The complexity and brilliance of Alexander McQueen remains as incomprehensible now as it was forty years ago, when the young designer produced his first collection. He was fashion’s dark prince, his work initially labeled cruel and offensive by the press. He never cared. In fact, he thrived on provocation and contradiction. He made exquisite gowns and then defaced them, as an aesthetic choice. He made women beautiful, but also terrifying. He created clothes that were meant to be felt, as much as seen.
In Alexander McQueen: Unseen, a comprehensive portfolio of rarely seen images, we watch McQueen evolve through the lens of photographer Robert Fairer, who followed the designer closely from the very beginning ($51; amazon.com). Working mostly for Vogue, Fairer captured 30 of McQueen’s 36 legendary shows, documenting both the catwalk and the chaotic backstage. “Robert’s images capture the raw energy and powerful emotion in those moments leading up to Lee’s incredible shows,” explains Sarah Burton, one of McQueen’s closest collaborators and now the creative director of his label. “The intensity and focus, the stress, and excitement are all palpable.” Catch a glimpse of Fairer’s photos below, and revel in seven of McQueen’s most memorable collections.
1. Nihilism, SPRING 1994
Nihilism was a series of mud-flecked cling wrap dresses, meticulously tailored coats worn with nothing underneath, and low-riding “bumster” trousers, a style of pant McQueen would recreate throughout his career. Models sneered and flicked their middle fingers at the audience as they walked to a relentless punk soundtrack.
2. It’s A Jungle Out There, FALL 1997
McQueen was obsessed with nature, and this collection marks the first of several inspired by the notion of predator and prey. The clothes included a pony skin jacket with impala horns exploding from the shoulders, a silk jacket bearing the image of Christ, and a preponderance of bleached denim, ragged leather, and fur pieces.
3. Joan, FALL 1998
Paying homage to Catholic martyr Joan of Arc, McQueen dressed models in bloody red, smoldering black, and chainmail looks accented by nearly-bald blonde wigs and red contact lenses. The finale featured model Erin O’Connor standing inside a ring of fire, her face and body engulfed by a dress of dripping red beads.
4. What A Merry Go Round, FALL 2001
Gathering his audience around a sinister carousel complete with red-eyed horses, McQueen created a nightmare circus of goth flapper girls in elegantly deconstructed lace, silk, and laser-cut leather gowns interspersed with military-inspired jackets and silk suits. One model wore a golden fox carcass around her neck as a kind of grotesque jewelry. Just as the carnival seemed to end, the cast reemerged from backstage with their faces garishly painted like sad Harlequin clowns.
5. It’s Only A Game, SPRING 2005
Staged as a life-size game of chess between America and Japan, McQueen fused elements of both cultures into a collection of tailored schoolgirl ensembles, richly embroidered 18th century confections, and even a frilly, reimagined football uniform. Kimono sashes and obi belts prevailed, as did pastel colors and horse hair. Every look represented a different chess piece, and as the game played out on stage, models moved around the board until only two queens were left circling each other.
6. La Dame Bleue, Spring 2008
Beneath the wings of an enormous bird outlined in neon tubing, La Dame Bleue paid tribute to the elegance and eccentricity of Isabella Blow, the legendary stylist who discovered McQueen while he was still a student at Central St. Martins. The collection featured sumptuous, feathered gowns, strong suiting with belted waists and structured shoulders, and a variety of wildly ambitious headpieces by hat designer Philip Treacy, including one that resembled a swarm of red butterflies.
7. Plato’s Atlantis, Spring 2010
McQueen’s final collection is perhaps his most opulent and narrative, imagining a race of humanity forced to evolve underwater in the event of an ecological disaster. The show opened with green, orange, brown and gold cocktail dresses in a suffusion of earthy textures and land animal prints, paired with chunky “armadillo” boots that appeared to grow straight from the model’s leg. Gradually, McQueen’s palette turned aquatic with gauzy blue and purple jellyfish dresses, slick stingray jackets, and glossy high heels seemingly crafted from coral. Models wore prosthetic face enhancements and braids that resembled gills to heighten the the oceanic effect.