Is Fashion Art? Alexander McQueen and the artist beneath the designer.

By Sofia Bielli

 

Not all fashion is art. Nowadays, especially, how can we consider a byproduct of mass production sold in hundreds and hundreds of high street stores for a few pounds worthy of being called ‘art’? In an age of consumerism such as this, where fast-fashion companies release hundreds of new items every week, it is hard to recognise fashion as anything other than a mere product to be consumed. Even in haute-couture, despite the highly regarded fashion artists and all the labour and effort put into a single piece of clothing, the designs are still articles made to please an audience which will then be enticed to purchase them for a large sum of money. Alternatively, they will be worn by celebrities on red carpets as a marketing strategy to promote the brand.

I can only think of one person who, in the 21st century, was able to make it in the haute-couture world while breaking free from the fashion marketplace to design stunning creations, following his genius and his own imagination, and that was Alexander McQueen. In his sadly short career, ended by his death in 2010, McQueen was able to challenge, shock and defy fashion’s conventions. The use of new and unusual materials, avant-garde installations and performance art made his catwalk shows into the most powerful expression of art. These were received by audiences and critics with a mix of wonder, disbelief and aversion. McQueen’s first designs were not created to be sold. Instead, they represented the artist’s vision, passion, and admiration for the beauty and aesthetics of the natural world.

When watching McQueen (2018), the documentary on the life and career of the designer, I was particularly amazed by one show: the finale of the Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 1999 show at Gatliff Road Warehouse. His N.13 collection focused on the Arts and Crafts movement and new technology. The show was portrayed by sculpted gowns, tulle skirts and embroidered dressed contrastingly paired with modern corsets, an abrupt contrast to the smooth lines of the garments’ fabrics and materials. The finale of the show saw the model Shalom Harlow appearing on a revolving wooden platform, dressed in a white, strapless dress with a tulle underlay. To both sides of the platforms, two industrial sprayers (made by Fiat) are moving gradually and ominously while Harlow gently spins to the sound of Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan.” Her gaze grows more and more concerned as the robots increase their pace and twirl erratically. Suddenly, in an almost defeating moment, the robots start spraying the virginal gown in black, green and yellow paint, producing an unrehearsed choreography. The model, overwhelmed, descends the platform and marches towards the audience, which is in turn astonished.

(Photo by Guy Marineau/Conde Nast via Getty Images)

I personally want to translate this finale as the anxiety of marketplace and technology’s uprising against the manual arts and crafts of the tailors and creators of fashion and garments, but also of many other artists. As the show took place in 1999, the uncertainty of the turn of the new century and the future of art must have been felt by many, and it is not surprising that a sensible romantic like Alexander McQueen wanted to expose his fears and thoughts through his collections, which is, in the end, something a genuine artist does.

 

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