I don’t claim to have closely followed the career of the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who sadly took his own life this week, or to have made a close study of the surreal world in which he moved. But I have read and seen enough to conclude that he was a disturbed man. What the sycophants of the fashion world (or art, or pop music, or literature for that matter) describe as genius is often mental or emotional torment desperately looking for an outlet.
Few people outside the fashion industry would doubt that McQueen’s bizarre creations were the products of a damaged mind. His parades looked like out-takes from a Federico Fellini fantasy film, full of models so grotesquely pale and thin that they looked like creatures from an alien planet, wearing garments (for want of a better word) that seemed designed to strip the wearer of all dignity and humanity. To watch those blank-faced, asexual, other-worldly models parading clothes by McQueen was to understand the view of some feminists that the high fashion industry is fundamentally misogynistic, created to humiliate and demean women. (His 10-inch heels were too much even for some models, who refused to wear them for fear of injury.)
Of course his clothes provoked gasps of astonishment, which is why the fashion industry loved him. It is an industry that craves novelty like a drug. Having realised long ago that there were only so many ways classical design themes could be re-invented, high fashion has left itself nowhere to go other than to that edgy place we call out-there.
McQueen appears to have been in his natural realm there. A gay boy from working-class London, he apparently viewed himself as an outsider and seems to have been ambivalent about the adulation heaped on him. According to The Times, he was shy in private but foul-mouthed and confrontational in public. A “powerful fashion journalist” who crossed the Atlantic to meet him is said to have been left “white with shock” afterwards. Good. There should be no such thing as a “powerful fashion journalist” in the first place. The notion is preposterous, and an example of how inflated with conceit and self-absorption the alternative universe that is the fashion industry has become.
It was no surprise to read that McQueen was “discovered” by Isabella Blow, the “eccentric, aristocratic former fashion editor of Vogue”. Blow killed herself in 2007 by drinking weedkiller. Now McQueen too has taken his own life, which leaves me wondering whether the fashion industry, like rock music, attracts talented but inherently unstable people or whether the excesses, adulation, pressures and temptations of the culture and lifestyle render previously normal people unstable.
No doubt McQueen will be ostentatiously mourned for a few days – his funeral, if there is one, should be rich in air-kissing and photo opportunities – and then the Beautiful People will move on, anxious to find the next big thing; some other tortured soul who will satisfy the industry’s appetite for newness, outrage and entertainment.
It’s getting perilously close to cliché territory to say that McQueen was devoured by the celebrity culture that created him. The real explanation for his premature death may be far more simple. In the end, it appears that all the adulation in the world couldn’t compensate this fragile man for the recent loss of his mum. Who knows; she may have been the one person in his glitter-filled life whom he felt loved him as someone other than a fashion darling.