interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by ANNE DENIAU
pictures by STÉPHANE FEUGÈRE
The flamboyant rascal of British design continues to mine the veins of his cultural heritage — from Gainsborough to The New Romantics — in his search for the New Silhouette. Never one to acquiesce to the status quo, he now takes fashion psychologically and sensually deeper. The astonishingly beautiful clothes of his Summer 2007 collection invoke the grace, elegance, and underlying sexuality of bygone eras, as if to mask in fragile beauty the violent masochism of today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Should I call you Alexander or Lee?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Lee is OK.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you feel, Lee?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Exhausted!
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a lot of work?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — For the moment we’re working on the pre-collection for the women’s and men’s shows. It’s a hard season because everyone wants to finish for Christmas. We put more work into the pre-collection than the show because it makes up for 70% of the sales. And usually, the best ideas come from the pre. You don’t see it on the runway for the show. The more innovative cutting is in the pre-collection, because I do most of it myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have more work now that you have your own company? Or, has the fashion business become more complex and time consuming?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I’m working more. I do more cutting and experimentation now than I ever used to do. Even though my company has gotten bigger, my workload has increased. But I feel like I’m getting my second wind in fashion. After Givenchy, I was kind of dead. Fashion was very… I was not really inspired by anything. I was really fucking bored. Now I think things are changing in fashion, in a good way. There are a lot of new aspects, new shapes. Maybe now we can move to a new silhouette.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you start to have this new feeling?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — The last two collections. Not so much in references to history. It’s more like an underlying feeling. The mood is much more fashion orientated. When I was with a big company like Givenchy, it was more about numbers and sales. I’m not thinking about that so much now. I’m just enjoying the process.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does it feel to be one of the most influential designers of your generation?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I don’t think like that. Life is too hard! I don’t have time to think about myself. I don’t really have an ego about my work. Fashion design is just what I have to do. Otherwise, I’m in the wrong fucking business! I don’t care what people think of me. [laughs] Life’s too short. Plus you never know : one season you’re fantastic, the next you’re shit. So if you let it get to you…
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were born in East London in 1969. You’re the son of a taxi driver, and one of six children.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Three boys and three girls, including me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you remember the 70s?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Bad sense of dress. People today think it was cool. It wasn’t cool, it was bad. Where I’m from it wasn’t chic, it was just bad. We didn’t have roller disco.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was your family life like?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Difficult. I come from a very working class background. Fashion is at the bottom of the agenda. It doesn’t even come above grass level. So it wasn’t fun.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you started to discover fashion at the beginning of the 80s, when you were a teenager? Was it the club scene? Friends?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — It was magazines. Like The Face, i-D and Taboo, and the New Romantics. I was always looking from the outside in, because it wasn’t my world. I just looked at the visuals.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you moved on quickly in that direction?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — From the age of three!
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you went first to Saville Row and started to learn about technical construction. Was it difficult to work there as an apprentice?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — It was very heterosexual. It’s like the equivalent of being an electrician, or a plumber. It’s not artistic. It’s just technical, and just for men. The same suit over and over – single breasted, double-breasted- and trousers. But, construction and cut was what I learned there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I can’t imagine someone today, wanting to go into fashion starting out in traditional context like that.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Well, it helped. Because a lot of designers don’t know how to cut, they don’t know how to construct. For example, during the “deconstructional” period in Paris, Margiela did it right, but there were a lot of designers who didn’t. With the exception of Margiela, it was just crap. Jean Colonna’s work was just crap. I like him as a person, though.
