In Alexander McQueen’s new, gracefully curved store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the imposing figure of a man—a wingless angel, actually—rendered in shiny stainless steel extends through a circular skylight, his head outlined against the clear L.A. sky. For his fall fashion show in February,
McQueen told a tale inspired by the ancient elm in his garden, about a girl who lives in a tree but eventually flees its leafy oppression to find love, sunshine and a bounty of spectacular frocks. That both of these characters should move into the light is no accident; they’re merely manifesting the mood of the designer, who, after an extended dark period, both personally and professionally, has embraced the light. And, as indicated by his stellar fall collection, his work is the better for it.
Long considered an enfant terrible of fashion—a label he loathes and one which, at the age of 39, should no longer apply—McQueen has seemed at various times in his career to work through his demons, but he has never completely done so. Sometimes a dark current would wend through even his most glorious shows; other times, a season of pure romance might be followed abruptly by a brooding display of melancholia or outright anger. Such was the mood of last fall’s Witches show, inspired by a distant ancestor, Elizabeth Howe, a victim of the Salem witch hysteria. It offered not Hawthorne-esque romance with some hint of redemption, but a study in vitriol expressed via fashion—an assault McQueen now considers at least partly a mistake.
That performance came in the midst of a calamitous time in his personal life that included the end of a three-year relationship, the much-talked-about death of his friend Isabella Blow and, just after Witches, the exit of his longtime stylist, Katy England. Yet today, McQueen finds himself happy and in love with fashion all over again. The just-opened L.A. store is a source of pride; his recent fall show won critical raves; and now he is well into planning a spring collection that should be completely different, with a “very modern” theme based on engineering.
McQueen attributes his newfound power of positive thinking to a “transformative” trip to India and, ironically, to Blow’s suicide in May 2007. He spent a month, the longest he has ever been away from home, on what he calls a pilgrimage—a get-away-from-it-all excursion during which he immersed himself in the contemplative life and Buddhist culture. It didn’t hurt that he came away not only with the resolve to throw himself back into the joy of fashion, but with an angle for the show that would prove so spectacular.
He titled the production The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, anchoring the set with a huge tree wrapped Christo-style “for a feeling of protection.” The show captivated with its beauty, romance and hail-Britannia motif rendered in tulle and embroidery. The first half, set inside the tree, featured Victorian Goth ballerinas in darkly decorative black dresses over petticoats, as well as some muted punk plaids. By the second half, the girl had shed her sorrows and switched her royal fascination from Victoria in perpetual mourning to the young Elizabeth II, bedecked in Fifties British couture, and to the Indian maharajas, from whom she acquired a love of color and ornamentation, including lavish, embroidered flat slippers—a major deal by McQueen—and mind-boggling amounts of jewelry from India’s famed Gem Palace.