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Alexander McQueen at auction: What makes a really great piece of fashion?

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There’s something timely about this McQueen-heavy auction (there’ll be other designers’ work up for grabs, too) given that the London leg of “Savage Beauty”, the blockbuster exhibition charting the trajectory of the designer’s career, is due to open at the Victoria and Albert Museum early in 2015.

The sale collection is a micro-retrospective of sorts, spanning McQueen’s raw, early London work, through his time at Givenchy, increasing sophistication and commercial success, and on to his later Paris shows supported by the financial heft of the Kering group.

“There’s a really good cross section,” says Kerry Taylor, a former Sotheby’s auctioneer who founded her own house specialising in the sale of vintage fashion in 2003. “There things from “Highland Rape” [McQueen’s seminal and controversial collection from 1995, which despite accusations of misogyny, was inspired by England’s relationship with Scotland], the first ever bumsters… right the way through [to] beautiful haute-couture pieces from Givenchy.” And it’s all available for purchase, like the world’s greatest museum gift shop.

Taylor stages several auctions a year, but two are dubbed “Passion For Fashion” and consist of the finest examples that have crossed the threshold over the previous six months. Her buyers include numerous international museum collections, as well as private collectors, and fashion enthusiasts. Which raises questions about the reasons that people buy these clothes. To wear, or simply to have? For vanity or to covet?

Buying fashion like this is a little like buying a rare, incredibly expensive bottle of wine. Uncork it and it could taste like vinegar, as well as immediately losing all its value. So, perversely, the oenophile will keep their bottle corked, prized simply for its presence rather than for its taste. Likewise, fashion collectors may buy these garments purely for their scarcity and significance on a larger scale, rather than for the fact they’ll look good on the social circuit. That said, when I attended a quiet pre-auction viewing on Sunday, Taylor’s showroom was filled with various London vintage dealers and a well-dressed Middle Eastern couple who pawed through that Chanel and Hermès cache as well as a clutch of Azzedine Alaïa garments. Most of the items were barely three years old, and a fraction of the usual price.

Raw: the early pieces from Alexander McQueen are evocative of an entire period in British fashion Raw: the early pieces from Alexander McQueen are evocative of an entire period in British fashion Above and beyond the idea of “to wear, or not to wear”, Taylor’s wares raise more fundamental questions. Well, fundamental for those of us concerned with seam allowances and spray-starch. Namely, what makes a really great piece of fashion? What qualifies its place in the pantheon of the greats? Scarcity? The hand of the designer themselves? Or their creative vision being fully expressed, without the limitations of budget, regardless of who actually stitches the stuff? “It’s not all just in a name,” says Taylor.  “It has to be a complete ensemble, it has to be from a very early rare collection. Or it just has to be beautiful – extraordinary in some way.”

So what is it that makes the McQueen pieces that Taylor is selling extraordinary, rare and historical? Well, a few of them aren’t, especially. Some are simply beautiful pieces of fashion. These include a couple of commercial  variations on dresses from “Plato’s Atlantis”, the final womenswear collection shown by McQueen before his death in 2010. Said variations would have hung in stores across the world (37 directly operated stores and franchises, according to this year’s figures) and been bought by thousands of women.

They stand in marked contrast to an apparently nondescript pair of trousers. They’re narrow, made from grey suiting, sit low on the mannequin and are crudely constructed. Then there’s a plastic vinyl skirt with its hips slashed open, a busted zip and a kick-pleat that’s beginning to tear. Neither has the all-important McQueen label stitched into the waistband, nor the polish, precision or even beauty of McQueen’s later work. That’s because McQueen made them himself, on a domestic sewing machine, one-off pieces for friends or early catwalk shows that were little sold (if at all). You can’t get rarer and more historical than that.

McQueen’s work was consistently extra-ordinary – beauty, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Take the “bumster” trousers, which McQueen designed in the early 1990s. For the uninitiated, what those entailed were hipsters pushed to an extreme, a waistband falling so low on the torso that the crease of the wearer’s buttocks were exposed at the back. To McQueen, the bottom of the spine was the most erotic part of the body. The press only saw the similarity between McQueen’s design and sloppy, tugged-down trousers exposing a builder’s bum.

A tartan and sheer design from 'Highland Rape' A tartan and sheer design from ‘Highland Rape’

“They’re not pretty,” admits Taylor, speaking specifically of the trousers that she’s offering for sale today. “They’re really badly made, they’re really rough.” The trousers were made in 1992 following McQueen’s graduation from Central Saint Martins, for a friend of McQueen, a drag artist whose performance name is Ms Trixie Bellair. The pair is the prototype: McQueen borrowed them back to copy the “bumster” pattern for his first catwalk show, spring /summer 1994’s “Nihilism”. Their estimate (£800-£1,000) is incongruous given the actual quality (poor) of the garment itself. The vinyl skirt, shown on the catwalk as part of that controversial “Highland Rape” collection, is also basic. It’s been mistreated – the slashes on the hips are from the show, when the garment was opened at the sides, tugged down to sit lower on the hips. The seams were sealed closed with gaffer-tape. However, on another level the prices for these pieces seem remarkably low when compared to their importance as pieces of McQueen iconography. “I’m honoured to have them,” says Taylor. “I would hope that we would have interest from British institutions.”

Those institutions should be interested – and hopefully are – because the “bumsters,” and the selection of pieces from “Highland Rape”, are evocative of an entire period in British fashion, and culture. McQueen’s trousers were an extreme example of a low-slung waistband, later commercialised as the “hipsters” that dominated the high street and high fashion throughout the 1990s. And McQueen’s work finds a reflection in the output of the “Sensation” school of Young British Artists – his visceral fashion, which included transparent plastic bodices sandwiching tapeworms against models’ flesh are an aesthetic and conceptual counterpart to pieces by Jake and Dinos Chapman and Damien Hirst. I’m not saying these trousers are art, but they come from a similar cultural crucible.

The other items for sale are interesting for different reasons. At the viewing day I attended, potential buyers pored over the lots. It is a very different experience from the reserved, rarefied atmosphere of a museum exhibition of fashion. The majority of the garments are packed tight on rails, Chanel jostling Dior, crammed against an 18th-century frock coat and an unnamed mid-Fifties sable. The mood is halfway between a jumble sale and the wardrobe of an especially dazzling oligarch’s refined mistress. A selection of garments are showcased on mannequins – the really stellar stuff, such as a sweeping Elsa Schiaparelli coat from her 1938 “Zodiac” collection (one jacket from the same collection went for £132,000 at Taylor’s auction in May) or couture pieces by Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. But even these can be manhandled off for you to twist inside out, or even try on. A number of Taylor’s customers purchase garments to wear: there’s a commercially canny selection of Chanel and Hermès handbags set to open the bidding that no museum would look at twice, but that many women would pay top dollar to own.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

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