Chicago Manual of Style—2/23/2010

McQueen’s dark genius met a tragic end

By Jessica Hester

Not even the threat of record-breaking blizzard conditions could stop the forces of fashion. In the days leading up to the first show at New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park, editors, casting directors, and designers were scrambling to make sure that models and racks of clothes made it to Manhattan before the snow did. Despite inclement weather, the clothes arrived, the models hit the catwalk running, and the show was set to go—that is, until the passing of one designer cast a different kind of cloud over the whole affair.

Superstar British designer Alexander McQueen—a force of nature in his own right—committed suicide on February 10, the eve of his mother’s funeral and the day before the start of New York Fashion Week. McQueen’s death gives us cause to reflect on both his incredible creative legacy and the ugly effects of depression and stress that the fashion industry tries to airbrush away.

A high school dropout, McQueen trained as a tailor on London’s famous Savile Row before entering Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where he began to hone his style as a master of the macabre. His fall 2007 ready-to-wear collection was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. When the clothes were presented in Paris, McQueen staged a show with a red and black pentagram traced in sand accompanying a film featuring swarms of locusts and faces decaying to skulls. Another collection was based on Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and yet another was shown in the dungeon that held Marie Antoinette before her execution. McQueen’s bold fascination with morbid themes and dark psychology earned him the nickname enfant terrible, along with the admiration of fashion editors worldwide.

Though most of his eccentric concoctions were entirely unwearable, it didn’t stop his designs from becoming iconic. McQueen’s precarious ten-inch stilettos, bedazzled and shaped like lobster claws, were donned by outrageous chanteuse Lady Gaga in her music video for “Bad Romance.” The massive booties, which debuted last October in McQueen’s spring 2010 show, look like hooves, and no one but Gaga could stomp around in them without twisting an ankle. Another pair of shoes from the show was reminiscent of the eerie, organic designs of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Like Gaudí’s apartment balconies that resemble gaping jaws, McQueen’s shoes look like they’re about to gnaw on the models’ toes. McQueen’s ability to fuse the fearsome, fantastical, and fabulous was always fashion-forward.

In addition to these over-the-top couture items, some of McQueen’s designs did have mass-market appeal. His skull print chiffon scarves—a morbid take on florals—managed to be dainty and dark, girly and ghoulish. Coveted by celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Mary Kate Olsen, and Kate Moss, the rocker-chic scarves retail for $200–$395. Low-cost alternatives abound, however: I plucked my $5 version out of an overflowing bin in New York’s Chinatown.

Like many of today’s highly visible figures in fashion, McQueen was an avid Twitter user. He used the site to air some personal demons, and his updates in the days leading up to his suicide revealed that his mother’s death was deeply troubling for him. Sadly, McQueen’s downward spiral is the second to shock the fashion world in recent months. Daul Kim, a 20-year-old South Korean model and fashion-world darling, killed herself in November. Like McQueen, Kim also used high-traffic Internet sites as spots to vent her frustration and despair. In the weeks prior to her death, Kim had posted ominous updates on her blog, where she wrote that she felt “mad depressed” and “like a ghost.” In recent years, other models have died as a result of their psychological struggles, including two from the complications of anorexia: 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos in 2006, and 21-year-old Brazilian beauty Ana Carolina Reston earlier this month.

It’s no surprise that fashion is not all frivolous fun, but these recent deaths suggest that the fashion industry has a problem that must be addressed. With any luck, these terrible losses will spark some serious discussion about how to help models and designers suffering from depression or similar afflictions. When McQueen died, the world lost a brilliant, exciting, irreverent designer whose shows were theatrical spectacles and whose masterfully crafted ensembles were like pieces of performance art. He will be missed for his impeccable technical gifts, daring creativity, and unparalleled ability to turn the disturbing or stigmatized into high-drama, show-stopping, jaw-dropping work. In the words of one writer quoted by ABC News, “Long live McQueen!”