The Fabric of Genius
Let’s start with the important business: Go see McQueen right now. Stop reading this and go watch it. If you can go back in time and watch it fucking yesterday, even better. I can’t stress this enough: Go stream McQueen on Amazon.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I see that some of you are still here. You were unconvinced by my passionate plea. I don’t blame you, but let me explain why you need to see it.
McQueen is a documentary about a true artistic genius whose profound success masked roiling internal torment (in case you haven’t figured this out, we’re talking about the late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen, not the late movie star Steve McQueen or director Steve McQueen) as his star rose in the 1990s before succumbing to the ennui of the 2000s. It engages with how we observe challenge, relentlessness, success, and most of all, happiness. As any spectacular documentary does, it allows you to ponder your own humanity through the actions of others. And beyond the nature of the human condition, it delves deeply into the realm of art versus craft.
In 2016, I saw the “Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style” exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. I was engrossed; the exhaustive arrays of fabric, sketches, garments, photographs, and videos told the story of someone who came from the fashion-house old guard before arguably creating the current environment where haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion can exist simultaneously.
Saint Laurent expanded the craft of fashion in incredible ways, probing the possibilities of fabric, embroidery, and accessories to make iconic pieces. That said, pieces like his trench coat, however iconic and forward-thinking they were in the moment, remained rooted in the principles of both high fashion and simple ready-to-wear functionality; as far as I can tell, he wrote the book on that.
Now that I’ve seen McQueen, I recognize just how different these two designers were. Fashion design isn’t a world I know much about, so that’s probably a naïve realization, but I still find their differences worth exploring. The best way I can explain the difference between Saint Laurent and McQueen is by thinking back to another time I was wowed by the work of a singular Frenchman: Auguste Rodin.
I was in Paris visiting the Louvre, as a good tourist does. I saw the Winged Victory of Samothrace and thought, “Well damn, this is incredible.” It was unlike anything I had ever seen in terms of scale, skill, and celebration—it perfected the craft. And then I went to Musée Rodin and saw The Gates of Hell. It wasn’t just a sculptor with prodigious skill crafting a masterpiece; this was someone with a story to tell, pushing beyond mastering craft into the realm of genius art. The work is a set of doors, nearly 20 feet in height, that were commissioned for the Decorative Arts Museum, with Rodin free to choose the theme. In a bit of delicious irony, the museum was never actually built, but seeing the doors, with their ornate depiction of Dante’s imagining of the Inferno, is one of the most jarring experiences I’ve ever had.
When you see a bridge, you may say, “I couldn’t have made this, but I understand why it was made.” But something like The Gates of Hell forces you to confront the fact that not only could you definitely not have made something like this, nor can you understand exactly why it was made, but you can barely comprehend how it’s possible that any human could dream this up and then fashion that dream into reality. What took Rodin to these emotional depths? How could he even conceive the emotions of the six subjects of The Burghers of Calais, men who are all approaching certain death, yet display distinct expressions?
When you encounter art, you are left to ask questions that have no answers—or as many answers as there are answerers. Craft perfects a function, while art forces you to engage with the human condition itself. That’s why McQueen was so affecting for me.
McQueen’s very first collection, when he was apparently using unemployment benefits to buy fabric, was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” He took the functional aspect of designing clothes, wrapped it in Saran wrap, slashed through it a bit, and then wove in wire and accents to make the garments look like bleeding flesh. The collection was a clever nod to history; McQueen grew up in East London, where the fabled serial killer took his victims. But it was also a direct challenge: to see his designs less as clothing than as art.
His 1995 collection “Highland Rape” doubles or triples down on this challenge. You’re not necessarily supposed to find inspiration in the attire for fashion purposes, but you are supposed to be inspired to engage with the themes he’s presenting. Is McQueen a horrifying misogynist? Is this a twisted way to celebrate the strength of women? What on Earth could have possibly brought him to this place?
That’s all before we even make it onto the catwalk for the show itself. The film spends time on his shows “It’s a Jungle Out There” (1997) and “VOSS” (2001), which are even more disorienting and mind-melting in terms of setting than they are in their actual clothing designs. “It’s a Jungle Out There” takes place in an old marketplace, where a car accidentally catches on fire—and it doesn’t interrupt the show in any way! And “VOSS” is worth watching to see how the interplay of sanitarium and two-way mirrors gives way to a shocking and utterly unanticipated end to the show. It’s safe to say that his shows evoked an emotional response that is a far, far cry from the archetypal polite amusement that you typically connect with fashion shows.
I feel like I should clarify that I was both enlightened and moved by the Saint Laurent exhibit. Any person who perfects and revolutionizes their craft will open your eyes, and he was no different. He changed the way that people approach fashion, maintaining high-fashion design while making pieces more accessible to the masses. None of this is meant to be a knock on him. But what I’m saying about my reaction to McQueen is that I feel like I have a new understanding of the interplay between form and function (or, in many cases, the lack thereof).
Sure, it’s probably always been there and I’m just seeing it for the first time—though the film’s dismissal of a campy John Galliano show for Dior when McQueen was starting at Givenchy indicates that he really was in a league all his own—but regardless, the spectrum is set now: the perfecting craftsperson at one end, the unadulterated creative genius at the other. Do they meet in the middle? I have no doubt, but as in my experience with Rodin, I am seeing how much this medium can challenge me, not as a mortal being incapable of perfecting the craft, but as a human. I'm learning that a designer doesn't just touch our bodies with their fabric; they can touch our minds through a story as well.
Like I said, go see McQueen fucking yesterday.