Alexander McQueen: The Lion, The Witch and The Show

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.

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.