The Phantom Thread: Retracing Alexander McQueen’s Steps Through London

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A still from the documentary McQueen. Image Courtesy: Bleecker Street



The Revolutionary Union Jack Coat

There it is, back to front. It’s not so much sitting on the mannequin as floating on a vibrational frisson of impeccable tailoring and deconstructing slashes. It’s a Union Jack for the ages, a coat that’s been through the wars.

We have a hard time not reaching out to touch it, slack-jawed.  David Bowie commissioned Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack coat in 1996. If you can call Bowie ringing up McQueen—freshly sprung from Central Saint Martins design school—while the designer impersonated his own assistant a commission.

However casual the conversation, the coat wound up anchoring Bowie’s 1997 Earthling album and world tour. But McQueen—affecting a posh accent—wanted to get something out of the way first. He enquired if his “boss” owed Mr. Bowie money. Hanging up the phone in his Hoxton Square studio, McQueen laughed to a friend, “F*cking David Bowie, innit.”

Alexander McQueen’s Union Jack coat commissioned by David Bowie in 1996. Image courtesy: Brooklyn Museum.

The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen

Over the next seven years, McQueen snagged four British Designer of the Year awards. His celebrity clientele would grow to fill a few Met Ball tables including Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Bjork.

On the morning of February 11, 2010, McQueen’s housekeeper discovered the 40-year-old hanging in his wardrobe. He left only a note that fretted for the well being of his dogs—an English bull terrier named Juice, a Rhodesian ridgeback called Callum and Minter the mutt—even though they were well provided for in his will.

Six years later, a secret cancer claimed Bowie. However, that Union Jack coat lived on, popping up the spring after Bowie’s death at the Met’s Anglomania show. It returned the following year for their record-breaking McQueen survey Savage Beauty. That show transferred to London’s V&A in 2015, but the coat arrived two years early for the V&A’s Bowie Is… retrospective which transferred to the Brooklyn Museum last year where we continue to stare at it, still unable to speak.

Suicide Is A Contagious Disease

Two mornings before our visit, the American designer Kate Spade was also discovered by her housekeeper asphyxiated by a red scarf of her own design. That scarf immediately experienced an uptick in sales. When we finally do find words, they are of her. “Amateur hour,” my friend offers.

“Did McQueen even design scarves?” I reply, thinking of the aluminum “Jaw Bone” mouthpiece I’m tracking in an online auction. This facial adornment gives the wearer a spectral illusion that part of the skull is on the outside as it hooks behind the ears like aviator glasses. Death was not an around-the-doorknob lark for McQueen. It was a career-long driver that continues to compel the brand years after his passing.

Shaun Leane’s aluminum “Jaw Bone” mouthpiece for Alexander McQueen. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Live Fast, Die Young, Make A Feature

To wit, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedguia’s documentary, simply titled McQueen, snags double BAFTA noms for Outstanding British Film of the Year and Best Documentary. The film pairs rare footage with a gorgeous score from McQueen’s frequent musical collaborator Michael Nyman. Meanwhile, a feature bio-pic called Lee also slouches toward production, last helmed by Looking creator Andrew Haigh. That film tracks the creation of McQueen’s legendary 2009 Parisian fashion show entitled The Horn of Plenty. McQueen himself described that show as “a sackable offence.”

And, of course, that Union Jack coat continues to hop the pond with a frequency that’s ready for a standing reservation on British Airway’s rollout of its already patented Concorde 2. Until then, we hopped the pond ourselves to compile an off-beat walking tour of some of McQueen’s London haunts not seen in the film.

St. Paul’s Church Knightsbridge, site of McQueen’s 2010 funeral.
Image courtesy: stpaulsknightsbridge.org.

Knightsbridge

First Stop: St Paul’s Church
Address: 32a Wilton Place, Knightsbridge
Tube Stop: Knightsbridge Station on the Piccadilly Line

There’s an unassuming, double-step up and into St. Paul’s Church. The 1843 Gothic Victorian brick pile is located in the posh, West London enclave Knightsbridge. Known primarily for high-end retail, like the Harvey Nichols that’s a five-minute walk west. Harvey Nicks continues to not only sell McQueen’s label, but also hosted the first taste of The Met’s Savage Beauty McQueen retrospective in its famous Sloane Street windows months before the show proper arrived at the V&A Museum. That museum is another 15 minutes west by foot.

Even when in use, St. Paul’s won’t be crowded. You can imagine the locals popping in for service to be the black-clad Naomi, Kate and Stella, just a few of the one-named fashion phenoms who graced McQueen’s blustery, February 25, 2010, funeral. The heiress Daphne Guinness arrived like a para-trooping Angel of Death in a billowing cape from McQueen’s Fall 2002 Supercalifragilistic collection.

Daphne Guinness wears McQueen’s signature billowing cape from his Fall 2002 Supercalifragilistic collection. Image courtesy: Daphne Guinness.

McQueen’s relatives chose the family tartan showcased in his Fall 1995 Highland Rape collection. They were vastly more comfortable at this intimate service than the more showy memorial which took place after the summer featuring the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Bjork, who turned in an unbearable bird-like rendition of the Billie Holiday staple “Gloomy Sunday.”

King’s Cross

Second Stop: Central Station
Address: 37 Wharfdale Road, King’s Cross
Tube Stop: St. Pancras Station on the Victoria Line
Now a ground floor restaurant with a budget hotel overhead, the Central Station nightclub was home base for the hard-partying McQueen. Image courtesy: Central Station.

Don’t let the dolled-up lavender walls and bourgie chandeliers of this public house fool you. There are still plenty of Yelp entries that attest to a strong p*ss smell emanating from the gay fetish club in the basement and wafting through the new ground floor restaurant with budget hotel above.

