One of the last things I heard about Lee McQueen – via a friend who had gone back to his house for a particularly drunken one-night stand – was that he’d quite like to grind a broken glass into my face. “How very fashion,” I thought. Despite being on lunching, and then, at the very least, nodding and pint-raising terms, I’d annoyed him in the latter part of the 1990s by going into business with his ex-partner Andrew Groves. No matter. I never thought – not that he’d have cared in the slightest – that he was anything less than the most talented designer of the last fifty years. I still rate the A/W 1996 Alexander McQueen Dante show, staged at Christ Church in London’s Spitalfields, as the most glorious, thrilling and radical moment in contemporary fashion history.
I recently found a collection of my negatives and transparencies from Dante and the nostalgia was intoxicating, so we decided to reproduce a selection here. Fashion in London had seemed so dead and buried until McQueen appeared and got the party going. It was a wild, wild time. And Dante was the wildest.
I remember catching a short clip of Alexander McQueen’s 1993 Nihilism show on MTV. It was the first time I’d encountered his work, and I only saw a few seconds of it, but I knew immediately that it was something very special indeed. I got in touch with him via mutual friends and he invited me to interview him over a drink at his 25th birthday party, at Maison Bertaux in Soho. Lee was enthralling, funny and unassuming: he asked me to turn off my dictaphone to ask me the meaning of the word misogyny and then said something very rude indeed about Colin McDowell. He was still on the dole and living in squalor, but had a wealth of conviction. He preferred to use lesbian models because he thought they’d be opinionated about their self-image, and he was driven by strong political beliefs: “It’s nearly 2000 and we’re still living in Dickensian times,” he said. “I always try to slam ideas in people’s faces. If I get someone like Suzy Menkes in the front row, wearing her f––king Christian Lacroix, I make sure that lady gets pissed on by one of the girls, you know what I mean? These people can make you or break you, and they love you for just a moment. I may be the name on everyone’s lips at the moment, but they can kill you…”
Lee’s birthday party was shortly after his Banshee show at the Café de Paris, which had been thrilling, dark and iconoclastic, a universe away from the usual post-grad retread of Vivienne Westwood that London had grown weary of. It looked like the wardrobe from the best film that Derek Jarman never made. The subsequent shows – The Birds, Highland Rape, The Hunger and It’s a Jungle Out There – had more sense of occasion than anything else during London Fashion Week. The excitement they generated was incredible.
Of all his early London shows, Dante was the really special one. It began with the sinister flicker of lights in the church (McQueen’s muse Issy Blow was enthralled by the idea that Christ Church’s architect Nicholas Hawksmoor had been a Satanist), and then a blast of gunfire and hip-hop. What followed was a half hour of the most extraordinary new shapes and cuts, aggressive but still elegant: chiffon and lace; lavender silk taffeta; white cashmere with black fern prints; horns and huge collars of Mongolian lamb. The tailoring was a revolution in itself and the fabrics were so startlingly rich. There was sculpture and performance art. It was terrifying and exciting. For a small, still relatively underfunded studio to produce such incredible work was one thing, but the coherence and the drama of the story the collection told was something else entirely. As fashion historian Judith Watt recalls, in her definitive book Alexander McQueen The Life and the Legacy: “The links between Dante Alighieri, the Florentine fourteenth-century poet and author of The Divine Comedy were implicit at first, but the strange fusion of the inferno of life with the inevitability of death gradually became obvious.” Alexander McQueen’s Dante was a rare expression of fashion as fine art, right down to its LL Cool J soundtrack.