OLIVIER ZAHM —I was impressed to discover that you went back to school after working for designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Romeo Gigli in Milan. What pushed you to go to St. Martin’s?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I needed to have a degree, and I needed to be connected to an art school to have find my voice in fashion. The biggest context for fashion, apart from the school in Antwerp, was St. Martins. It wasn’t long—only 14 months postgraduate.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started your company at this time?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — After St. Martins. About 1992, 1993. It wasn’t really a company. I was just doing collections… I didn’t produce anything. We were just doing shows for the art of it, and the fun. But the press I got from the shows gave me the backup I needed for the collections.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who helped you most at the beginning? The press? Photographers?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I think it was the make-up artists, hairdressers, the stylists in London. I worked with Eugene Solovan. In Paris at the time, Martin Margiela was the big man, and there was nothing really happening in London. So designers like Owen Gaster, Hussein Chalayan, and myself tried to make something happen in London. So all of the English stylists, hairdressers and make-up artists got together to create a British fashion scene. Everyone worked together at the beginning of the nineties. Teams made it work. We were all working for nothing because we needed to do it. Otherwise, there would be nothing in London. Apart from The Face and i-D, the big magazines in the English press, like Vogue, didn’t understand. The big story in British Vogue with Steven Meisel and Stella Tennant, kind of kicked it off. It was also Isabella Blow. She found Stella Tennant and Steven Meisel and put these people together. I think she’s underestimated for what she did.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was an exciting period for fashion, actually.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — And it hasn’t been since. Not in London, anyway.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You came to Paris in 95 or 96 and worked for Givenchy. How was living in Paris, working in a big fashion house? Do you have bad memories?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — No, not at all. The politics of it are bad memories. But working in the atelier was fundamental to my career. It was something I needed to understand. Because I was a tailor, I didn’t totally understand softness, or lightness. I learned lightness at Givenchy. I was a tailor at Saville Row. At Givenchy I learned to soften. For me, it was an education. As a designer I could have left it behind. But working at Givenchy helped me learn my craft. It wasn’t about the experience, working for LVMH, it was all about the atelier. I loved to work in the atelier, pure and simple.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you also learn how to design shows there?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I used to do better shows in London before Givenchy. I think I made more mistakes in Givenchy than I did in my whole career but, I didn’t give a fuck because it wasn’t my money… I wasn’t paying for it. You know, I learned by my mistakes. It helps me now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about living in Paris during these Givenchy years?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I couldn’t stand it! I had no friends, and I just went from the apartment to Givenchy, and Givenchy to the apartment. It was killing me. Killing me creatively.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because Paris was not inspiring, or sexy, or appealing in a way?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — No, it was purely because of the negativity of the corporate umbrella at LVMH. I wasn’t used to it. I was used to doing my own things at my own way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Some people don’t adapt as easily as John Galliano adapted.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Yeah, but John had lived in Paris for 10 years. He loves Paris. He’s made his home there. He left London a long time ago and he’s half Spanish. But the truth is that I was never prepared to leave London. I was never prepared to leave Alexander McQueen. And I never really did… I did amazing shows in London. Honestly, I can say now that the only reason I did Givenchy was for the money to pay for Alexander McQueen shows here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You put your money back into your label. Smart. So what do you have in London that you don’t have in Paris?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Diversity. A different multicultural mix. Paris is multicultural, but segregated. You have the black communities in the north for example. But London is mixed everywhere, and less contrived. I don’t have to venture to an area of London to see Indian or Pakistani people. They’re everywhere. But, maybe I don’t know Paris that well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it the city where you are born that you need?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I think so. There’s no getting away from Paris being an amazing looking city. But, I need more grit. Paris is like a film set to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — About your fashion, now. If we speak of influences, I see two aspects. Tell me if this is correct: romantic influences that have historical references, and a punk brutality. How do you connect these opposite influences?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I think there has to be an underlying sexuality. There has to be a perverseness to the clothes. There is a hidden agenda in the fragility of romance. It’s like the Story of O. I’m not big on women looking naïve. There has to be a sinister aspect, whether it’s melancholy or sadomasochist. I think everyone has a deep sexuality, and sometimes it’s good to use a little of it—and sometimes a lot of it—like a masquerade.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you want to break an illusion or create one? Are women complex, or violent, from your point of view?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Well, I grew up with three sisters and some of them went through very violent periods. I saw this as a child. It’s almost like putting armor on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like a sort of aristocratic elegance?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — In a Marquis de Sade kind of way. [laughs] It’s aristocratic perversion, because it’s like playing with class systems, like putting a whore together with a duchess on the street.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In a way this is the democratic dimension of fashion: you can wear a costume and go to a bar….
