Alexander McQueen - Art or Artistry?

05/15/2015 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016


If an invasion of extra terrestrials were imminent we could do worse than imagine creatures resembling those of Alexander McQueen's at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Aggressively bejewelled, thunderously elegant, these haughty aliens of immense creativity subsume us into the upper echelons of a superior planet called "fashion". They provide us with an eye-popping, jaw-dropping magical, mystery tour which can, at times, feel queasy.

McQueen's ubiquitous "hoofs" are part mythological beast, part stealth bomber. They might well sprout wings and flap away to Mordor. Feathers, horsehair, razor clams and ram horns create a world that is beautifully sinister. It's hard to remember what fabric upon skin feels like just as it would be to taste a cough drop after hanging out with Willy Wonka.

The excess of pushing forward, breaking boundaries, and finding a new language within clothes, is mesmerising. The minutia of detail bewildering, the workmanship remarkable and the overall thrust for attention seductively bullying. At times one longs for a Jean Muir quietness or Armani wearability. Videos of his creations show disorientated models wading through water and meandering around non-specific environments of loss and alienation. It's original yet curiously vacuous.

Not sure his work constitutes art. Or perhaps it's the environment of the catwalk that places his work within the realms of exquisite artistry instead, albeit supported by obsessiveness and back-breaking hard work. Art needs to feed off an intellectual movement of ideas, be they political, philosophical or moral. Fashion's contribution to world dialogue has been the issue of anorexia and re-defining male and female stereotypes, with little success outside those who work in the profession. A designer's clothes are more forgiving on a skinny frame, and men are still not wearing skirts.

Someone who ultimately is answerable to wearability can create, to a point, and with McQueen, to a mega point. Yet the creator, however original, is limited by the brief. Consequently, these fabrications blossom within the confines of an industry. McQueen's voice is never subversive, it loves its milieu and respects it. And ever deferential to its role as mentor, the fashion industry became the platform of his creation and despair.

The clothes, or "constructs", gradually reach a crescendo of perfection from which there is no way out. The last room feels claustrophobic with achievement, the mannequins and outfits, disquietingly menacing. Like a wild bird inside a cage, McQueen seems secure yet trapped by the demands of consumer-based success. And if the door were left opened the soul of creation would be Icarus.

One longs to see him enter the world of literary performance, dance or film; of existential questioning where his visions would reveal the beauty of angst, mankind's relationship to our animal instincts, and the acceptance of ambiguity in what we see and want to be seen as. Clothes as life's disguise is at the heart of identity for many. Again, the catwalk trivialises these concepts.

Additionally, if Alexander McQueen's mannequins could step off their exalted pedestals and walk among the beautifully curated rooms of the V & A, an opera of epic proportions could come to life. It would hail the story of the conflict between the genius of a man and his nemesis. There would be love, ambition, success and downfall as the fashion industry's deus ex machina consumed him with the push and pull of demand and constraint until he burned inside the heat of those sun rays. The fashion industry aided his talent but abetted his fragility, and stifled the hero before he could outgrow the home that housed him.

I come away with a dislike of the fashion industry; admiring, yes, but morbidly, and from afar. Its razor sharp glamour kills. Its judgement touches upon the dizzying heights of approval and abyss-like depths of opprobrium. These outrageous creations are lacking in humour. Every emanation of "genius" is serious, hard-edged. The podiatric impossibilities turn us, the viewers, into Cinderella's ugly sisters, his rock-like gigantic sculptured shoulders reduce us to her rodent minions. Art should resonate with the viewer, reach out, find commonality. McQueen's work leaves us in awe but somewhat diminished.

One "Nota Bene" to these beautifully curated rooms lies in the disappointing explanatory texts which sound like they are written by a fashion luvvie. Describing McQueen's silhouettes, they were "relatively consistent" as he followed the "dictates of his inspiration". It all sounds right without meaning much, a bit like the show, apart from the brilliance of the artistry.