenwell Green - from the main hub of the menswear shows at the Old Sorting Office, to the Alexander McQueen venue over on St. John Street - is an easy enough journey. You cut across onto Bloomsbury Way, and then curve along Theobalds Road and Clerkenwell Road (taking advantage of a route that zealous Victorian improvers slashed through crowded slums and uneven street lines, determined to connect the even-then-bipolar city’s East and West Ends) before pitching up in a heap where the road switchbacks across the railway tracks to Farringdon. Or you can veer south along the broad smooth curve of High Holborn, soaring over the viaduct and swinging round into the back of the old Smithfield meat markets. Either way, you barely notice how, between those two arteries, the city crumples like skin without bone - how it collapses into the steep valley of the old River Fleet, and fans out into the long inclines towards Mount Pleasant and Pentonville, and how at moments it narrows into alleyways and opens up into sudden, walled-in squares where the sky seems like the only thing still alive. It’s only when you step away from the main-road roar and into the hush of those side-worlds that you feel how time in London bends and slows like fog; how it ebbs from the insistent heartbeat of today into cul-de-sacs greening over from lack of use, where older things - yellowed signs in dust-dulled windows, and splintered, boarded-up shopfronts - have lingered long past their natural lifespan, saved by geographical accident from the pressure to accelerate back into line with the here and the now.
In the rush-hour blur of a winter evening, through, all that fractured history and topography just looked like a receding pile of solid navy planes: dark, darker, darkest. So it was easy not to notice the rifts in time; the rifts that meant the McQueen show wasn’t actually happening on the evening of January 8th 2013, at the old Farmiloe glassworks (which is what it said in embossed gilt capitals on the stiff blue card invitation) but in a time-warped bubble of past and present and is-this-really-the-future? An out-of-time time where editors sat on rows of bentwood chairs and watched tall boys with waxwork skin and marcelled hair file past, receding away through a warren of glass-screened rooms. And where those tall ghost-boys were dressed in the languid but exquisitely structured tailoring that was first in fashion in London a century ago; a dress code disembowelled and spliced back together into a parade of sensationally patchworked garments, brand new - but intensely, intransigently old.
There was a kind of hopeless, violent, precise beauty about the whole thing, which felt much like the kind of violent, precise, hopeless beauty Amy M. Spindler described when she witnessed one of McQueen’s shows fifteen years ago - on that occasion in another derelict time-capsule, an old rubbish depot between Victoria and the Thames. Spindler - the New York Times’ fashion critic, who died young, and who has disappeared into Cathy Horyn’s shadow in a way that McQueen refuses to do with Sarah Burton - was cool in her review of this uneven, brash new London talent. But she saw how his tenure at Givenchy had given his work an exactness and control far beyond anything he’d shown previously - even with that infamous Savile Row training. Before then, his menswear had drawn on Gaultier and Westwood, with the male body forced into corsets and hobble skirts, and clad in tartans or Old-Master prints. But that collection - one of the first Burton worked on, fresh from Saint Martins that summer - elevated the idea of classic tailoring to a spectacular new level, merging pinstripes and plains into a sleek, jagged collage (I’d have said ‘seamless’, but the whole point was the seams’ vicious clarity) which took traditional shapes and managed to both explode them and make them infinitely more refined.
I remember how his clothes looked in the Conduit Street store he opened that year; not bunched into a rail of flat carbon-copies, but suspended so each thing sat in its’ own private universe, swooping away - even on a hanger - to trace the shape of the body (or something like it, but better). And how spectacularly, out-of-time they seemed even then - snowy, white-furred greatcoats, and leather sliced into delicate floral patterns with luminous colour behind, and those infamous bumsters (which, as Spindler noted, sat perfectly on the body for the first time that season, a headline-grabbing idea that he’d finally gotten to work), and jackets which sprouted giant embroidered birds-of-paradise. And how perfectly, explicitly cut they were, with scalpel-sharp lines like the ones in a Victorian tailor’s engraving - lines that curved and swooped to create hollows and peaks and unexpected tensions, with lapels pressed flat into the body, and seams that slashed through fabric with murderous intent.
Fifteen years on, here was another McQueen collection filled with sleek but jagged tailoring and extraordinary, scalpel-sharp lines. Fifteen years since he’d shown menswear in London, and thirteen since he’d stopped showing here altogether, and three years since he’d died. It made sense to remember that history - in his work McQueen was always being pulled back into the past. But that past was always, ALWAYS electrified with the thrill of the new. And new - then - was the still-fresh memory of a decade spent not just at a cutting table, but in basement clubs and warehouse raves, of bliss and freedom and possibility and sensation. Trousers yanked down to the crotch, sheer shirts, knife-sharp side-slashed vests. Always sex in the midst of the sobriety, madness and menace pulsing between the skin and bone.
