Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!
“Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” the exhibition that opened on Saturday at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, tells the story of a daring designer whose transformation from humble London roots to international visionary transpired in a sensational, but far too short career. And within that story are many other fascinating narratives. One of particular interest is the 10-year collaboration between McQueen and Swarovski that resulted in some of his most fantastic works, and also helped redefine the image of the crystal company for a new generation of designers.
It was in 1997 when Nadja Swarovski, now a member of the executive board of the Swarovski family business, first approached McQueen and became inspired to initiate a program to support young talent with products and financial awards. “I come from the engineering branch of the family—my father was the head of manufacturing of the crystal, as was my grandfather, as was his father—so I grew up with all of these stones at home that I would use to make necklaces or bracelets,” she said at a preview of the exhibition, for which Swarovski is a partnering sponsor.
“My grandfather always told me stories about working with Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Elsa Schiaparelli,” she said. “But by the time I finished my studies, and worked at Gagosian Gallery and then Eleanor Lambert, I thought, 'What is the world of Swarovski looking like from the outside?' There was no mention of fashion, only the crystal animals. That was not the Swarovski I know, so I thought, 'I should be doing exactly what my grandfather did, and who would be the Dior equivalent to me in 1997?'”
Her answer came through a meeting with the stylist Isabella Blow, a close collaborator of McQueen in his early years who introduced Swarovski to the designer and his friends, including designers Philip Treacy, Julien Macdondald, and Shaun Leane. She invited McQueen to Swarovski’s headquarters in Austria and offered him the company’s range of products to use in his work.
An early example of what resulted from that meeting was a top from McQueen's spring 1999 collection, called “No. 13,” made entirely of crystal mesh with a hood that completely covered the face (pictured, top).
“At that time, people were calling the stones ‘diamante,’ and that mesh was initially used very conservatively as a trim,” Swarovski said. “He said, I’ll have five rolls of that, please. And we said OK, because we couldn’t sell it anyway. And this is what he came up with, which is so beautiful. It’s like a fabric in the way it hangs on a body, and the hood added a lot of tension. The bottom was juxtaposed with a very thin, sheer white skirt that added an amazing bit of energy.”
As their relationship evolved, McQueen began to create elaborate headdresses with Treacy and Leane (pictured, above), as well as fashion pieces that resembled full-body armor. For McQueen’s spring 2000 collection, Leane designed a yashmak, a veil used by some Muslim women to cover their faces in public, made of aluminum squares dotted with red Swarovski crystals. The design was shown, perversely, with red-and-white striped knickers on the bottom (pictured, below right). “It’s so beautiful, and yet so provocative in its meaning,” Swarovski said.
Hats became objects of beauty in themselves, increasingly complicated and bizarre, like a bird’s nest made with duck wings and crystal covered eggs for the 2006 collection called “The Widows of Culloden,” which paid tribute to McQueen’s Scottish heritage (pictured, above left).
“He worked so closely with Treacy and Leane,” Swarovski said. “They were on the same wavelength.”
While some of the designs took such lengths to create that they could never be commercially produced, McQueen began to create prints inspired by them for his ready-to-wear. An example from his spring 2009 show, called “Natural Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection,” was known as the “Bell Jar” dress (pictured below), made of thousands of glittering Swarovski crystals set in net.
“Eventually that collection was commercialized by having prints of the crystals on silk fabrics,” Swarovski said. “He eventually went on to do snakeskin and flower prints as well. If you look around, he was working with so many materials, from rubber, to wood, to seashells, so crystal became just one more creative material for him to work with.”
Over the years, McQueen helped Swarovski realize her vision that the company’s crystals could be viewed as fashionable as they had once been in her grandfather’s day. “Before he worked with crystal, people had the connotation that they were either too conservative, or too bling and in-your-face,” she said.
“Crystal is nothing but a lens that captures the light and refracts it,” Swarovski said. “He totally understood how it could be used in the most powerful and effective way."