Words Dan Toye
Alexander McQueen and controversy went hand-in-hand, but La Poupée was lone in the accomplishment that the press questioned whether McQueen was a racist. Furthermore, unlike McQueen’s other disturbing shows the press didn’t consider the entire collection but were focused on one look worn by Debra Shaw.
La Poupée, McQueen’s 1997 Spring and Summer show which translated to ‘the doll’ from French, was inspired by Hans Bellmer’s photography which depicts dolls with distorted and mis-matched limbs. McQueen created clothing infused with metal and boning forcing the models to move in a twisted, jerky manner; movements which McQueen associated with dolls.
It is important to note McQueen’s reputation at the time this collection debuted: McQueen, though still lacking the funds, had established himself as ‘l’enfant terrible’ (the unruly child as the French called him) mainly because of his infamous show, ‘The Highland Rape’, and the press came to his shows seeking out a controversial story. Amongst the well-tailored outfits, tribal head pieces made by Sean Leane and Phillip Treacy and unique set creating the illusion the models were walking on water, the press focused on the look worn by Debra Shaw.
Shaw donned a black mesh short dress with sleeves, from each hem hung yards of fringe. Most notably she wore a metal square shackled to her knees and her elbows forcing her to move slowly, with a bent back. Shaw performed on the catwalk twitching her head, fingers and arms and once she reached the end of the catwalk she moved her stomach into positions which looked awkward, uncomfortable and inhuman.
The press immediately made the assumption that this look was honouring slavery as Shaw is black. Derogatory words and phrases like “misogyny & slavery”, “sickening” and “disturbing” were thrown at the show. Partly this assumption was made due to McQueen’s reputation but this interpretation is very hard to ignore. Shaw confronted McQueen backstage asking him “is it a reference to slavery” to which McQueen replied “No, God”.
A big question arises here; why would McQueen let Shaw wear the square and have possible misinterpretation of the inspiration?
Reporters and friends look back at his early work including this collection and look as a tactical ploy to earn notoriety, a more dangerous reputation and ultimately money for his show: John Hitchcock, his former boss at Anderson & Shephard said: “It’s not really what he wanted to sell […] to get in there in the first place you’ve got to be able to do something different, you’ve got to have a shock value” and Caroline Evans, author of Fashion at the Edge, stated: “it’s an example of McQueen’s showmanship but also his disingenuousness.” Yet others see this as McQueen expressing art, including Suzy Menkes, the previous Editor-in-Chief of The International Herald Tribune: “Lee really put himself into the show […] something deep from his soul” and Andrew Groves, his ex-boyfriend: “he didn’t think there were things you couldn’t express on a runway show.” Either interpretation is entirely possible. Even combining both, McQueen expressed his dark soul through his runways and knew that he would get a bad reputation and notoriety.
Something exclusively associated with McQueen with nearly all of his early runways are these questions which can debated back and forth without a definitive answer. McQueen can be seen as a devious trickster who had every collection and shock carefully planned and perfectly executed or he can be seen as a troubled artist challenging society and the prejudices we have in place.
Yet no matter how McQueen is seen everyone can enjoy the beauty, the theatricality and the fit of his clothes in each of his collections, and La Poupée executes the McQueen vision perfectly.