‘That was a nice suit you were wearing yesterday.’, someone had said at the Christopher Shannon show, that afternoon. It was, too - a stiff Burberry navy wool blazer and trousers that screamed ‘first-day-of-menswear-week’. That’s what men do at menswear shows: sit politely, and wear well-behaved navy suits. Dylan Jones, Jeremy Langmead, Tinie Tempah. David Gandy in a Clark Gable three-piece. The kind of navy tailoring that people had been wearing ever since the Sartorialist started photographing old Italian men who dressed like long-ago English gentlemen who’d only recently discovered the existence of Technicolor. The kind of suits you saw in loving panoramic close-up on GQ’s streetstyle galleries, with crisply pressed shirts and burnished hole-punched brogues, and an artillery of period accessories - smooth side-partings, tie-clips, pocket squares, doctor bags, trilby hats. The kind of uniform that a black-and-white generation might have worn in the shadow of old wars, before other uniforms became mandatory, and long before the youth revolution came along to change the face of menswear forever. And the kind of uniform that came back to life against all odds sometime in the last decade, replacing all the revved-up velocity of the millennium with a soft-focused yearning for tradition. It was an unexpected, unlikely resurrection: all those doddering, old-man brands that sat in the dim corners of department store floors (waiting for their customer base to expire, their lease to run its’ course) back in the spotlight, cherished and fetishised. I still can’t quite see when it happened, no matter how I hard I look for the seam; where and when it was that everything stopped moving forward and looped back on itself, racing into the past just as the whole world had once dashed headlong towards the future.
Suits were all I could see, that day. Twenty-year-old boys dressed like daguerrotypes brought to life, every detail period perfect - or more perfect than the period might ever have been. Manically, methodically correct. Just the right amount of visible cuff, just the right trouser length breaking onto a shoe. If not suits, then blazers and trousers, and greatcoats, and officer’s overcoats. No logic in the timeline: Cardin had shattered the suit in the early Sixties, ditching the details and fuss for sleek new fabrics and sharp new cuts. And Carnaby Street had run riot, making tailoring ever tighter and sexier and more vociferously anarchic, in luminous colours and plush velvets and hell-for-leather florals. And then the revolutionaries; Yamamoto, Armani, Margiela, Lang. Decades of pulling tailoring apart, ditching the lining and roughening the seams, to the point where there was only the lightest, loosest, freest version left. When I look at old copies of Arena Homme Plus, I see glossy colours and sheer performance layers and technical fabrics - a machine aesthetic built for a machine age. And I thought that sharp, lean, new simplicity was as close to a suit as I’d ever get, or need. But twenty years on, boys that weren’t even born then are wearing things their great-grandfathers might have saved for them, had they known they might ever come of use. I didn’t dress like my father, and he didn’t dress like his; in the world I grew up in, suits were already becoming historical artefacts,. McQueen described his apprenticeship at Anderson & Sheppard in the late Eighties as though it were a chapter from Dickens - a boy sitting cross-legged on an old workroom bench, stitching and unstitching in the wavering light. And downstairs, a shop run along the lines of ‘Are You Being Served’; failing, fading anachronisms, teetering into the grave.
But some things just won’t die. On the catwalks that day, under the glare of the floodlights, it hit me like never before - how all these designers were wrestling with things that should have gone away decades ago (and which, in fairness, did) - but keep coming back, like hungry ghosts. Lou Dalton had opened the shows the day before, with a collection where tailoring and workwear tussled for supremacy, and where unconstructed grey jackets came reinforced with the pristine formality of white shirts and black ties. Agi & Sam remade Savile Row as a cartoon, with zippered backs that - despite the day-glo colours - made the notion of suit as second skin seem creepily explicit. And they kept on coming, over and over. Oliver Spencer, E. Tautz, Richard James, Rake; suits, suits, suits. Soft, stretched, twisted, inverted; but suits. And just before the McQueen show, outside a stately house over in St. James (surrounded by a Portland stone and stucco force-field of gentlemen’s clubs, and other institutions that insist on not dying - and seem, if anything, more vital the more conspicuously obsolete they become) the tailors of Savile Row lined-up a dragoon of fresh-faced boys for a graduation photograph. City banker, Coldstream Guard, country squire, Edwardian rake. It seemed like a strange manifesto to pin your hopes of survival onto, this elegy to a galaxy of yesterdays. Or is it too simple to expect the future to look futuristic, the now to look like now? Perhaps I’m the one who’s wrong, looking for a new that feels like the new of years ago, when perhaps the real modernity is this endless resurrection of the past. Revive, reconstruct, resonate, replicate.
And I can see the appeal in it all - in those lingering shots of rain-streaked brick factories and creaking looms, of timber lasts and bolts of tweed, the fierce protectiveness towards these frail embers of an industry that was once so utterly solid. And in the resurrection of old-meets-new brands like Burberry; duck-headed umbrellas and latex trenchcoats, and alligator covers for wafer-thin laptops. And the endless, increasing WEIGHT of everything. Felted, laser-cut, double-bonded, raw-seamed, coated; there’s a heaviness and density to fashion now that feels both comforting and curious. Did something snap, somewhere along the way? Were we too new, too fast?
