The Death of a Lodestar

By Jada Wong

Syracuse University fashion design students and professors are still in shock from the news that beloved British designer, Lee Alexander McQueen, 40, committed suicide on February 11, three weeks before Paris Fashion Week, where he was set to show his eponymous line. Instead of putting on a runway show in Paris in March, as planned, 16 pieces from McQueen’s final collection were presented in a private show hosted by McQueen’s design team.

Kitiya Phongsuwan and Milly Diaz, junior fashion design majors, were waiting for a downtown train in New York City to go to their internships at New York Fashion Week when they received text messages from their friends about McQueen’s death.

“My mouth just hit the ground. I checked Twitter and Style.com to confirm the news, and I still couldn’t believe it,” Phongsuwan said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is insane, this can’t happen.’”

McQueen was dubbed by the fashion industry as “the bad boy of British design,” and wasn’t afraid to be creative, extreme, satirical and political. His designs and runway productions often painted a bigger picture than the beautiful clothes and intricate tailoring.

Royce Russell, a junior art history and fashion design major, was in class when he received multiple text messages from friends. After class ended, he confirmed McQueen’s death through on-line articles, which became plentiful in the hours following the designer’s death.

“My initial reaction was shock and sadness,” Russell said. “He was an amazing designer and I always assumed he would be around, and I would continue to see his work.”

One of McQueen’s most famous fashion political statements was his fall 1996 collection, “Highland Rape.” The line was a portrayal that spoke about England’s occupation of Scotland. The models wore opaque contact lenses and were made up to look brutalized, while their tattered, tartan dresses were ripped open to reveal lacy undergarments.

Another of McQueen’s lines that spoke directly to a current political issue was his fall 2009 collection. This collection opened conversation about consumerism and a collapsing fashion industry. His runway was strewn with garbage and props from past productions, and his clothes parodied classic Christian Dior and Chanel patterns. The clothes said that the fashion industry doesn’t know how to move forward.

Diaz thought the fall 2009 collection was creepy, while Russell, who is often inspired by the designer, said the collection was his favorite from McQueen.

“My favorite thing about McQueen’s art is that, while it’s not always practical, his clothes transport people to a different time and place,” said Russell. “I always want my designs to make people feel like they’re removed from reality. The fanciful side of fashion is something McQueen and I love.”

McQueen’s final collection of red, gold and silver embellished and embroidered dresses were inspired by artworks from Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, Sandro Botticelli, Jean Fouquet, Stephan Lochner and Hieronymus Bosch.

Fashion design professor Claudia Gervais said McQueen’s death made her look back and appreciate his past designs more. McQueen’s company had a similar idea – in order to maintain McQueen’s legacy and clothes, all the clothing samples lent to magazines and stores have been called back.

Karen Bakke, a fashion design professor and McQueen fan, had the privilege of hearing the designer speak at London Fashion Week in the early 1990’s and said that while McQueen was not eloquent, he was a “lodestar for eccentric ideas in fashion.” Bakke said McQueen’s shows were never boring and always gave the audience something to look at, whether it was his theme, his clothes, or his model’s make-up.

McQueen’s creative and extreme designs inspiration are an inspiration for fashion design students, even when their personal design aesthetics are quite different. Phongsuwan said her style aesthetic is “classic, like Donna Karan, with a twist,” but she often wants to channel her inner McQueen by utilizing feathers, a popular element in his fall 2009 collection. Diaz also looks to McQueen for structural and architectural inspiration, and when design projects call for a mix of simple ready-to-wear pieces and high fashion.

“Everyone will still look at his collections 10 years from now,” said Diaz. “He will be talked about as a designer, but now that he’s gone, there’s no one to look forward to anymore. I don’t think there’s anyone else like McQueen right now and I don’t think anyone could replace him. He has to be the most extreme designer I’ve ever seen.”

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