“I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through in my work.”
Lee Alexander McQueen
Music Credits

savage beauty



In a similar manner to the Romantic poets Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge before him, the “exotic” of India, Africa, Turkey and the Far East sparked McQueen’s imagination. And the fabric of Japan proved to be particularly fertile, as he reconfigured the kimono a number of times throughout his career. The kimono, a straight-seamed unisex garment constructed with minimal cutting from a single bolt of cloth, flattens and hide the body of the wearer underneath, presenting a radically different notion of the body than that of the West’s. It was a vision of sexuality that fascinated McQueen, who explicitly referenced the aesthetic sensibilities of Japan in three collections: Voss (Spring/Summer 2001), Scanners (Autumn/Winter 2003) and It’s Only A Game (Spring/Summer 2005).

"I want to be honest about the world that we live in, and sometimes my political persuasions come through in my work. Fashion can be really racist, looking at the clothes of other cultures as costumes... That’s mundane and it’s old hat. Let’s break down some barriers" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
The Overlook, Autumn/Winter 1999 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
In this collection the idea of the chess game meant that we looked at six different types of women, women on opposing sides. We had the Americans facing the Japanese and the redheads facing the tanned Latinos.” Lee Alexander McQueen LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Its Only A Game, Spring/Summer 2005 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
VOSS, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Victor Virgile
Widows Of Culloden, Autumn/Winter 2006 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Its Only A Game, Spring/Summer 2005 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
Whereas Scanners presented a romantic journey from East to West, It’s Only A Game placed the two hemispheres in direct confrontation with each other, literally, in a chessboard catwalk inspired by the performances of artist Vanessa Beecroft, and the finale of the first Harry Potter film. One of the most memorable looks from the collection featured a ruched lilac silk crinoline dress with a sash tied into a long bow on the reverse which flattened the model’s chest in much the same manner as the obi would when worn with a kimono. Finishing the ensemble was a wooden replica ‘Chinese Garden’ headpiece made in collaboration with the milliner Philip Treacy. Conceived as a battle between Japan and America, It’s Only A Game also featured more contemporary Japanese references, with woodblock meets manga inspired prints swirling across American football helmets and body armour.
The set at Its Only A Game, Spring/Summer 2005
Voss, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Anthea Simms
"My work will be about taking elements of traditional embroidery, filigree, and craftsmanship from countries all over the world. I will explore their crafts, patterns, and materials and interpret them in my own way" LEE ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
Rather than merely resorting to pastiche, McQueen would translate and transform the country’s artistic traditions into forms and narratives relevant for today. In Voss, he stripped the fabric from an antique Japanese screen he bought at Paris’ Clignancourt market and laid the delicately embroidered panels flat over an underdress of 80 polished oyster shells, and paired the ensemble with a neckpiece of black Tahitian pearls. The screen – it’s subject matter, stitches and faded colourways – also directly inspired another celebrated look from the same collection. A dark blue cotton coat embroidered with metallic silk flowers, its elongated sleeves folded by the model to reveal a peacock, and paired with a wide rectangular headpiece decorated with hanging amaranthus, brought to mind a 19th century courtesan parading through an Oriental garden. The organic world surfaced again in Voss, with three looks which took the found shells of mussels, oysters and razor-clams as their point of departure to celebrate the subtle variations of colour found in the shells, and the sounds they created as they were brought to life on the catwalk. (McQueen even asked the model Erin O’Connor, who wore the razor clam dress, to “rip it off when you’re out there.”)
The set at Voss, Spring/Summer 2001
"the show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show started"
Lee Alexander McQueen
Backstage, Voss, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Anne Deniau
Voss, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Chris Moore
Voss, Spring/Summer 2001 Photograph by Chris Moore
Scanners, Autumn/Winter 2003 Photograph by CHRIS MOORE
McQueen would return to Japan a couple of years later with Scanners, a collection presented as a nomadic journey through the Asian continent from East to West; across Russia and Siberia, through to Tibet and ending in Japan – a journey feted by the Romantic poets, and described in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Scanners saw McQueen re-interpret other traditional Japanese garments such as the ceremonial leather-panelled armour of 14th and 15th century Samurai in a dress made from brown and gold silk embroidered with gold metal sequins, the construction of which informed a number of other garments within the collection. As the journey reached its final destination, the red of Japan’s rising sun appeared in a series of looks that transplanted the country’s flag on to a beaming red and white trouser suit, and a large circular headpiece of the red sun against a white background.
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