In architecture - a profession that’s spent the last few decades apologising for having been too aggressively, destructively new, once upon a time - we call it conservation: preserving old things that have survived beyond their natural lifespan, out of pity and passion and pride. Fifteen years ago it felt like McQueen’s slash-and-burn menswear was the moment when tailoring would have its’ final, dazzling flourish - but it keeps returning, with increasing vengeance. So in 2013 Sarah Burton showed a collection filled with Edwardian elegance - slim, pointed shoulders and curving waists and lean, tapering coats, worn with inverted layers of dressing gowns and carpet slippers and cardigans and tunics to emphasise the fin-de-siécle sensuality of dressing for intimate pleasure as much as for public display. These weren’t safe suits, with all that velvet and ponyskin, and gilding on quilted satin, and stained-glass window traceries; any more than Dalton’s or Agi & Sam’s. But they were dangerously, seductively old.
Afterwards, everyone dissipated into the chilly night. Back to January 8th, 2013. Natalie Massenet, the BFC’s new head, said it ‘felt like old-school London Fashion Week.’ Nearly everyone said the same thing, in different combinations of words. Just like old times - as though someone had folded up fifteen years of absence, and a death in a Mayfair apartment, and a schism in the story of English menswear - and moved the seams together to form a new surface where the joints had been honed to a marquetry smoothness. But none of it was real - any more than the Farmiloe Building was. That warren of brown painted rooms with hammered glass panels and worn-out floors was a generic vision of the past straight out of central casting; Interior, City, Early Evening. Vaguely, evasively familiar - the offices of Lady Edith’s editor in ‘Downton Abbey’, the Gotham City Police Department in ‘Batman’, an abattoir in ‘Sherlock Holmes’. (It could have just as easily been ‘Blade Runner’, too, with airspray-perfect skin and shadowy rooms and replicants breathing mist into acrylic masks, and a future that looked like a heightened version of the past). A smoke-and-mirrors idea of history, added to and inflated with each new production. Radiator covers where no radiator had ever been, thick layers of paint on top of plywood and cardboard. A building that had been an empty shell since 1999, a year before McQueen signed his deal with PPR and moved to a shiny new office, just up the street.
Midway through that other, fifteen-years-ago show (the one designed by a now-dead man, written about by a now-dead woman), the music stopped, and switched. The models re-emerged through a rainstorm, free of all that mad, tailored ferocity, in perfect, simple white garments that gradually turned transparent, clinging to drenched skin. All the traditionalism over and done with, slashed and sluiced and folded away. But the monsters keep coming back; think of that last London womenswear show, in a fairytale Victorian attic (hidden inside that derelict rubbish depot). I’d never paid much attention till now to the gilded accessories - not realising they were animal skeletons, trailing along the ground or wrapped around the neck like a nightmarish mimicry of fur. And each time tailoring stalked back onto McQueen’s runways, his models looked the same; zombies, vampires, lost boys, butchers. Dead men in dead men’s clothes. The point of tailoring is to conceal; to flatter, and deceive and show all the right things and none of the wrong. People have been trying to explode and reinvent it for longer than most of us have been alive. But it just won’t die. Alive - but only as zombies or vampires are, feeding off the past with no hope for the future. I can’t believe that the next generation will want what we’re selling and buying, now. And yet I’m not sure, myself, that I don’t - the safety, the shape, the invisibility. But every time I reach for that suit I feel like I’m looking for a hiding place.
McQueen always had an ambivalent relationship with menswear. The gorgeous, decadent formality Burton showed this time was an exacting echo of the kind of clothes he showed himself - but clothes he himself vocally disdained and visually disowned for an anti-outfit of slouchy jeans and dark, plain knits. But things that are echoes gradually lose their original clarity, no matter how seamless the repetition. And looking at those lines - the spectacular traceries of a surreal anatomy, carving up the old to say something new again - felt like watching the future hardening into entrenched, imprisoned ‘heritage’. At the same time, that night, a Tory ex-minister was was chugging along Victorian railway lines on BBC2, revisiting the Midlands’ industrial past. Retracing history, remembering heritage. No need to worry about missing it: these things stay on iPlayer for a week, and then endlessly repeat. Time grown blurry, and inexact. The masks that were strapped to the models’ faces that night reappeared a few days later, in David Sims’ campaign for the McQ SS13 line. Just as the menswear SS13 show replicated the bisected dragonfly prints of the womenswear resort collection. Slash, slice, seam. Resonate, repeat, resurrect.
January, 2013. Anderson & Sheppard have left Savile Row. But McQueen is there now, closing an almost-perfect seam (in the same spot where Evisu once tried and failed to breathe ‘new’ life into the street). And Farmiloe & Farmiloe are still in business, trading from a two-storey prefab with flat glass panes that look out at a Surrey industrial estate. All that’s left in Clerkenwell are unfolding empty rooms, opening onto blank endings and blind passageways, for an endless circle of prowling ghosts.
Alexander McQueen, Winter 1997 | Firstview
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