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — You can mix and become a chameleon.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is sexual and animalistic. You also like to push the boundaries between the clothes and the body. Like the way you added the padding on the hips, or designed the Puma sneakers.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — You are talking metamorphosis. I think it comes down to a hybrid of animal and human, mixing the two of them. That’s something I’ve done with Nick Knight for a long time now. That’s something any designer tries to do: push the silhouette. To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look. What I do is look at ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress. Tribal dress is the only honest way of dressing because it’s pure sexuality, because there’s a reason they dress the way they do. There’s a lot of tribalism in the collections, as well. An army of women.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You always look for a reason beyond beauty, or the glory of the dress.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I liked the padded hips because they didn’t make the dress look historical, but it made it look more sensual. Like the statue of Diana with breasts and big hips. It’s more maternal, more womanly. Katie England, wore the black dress with the padded hips to the Nick Knight party. She said that she felt very sexy. Bobby Gillespie, her boyfriend, also said that it felt very sexy! There was something about it where you didn’t feel like you had cellulite, and you could feel your legs on the inside. I enjoyed that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Another aspect is the colors you choose—soft pinks, greys, and ivory. Where do they come from?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Washed out colors. Julia Margaret Cameron. Hand-painted Victorian pictures. So, it’s not really black, it’s grey. And, it’s not really white, it’s dirty white. And, the pink is like powder on the face.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like a kind of ambiguity in the color?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Yeah, stripping the colors down.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you ever use monochrome?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Black and white or red. It’s hard because it doesn’t say anything. It can be very bland, like solid red or yellow.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who are the women who inspire you? Kate Moss, perhaps?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — Kate is my friend. But I don’t really get inspired like that. It’s not like you see a beautiful woman and she becomes your muse. It’s more in the minds of the women in the past, like Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette. People who were doomed. [laughs] Joan of Arc or Colette. Iconic women.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Historical figures?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I don’t think the woman I’m thinking of really exists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Who would you say is like family?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — The people that I surround myself with : Katie England, Janet, my producer, Sam Gainsbury. These women surround me. There’s too many to mention.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Celebrity culture seems especially strong in England. And, it’s invaded the fashion world. How do you deal with that?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I don’t deal with celebrities.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How’s that?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I just say no. I don’t need to have celebrities at the show. Not Janet Jackson. The clothes are the celebrities. That’s what it’s about, not about a person who doesn’t fit my criteria. Because if she did, she’d be on the list you just asked me about. And Janet Jackson is not on my list. [laughs] I have nothing against them. It’s just not my world. And in that world, when Versace pays them to sit in the front row, it means fuck all to me. It’s not about that. As soon as you do that—as soon as you bring celebrities into your company—you’re putting a label on your collection. You’re saying you have an archetype of woman. My collections are for everyone, not just this person or that person. I prefer not to label the collection. It’s what the person sees, like those cut-out clothes and stick-on paper dolls. If you stick them on Britney Spears or Janet Jackson, they just don’t relate. Of course, I have done some dresses for famous women. Cate Blanchett and Juliane Moore for exemple. But we don’t go to them, they come to us. Cate Blanchett wanted to change one of the dresses from the last collection, and I said she couldn’t, because then it becomes something else. She respected that, and now wears it like it should be worn. That’s good. It’s a different league.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you travel a lot?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I try not to. I went to the Maldives after the show, but it was just too much hard work. I’m quite happy to just stay here. I have my boyfriend. No, I have a place near the coast of England. I can see France from my bedroom. I have a cannon pointing towards it.[laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a reputation for being anti-establishment, provocative, and sometimes really direct and shocking. Does it come from your youth?
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — It has nothing to do with being a bad boy. It’s just having your own personal convictions. I just prefer to focus on the collections. It’s the media who have created this persona.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your last summer show was so brilliant, and so emotional! When there is a beautiful show—not just the collection, but the whole atmosphere—the integrity of it as in the previous shows of yours, is touching, moving, and interesting. When you went out to say hello to the people, you had this little moment like it was so easy for you.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — I was in shock. I was very tired.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You convey the feeling that fashion—the way you do it—is something that comes easy.
ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — The emotional side is easy because I take it from my heart, and put my heart into it. It’s not like I think this is going to be great for American Vogue, and this is going to be great for sales. I do it for myself. That’s the difference between my shows and a lot of shows. If I make mistakes, they come from the heart. They don’t come from a contrived feeling like, this is going to make Anna Wintour happy, or this is going to make someone else happy. I don’t care. This is what is going to make me happy. If people don’t like it, well, that’s the way it is. Sometimes, people just don’t like it. Usually the shows come from a biographical place, and how I’m feeling at the time. The audience is my therapist. It’s like an exorcism.
[Table of contents]
LondonRead the article
San FranciscoRead the article
MilanRead the article
New YorkRead the article
ParisRead the article
Monte-CarloRead the article
São PauloRead the article
Los AngelesRead the article
Summer 2007: Alex
by Terry Richardson
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
by Ariel Wizman
by Anna Dubosc
Paz de la Huerta
by Olivier Zahm
Retrospective Maison Martin Margiela
by Juergen Teller
Prête à tout
by Jeremy Scott
by Karl Lagerfeld
The New Decade Starts Now
by Alexei Hay
by Richard Bush
by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin
by Chikashi Suzuki
by Marcelo Krasilcic
by Terry Richardson
by Chikashi Suzuki
by Juergen Teller
A Place In Mind
by Stefano Pilati
by Juergen Teller
Letter to Olivier Zahm
by Thomas Hirschhorn
The Real Richard
by Glenn O'Brien
New York Nudes
by Marlene Marino
Oastia (the death of pasolini)
by Mehdi Belhaj Kacem