A World Divided and Damned

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With the passing of designer Lee Alexander McQueen, known to most by the name of his brand, Alexander McQueen, I expect to see two streams of reactive thought.  These, I am willing to wager, will be operatic grief, and utter disdain.  Both are misguided.

McQueen, 40, was a fashion designer renowned for his edgy runway shows and impeccably-if-fancifully crafted clothes.  But McQueen was never a mere vehicle for the expressions of the vacuous and wealthy – and that may have been, ultimately, what killed him.  McQueen cut his life, by any measure a huge success, astonishingly short.  I had no idea how old he was, frankly, when I heard the news yesterday. His mother had died some nine days earlier, and he was deeply upset by the loss.  His father, a London taxi driver, now survives his wife and son.

It is also the case that, in 2007, one of McQueen’s closest friends (and first champion) – style maven Isabella Blow – died.  Ms. Blow was bipolar.  It had become a tiger she finally could not ride.  In addition, ovarian cancer was discovered and removed upon examination during one of three previous suicide attempts.  She is said to have feared recurrence.  It was also said at inquest that she despaired over her declining reputation in the high-wire world she inhabited. She took her own life by drinking a pint of the weed killer Paraquat – an amount described as “20 times the lethal dose.” 

So here we are, here I am, writing about a dead designer who palled around with the rich, the privileged, the troubled, and the self-involved among us.  His could be described as a world of the damned.  Why do I care?  I am a decidedly non-fashion-focused woman who lives in Iowa.  I am losing weight, but still have a long way to go before reaching even a medically acceptable place.  A zaftig Iowa dame.  What could possibly strike deeper horror into the heart of the fashion world?  Nonetheless, I have been touched, and deeply so, by the work of Mr. McQueen. 

In the hours since his death, I have had him much in mind, and I know why I feel a kinship with him, however distant.  He refused to resign himself to mere existence – even the elevated existence of a ramped-up fashionista.  (I turn 52 years old tomorrow, and have developed some idea of the ease with which a person may slip into merely existing, though in my way I fight that.)  Mr. McQueen never ceased laboring until he drew his last breath.  And struggle is valiant, whether it is among privileged persons or those of limited means.  I’m moved by his runway shows.  They were stunning amalgams of various forms of music and design – from shoes to hair to hats to the clothes themselves – all of it purposeful, all of it intentional and carefully considered.  He brought people to their feet – and these were people who really didn’t ever have to get up if they didn’t especially care to do so. 

He started as a traditional laborer in textiles, working to craft impeccable suits on Savile Row with tailors Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves and Hawkes.   Bored one day, he famously slipped a derogatory inscription into the lining of a jacket bound for the Prince of Wales.  He moved on with this angry attitude to take the world by storm.  If you look here and see some of his work highlighted in the Daily Mail, you’ll have to admit it possesses great breadth:  there is historicity, fancy, humor, fatalism, resignation, strength, resilience, and massive artistry on display at every turn. Lips become mouths, then alarmingly enhanced orifices.  Shoes become hooves, horns emerge from heads, hats are planetary orbs, women and men wrestle together incapably across the stage, robots spray paint onto dresses, snow falls on runways while live wolves cry – the world of Alexander McQueen was indeed a stage, and that stage encompassed the world as we have known it, and as it will come to be.  Here is a video repository of some of his runway shows.

His reach was formidable, his drive unquenchable, and the results were all things:  prophetic, soothing, elegiac, violent, inspiring, and unnerving as hell.  Our world is surely divided – most obviously into haves and have-nots.  And have-nots have not much use for fashion.  McQueen lived among the haves as he indulged their various tastes for finery.  But he was never a lackey. 

The Alexander McQueen runway narratives implied money, sex, disdain, and ruination.  But they also embraced the future, made fun of the present, and reinvented the past in a way that created what truly amounted to a new world.  That level of struggle, that outsized creativity, could and did pull our entire known universe into its vortex.  I won’t say that Lee McQueen was better than his taxi driver father, or you, or me, or any one of a million people sitting this moment on a barstool eating chips and drinking beer.  I refuse to say that.  But his struggle to express so very much, to rise above the mere business end of his business, deserves at least as much honor as we would accord to any other class of person.   

There is precious little in existence strong enough to hold our fractious world together.  We are all spending inordinate amounts of time fixated on belitting each other.  This behavior has, in fact, completely taken over the world of politics.  But I have always felt creativity itself amounts to some sort of epic glue we’ve been given – those who possess it can apply it, and thereby shore up the disintegrating center.  McQueen possessed it in copious amounts, and shared it as he spun literally miles of the priceless textile that knits us together. 

Rich or poor, idle or industrious, despicable or worthy, we should honor those whose labors enhance the scrim against which all our lives must be played out.  This work Lee McQueen most certainly did, in one of the world’s least likely corners, where looks must be spare and mean and troubled souls abound.  In that place, battling the drudgery of demands and obligations to produce, to generate output, he found within himself some uncanny rocket fuel for creating entire worlds, moods, and feelings, making us live in them and experience them as our own.  I hope he now has rest.  He will be missed, even by those who have no idea they’ve lost him.

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