The story of how British designer Lee Alexander McQueen’s legendary first “Taxi Driver” collection was lost after he showed it on a clothes rack at the Ritz Hotel is told in a new exhibition in London. The late McQueen — who used the name Alexander McQueen professionally — was going nightclubbing after the presentation and couldn’t afford to put the clothes in left luggage. Instead, the prodigiously talented young designer stuffed the pieces back into the black plastic rubbish bags he’d used to transport them and “secreted them next to a dumpster outside the club and completely forgot about them,” said exhibition co-curator Rebecca Lewin.
McQueen, who took his own life in 2010, went home without them later only to find they’d been cleared away when he returned the next day. The 1993 collection, which debuted McQueen’s famous “bumster” low slung trousers, has never been recovered. “REBEL: 30 Years of London Fashion” at the city’s Design Museum celebrates the hundreds of “fearless” young designers who were part of the NewGen scheme which supports designers at the start of their careers. McQueen was one of the first to be helped by the initiative in 1993, becoming the stand-out talent of the first cohort.
According to his friend and collaborator Simon Ungless, young designers were badly hit by the UK recession of the early 1990s. “There were no jobs, our goals of heading off to Europe or off to New York straight after graduation just weren’t happening,” the print designer revealed in an audio interview included in the exhibition. “So it was a time to make things happen ourselves so that’s what we did,” he added.
Even though money was tight, Ungless recalled how the pair would go out almost every night and the exhibition uses archive footage, photographs and nightclub posters to evoke the London of the early 1990s. One of McQueen’s favored haunts was Man Stink in Kings Cross where he lost his collection.
“It was a continuous circle of every day laughing and draping and working and doing all the things that we loved,” he said. Eventually McQueen started to make an impact and found himself billed in media articles as one of a new breed of up-and-coming British designers able to combine creativity with commercial nous. But he had to hide his face in photographs for newspaper and magazine articles for fear of losing his unemployment benefit which he was still relying on to pay the bills.
Bjork’s swan dress
Lewin said McQueen’s story of talent that might have been stifled by financial struggles illustrated the importance of NewGen, just as the UK is facing renewed economic hardship with the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. She said the start of the scheme was also a “really important moment” in London’s journey to becoming a major fashion capital. In the early 1990s, however, London didn’t have the profile it does today and there was little support for designers graduating from art school.
As a result, most would try to go to Paris, Milan or New York to get started. Designers who caught the attention of the British Fashion Council’s NewGen scheme include Erdem, J.W. Anderson and Simone Rocha.
Pieces from all three are among around 100 looks from couturiers who benefitted from the initiative showcased in the exhibition. Many of their creations have entered pop culture history such as the now iconic swan dress worn by Bjork at the 2001 Oscars by Macedonian-born designer Marjan Pejoski.
The avant-garde Icelandic singer accessorized with a trail of eggs that she “laid” as she made her way down the red carpet prompting widespread mockery at the time. Others include Sam Smith’s inflatable latex suit by Harri for this year’s BRIT Awards and Harry Styles’ Steven Stokey-Daley outfit from his video for “Golden”. — AFP