McQueen is a house that retains its unique founder’s flair for the operatic and insistence that fashion should always be somehow theatrical. Furthermore, exactly one of the reasons that Alexander McQueen gained so much respect in the first place was because of a kind of devil-may-care refusal simply to fall in line with the parameters of dominant trends. This campaign only reinforces that position when compared with the various other AW11 campaigns produced by luxury brands. There is nothing else out there quite like it. Taken overall, as a cohort, the totality of campaigns naturally reveals a number of fashionable tendencies. However, the McQueen campaign stands apart, entirely different from the pack.
Just as Vivienne Westwood’s eventual international acclaim came on the basis of a very British refusal to separate high and low culture, an insistence that taste has never been entirely defined by the elite if one has a real understanding of history, so too does Alexander McQueen engage in a kind of wilful hubris. One could even say that it is rather subversive, a direct confrontation over the politics of taste. Like Westwood, McQueen’s identity is strongly bound up in a kind of hybrid style in which access to the highest echelons are contested, in which the garments –and more importantly, the persona of the brand- themselves stand as evidence that the best of fashion is not only the prerogative of the privileged elite. The best of fashion is always -has always been- shaped by more than one social stratum.
Of a different generation, naturally the way in which ‘the street’ or aspects of underground and popular culture reoccur at McQueen have a somewhat different slant. Like Westwood, the adherence to the creed of the tradition of craft is clear; the loving continuation of the skills of the couturier that cannot be faked without talent and rigourous practice. The inspiration from historical dress and the most refined of sensibilities drawn from the ‘high culture’ of historic art and design are motifs that undeniably connect both of these British fashion houses. But, whereas Westwood perhaps understandably looked to street and music culture for inspiration, fusing them with an understanding of costume history, Alexander McQueen is of a different time.
Instead, within the brand’s persona – and most certainly in this arresting campaign- we see glimpses of mass popular culture. Imagery draws on cinema, but not the intellectual cinema of the art house, rather that of sci-fi, gothic fantasy or even horror genres that are the choice of the great-unsung masses rather than the elite with its pretensions to intellectualism. Sometimes we encounter the world of street culture’s sportswear obsessed enclaves, a phenomenon that is hard to ignore as ‘working class’ in the UK’s still class-conscious psyche. And time and time again – including in this campaign- we encounter the world of special effects, CGI or even video games, again, something that is hard to pretend remains the domain of the privileged elite or comfortable middle classes. It is a beautiful thing then that Alexander McQueen will be always remembered as another of the British fashion labels that managed to secure the highest accolades of the elite fashion world whilst making it impossible to not see its quotidian, populist influences.
The AW11 campaign is particularly admirable since it works both on the straightforward level of being an eye-catching fashion campaign and also as a series of images that are elliptically emblematic of the brand’s persona. Furthermore, not for the first time will McQueen’s heady mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture be entirely wrapped up in the zeitgeist, as Tate Britain announces a major overview exhibition this autumn of the Victorian painter John Martin whose epic apocalyptic paintings attracted massive public following whilst leaving the art critics of the day arguing over whether it was great art or camp kitsch. If poor Mr Martin was somewhat tortured by what critics might think, McQueen usually appears none too worried.