Style Performance art and fashion: Alexander McQueen Spring ’99

Performance art and fashion: Alexander McQueen Spring ’99

Andrea Tuzio

Today would have turned 53 years “the hooligan of fashion”, the British designer Alexander McQueen
Son of a taxi driver, at the age of 16 he abandoned his studies to start working immediately and among his first experiences was working for the costume designers German & Nathans.
At 20 he decided to move to Milan to work for Romeo Gigli, while in ’92 he chose to return to London to study at the prestigious Saint Martin’s School Art.
In ’94 he launched his own brand but it was in 1996 that McQueen’s career took a decisive turn, he was appointed creative director of Givenchy to replace John Galliano and where he remained until 2001. 

Today I decided to celebrate Alexander McQueen on his birthday by bringing to everyone’s mind one of the most iconic and unforgettable moments in the history of fashion shows, which put together at the same time performance art and haute couture.

If there is a designer who has made of provocation and transgression a specific signature, that is Lee Alexander McQueen. In addition to his ability to disrupt the fashion world, as Karl Lagerfeld once said, McQueen has never set limits to what could and can be represented in the (rigid?) context of fashion shows. An empirical demonstration of this approach is surely the 1999 Spring/Summer show.

We have to go back to September 28, 1998 when in a warehouse used to keep garbage trucks, Alexander McQueen gave one of the most exciting and emotionally impactful moments in the entire history of fashion.

After presenting his entire Spring/Summer 1999 collection in an almost linear fashion, the warehouse lights went out for a moment only to come back on and show model, dancer and actress Shalom Harlow center stage.

Harlow is standing on a revolving wooden platform dressed in a white multi-layered paper dress while to her right and left are two robotic arms, the kind usually used for painting cars. 

In what looks like a moving and sensual ballet mécanique between Shalom Harlow and the mechanical arms, the model initially moves her arms almost as if to defend herself from this sort of robotic “attack”. This dance, completely improvised, continues finding its apotheosis with the mechanical arms that begin to spray color (yellow and black) on her white dress.

“He did exactly what he wanted to do. We couldn’t prove it. She knew how to keep her center on the turntable because she was a dancer. She didn’t flinch when they approached her face. It was completely spontaneous”, Sam Gainsbury told Vogue, which produced the show along with Anna Whiting.

There is also a bit of Italy in this story. In fact, the two robotic arms were a loan from Fiat with instructions on movement given by McQueen himself. 

The Spring/Summer 1999 show was an epic and indelible moment in the history of fashion, giving us the decisive shift towards an indissoluble link between haute couture and performance art. 

Written by Andrea Tuzio
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