By Barbara Steinberg
He flew — too high.
“It’s a new era in fashion — there are no rules,” he stated as if everyone should obviously know. Polar opposites drew him, as much as he drew them in his sketchbook. “God is in the details.”
The fashion industry imprisoned Lee Alexander McQueen in their treasured cocoon of exalted geniuses. Cocaine allowed him to meet frenetic deadlines. Manic depression was diagnosed. Doctors found a complex drug cocktail in his blood after his suicide was announced 11 February 2011.
His mother had died of cancer 9 days before, you see. “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”
Freedom cannot exist without limitations.
McQueen’s primal belief was that the predominance of imagination could create a revolution — and he did, thrilling Paris audiences with how he cut his clothes and his fascination with polar opposites: beauty in the grotesque, life and death, lightness and darkness.
“[I try to] push the silhouette. To change the silhouette is to change the thinking of how we look. What I do is look at ancient African tribes, and the way they dress. The rituals of how they dress. . . . There’s a lot of tribalism in the collections.”
However, the philosophical foundation upon which McQueen interpreted Africa was flawed.
He accepted Romantic Primitivism’s idea of the “noble savage” living at one with nature, uncorrupted by “civilization,” a term exclusively reserved for Europe.
In reality, each piece of tribal clothing and jewelry is associated with a tradition, a rite or initiation or passage, which follows an intricate pattern of social customs. Ceremonies are an expression of culture and self-determination – the very definition of civilization.
In 1994, McQueen presented Nihilism. The collection, he said, “was a reaction to designers romanticizing ethnic dressing, like a Maasai-inspired dress made of materials the Maasai could never afford.”
Perhaps he noticed that nomadic, pastoral Kenyan tribes were losing their herding lands to private farmers and ranchers, while climate change caused drought and famine. His response was a latex dress with locusts on it because you can eat them.
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree
What is currency to me?
The Maasai measure their wealth in cattle and children, not “a fabric they can’t afford.” Yes, they wore animal skins until 1960, when commercial cotton cloth was made available. The Maasai prefer cotton now. Red is an important color, and their clothing is adorned with one of the signatures of Kenya: intricately woven beaded jewelry.
When McQueen sketched a mask out of children’s toys, he annotated, “You can do naughty things in a mask without getting caught. You feel like a right devil,”
African masks have no relationship to anonymity protecting your ego from the evil you do. Rather, they transform a shaman into a god, a healer, or an ancestor traveling from the spirit world to this one and back again. Masks allow community leaders to bring justice to wrongdoers or succeed an elder as chief. They are for the masters of ceremony.
In the fall of 2001, McQueen introduced Eshu, his collection named after the Yoruba trickster god.
When I compared what McQueen presented to how the Nigerian Yoruba present themselves, they weren’t there. I saw the Maasai, Pokto, Samburu, and Turkana of Kenya, sprinkled with Ethiopian Mursi, and could it be – Papua New Guinea (PNG)?
The innovator without limits, and the fragile man behind him, created a collection that had little to do with the Yoruba except for its title, which I believe was a self-portrait.
Poetic license transmogrified into the froth of fantasy. The European fashion world entitled him to do it.
The Yoruba have one of the most famous beading traditions in the world, but McQueen paired a Kenyan silver-beaded necklace-style with a nose ornament that looked like PNG. The earrings reminded me of the Turkana. He seemed to turn the lip plates worn by Ethiopian Mursi women into fetish-like mouth installations with fangs. Mud was spread on clothes, and a mask was crowned with horsehair.
Instead of a revolution, the collection was a mismatched mess.
Lightness is associated with freedom, escape, and a lack of commitment. It is attractive, but also unbearable, largely because lightness is so fragile, and so threatened by the weight of existence, which happens to form the essence of tribal life: eternal return, marriage, birth, death, justice, and ancestral remembrance.
I believe that what was missing in Alexander McQueen’s understanding of Africa was the grounding that was missing in his life.
He flew too high, you see. “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”