Strange Town: Alexander McQueen and the Art of Subversion

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’
Alexander McQueen.

I recently attended the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m no fashion expert, but I could admire the cut and craft, the elegance and imagination. Quite extraordinary.

It’s been well documented that McQueen was formally trained as a tailor on Savile Row and he worked for some time at the theatrical costumier’s, Berman’s and Nathan’s. His grounding in classical forms and historical styles is evident in his work.

With an exacting eye, McQueen explored period themes such as Regency England, Jacobite Scotland and Imperial Japan. But he also subverted those themes with curious twists and flamboyant turns; with studs, masks, lace and leather; with evocations of love and death. It produces a compelling effect. We are seduced by the elegance, the refinement, the classicism; but at the same time we feel a sense of doubt, darkness and danger. Our expectations are subverted. ‘The time is out of joint.’

McQueen seemed to understand the power of the past to create something entirely current; the potential of the unconscious to supply rich imaginative imagery; the capacity of disruption to manufacture memories. He regarded himself as a romantic, but clearly for him romance was mysterious, mystical and strange.

‘The new always carries with it the sense of violation, of sacrilege. What is dead is sacred; what is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.’
Henry Miller

We may sometimes imagine that we in the communication industry are engaged in subversion: we’re challenging convention, redefining language, re-writing code. But often our subversion is reduced to a bold casting decision, an unfamiliar colour-way, a surprising punch-line.  Surely if we were truly subversive, we’d be challenging at a deeper, more psychological, level.

We may also imagine that communication is the dream business: the alignment of brands with consumers’ dreams and fantasies; the suggestion that a brand might deliver new hopes and aspirations. But if we were serious about dreams, we would recognise that they are far more complex than the golden hayfields, scampering Labradors and smiling blonde children of advertising cliché. Our true fantasies are muddled, awkward and bizarre; our genuine reveries are strange and surreal; our real dreams are next to nightmares.

I have always liked the notion that dreams could, on the one hand, represent the manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties; and, on the other hand, they could be the waste disposal system for the brain. Dreams are at once meaningful and meaningless. And the fact that we cannot distinguish one category of dream from the other is God’s joke.

I read a recent interview with the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. In it he debunked the widely held view that the public of previous centuries were experts in the religious and literary semiotics encoded in the art of their day.

‘It’s often said that in the old days people knew all the stories behind these pictures, that they knew the myths and the whole of Ovid. The more I think about that, the more I think it is completely untrue. They didn’t know. So it was all a little more remote. I don’t think familiarity has ever been a stimulus for museum visitors. Strangeness more often helps with the initial impulse.

This sense that strangeness commands special attention tallies with my own movie memories. The scenes, images and impressions that have endured are often just a little odd: the children with animals’ heads in The Wicker Man, the bandaged nose in Chinatown, the zither theme in The Third Man, the romantic cycle ride in Butch Cassidy, the distant figure in a red anorak in Don’t Look Now…

Some years ago, a piece of research established that the recalled elements of popular advertising were often the quite incidental characters from the margins of the plot: the swan in Boddingtons 'Face Cream', the frog in Sony 'Balls', the big bald bloke with the ball bearings in Dunlop 'Tested for the Unexpected'. These elements were not fundamental to the comprehension of the narrative or the communication of the message. But they struck a chord, left a mark; perhaps precisely because they were not serving any purpose; because they were strange.

I wonder are the worlds of brands and advertising a little too familiar; a little too sane and sensible?

In applying rigorous thought to the creative process, do we leave enough room for the anomaly and abnormality that create enduring memories?

In endeavouring to express the aspirations that drive our consumers, do we properly accommodate the strangeness of their dreams?

Maybe we’d all be better off if we found ourselves in a strange town.

No. 42