Back in the day, Central Station’s basement was one of any number of McQueen haunts that put him somewhere between functioning genius and chaffed sex addict. Just a stone’s throw across the Regent’s Canal from his fashion formative years at Central St. Martins, Central Station was a bit of a home base for the hard-partying McQueen. And it’s hard to think of that legacy without considering its ephemeral nature.

For instance, it’s said that the only person to actually purchase a pair of his trademark bumster trousers—a pair of pants that prefigured an entire generation of gay men dressing like public school children—from the runway was Kylie Minogue. The rest were passed out like party favors to friends. One even cashed in a few years ago, selling a low-slung pair at auction for £3,500.

The organizers of Savage Beauty rang up Alice Smith looking for a pheasant-feathered bustier she’d worn in a photo-shoot. The model didn’t have the heart to tell them it basically fell apart in the back of a cab where McQueen suggested they abandon it. But it’s the grotty basement of Central Station—hosting a night called Manstink on the eve of McQueen’s first show Taxi Driver—that we have to thank for no pieces remaining from that collection. Too poor to check the clothes, packed into black garbage bags, McQueen hid them under a dumpster outside the club. When it finally occurred to him the next morning, he rushed back, but the entire collection had vanished.

Westminster

Third Stop: The Lindley Hall
Address: 80 Vincent Square, Westminster
Tube Stop: Pimlico Station on the Victoria Line
Lindley Hall, site of McQueen’s 1996 fashion show La Poupée. Image courtesy: RHS Enterprises Limited.

In September of 1996, London’s fashion press filed into this 1904 glass-topped Edwardian beauty. For a time, this building served as an exhibition hall for the Royal Horticultural Society. Next, it attached itself to London’s burgeoning, 1990s fashion scene. Today, it hosts all manner of events, from weddings to Robbie Williams. It should be easy to get a peek inside.

When you do, imagine yourself as McQueen’s first model making her way down a treacherous flight of concrete stairs. She steps onto what heretofore seemed like a highly polished black mirror, but upon insertion of that first stiletto, reveals itself to be a runway comprised of about two inches of water. The audience gasps collectively.

Big girls like Kate Moss, Stella Tennant and Jodie Kidd continue to muddy the waters. But this collection, entitled La Poupée—French for doll—had special meaning for McQueen. He’d just lost his friend David Mason after the young man filled up his backpack with bricks and jumped into the Thames.

Westminster, Cont.

McQueen conveyed his sentiments with his last model, traditionally a bride, navigating the runway enclosed in a transparent dome filled with fluttering moths. This might have been a good collection for the makers of the documentary McQueen to focus on. It set the stage for his next decade. Brass from French luxury brand LVMH were in the house and would soon lure McQueen into a disastrous career move. He took over the legendary French house Givenchy that year for a tumultuous five-year stretch.

A black model, Debra Shaw, limped down the runway in shackles. The resulting charges of racism would tank the career of his friend and fellow LVMH chess piece, John Galliano, the year after McQueen exited Givenchy. However, the documentary examines McQueen in a vacuum. Galliano nets zero screen time, even though the two British designers tracked remarkably similar career paths.

While in the neighborhood, you might take a ten-minute walk west to 33 Alderney Street. It’s home to McQueen’s first London flat loaned out to him by his benefactress and muse, Isabella Blow. He shared the Victorian house with Reva Mivasagar. The two parted ways after McQueen tried to stab the rival designer with a pair of dressmaker’s scissors.

Hammersmith

Fourth Stop: The Hammersmith Flyover
Address: Fulham Palace Road & Shortlands, Hammersmith
Tube Stop: Hammersmith Station on the Circle Line
Hammersmith Flyover, McQueen’s personal bridge of sighs.
Image courtesy: Transport of London.

McQueen’s actual grave is on the Isle of Skye in his ancestral Scotland. It is emblazoned with the same Shakespearean quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that adorned his forearm: “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.” However, if your tour doesn’t include an easyJet budget, the quarter-mile of Hammersmith Flyover is the next best mortality marker you’re going to get.

McQueen’s best friend Isabella Blow made one of six suicide attempts on this elevated roadway in the two-year, run-up to her 2007 success. On that fateful day at her country estate, she paid odd homage to her father-in-law, Jonathan Blow. She ingested the same weedkiller, Paraquat, that he used to end his life 30 years earlier. Blow was number one of a two-punch that completely destabilized McQueen when his mother passed away a week before his own suicide. That’s the party line and one the McQueen documentary retells faithfully.

While the latter may certainly be true, McQueen’s relationship with Blow was a long and complicated one. “Pushed aside,” is how fashion journalist Suzy Menkes says Blow felt at the end. “In watching that relationship on screen,” Menkes continues, “I started to feel the discomfort of having lived in a parallel universe to the film. When Detmar Blow, Issie’s husband, talks about his wife’s relationship with McQueen, I can think only of Issie’s anguished emails to me in the last few weeks before her suicide, and the betrayal she felt by the designer she had nurtured.”

The Legend Continues

It’s impossible to watch McQueen’s Spring 2008 posthumous tribute to Blow, La Dame Bleue, and not feel the love they had for one another. But it could be that final parting took place without reconciliation, making her passing all the more devastating for the impermanent survivor. Menkes suggests it might be “time to bring to a close the re-telling of this sad story,” but it seems impossible to cast aside the person and just appreciate the empty clothes.

McQueen’s final resting place on the Isle of Skye.
Image courtesy: Kilmuir Cemetery.

One of McQueen’s most enduring legends dates to his teen years cutting his teeth on Saville Row bespoke suits. Notoriety was sewn into the lining of one of Prince Charles’ jackets, along with the message “I am a c*nt.” How can you separate the man from his garments? McQueen is in too deep, down to the very bones of old Britannia.