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The Kids Are All Right

In Paris this summer, two British upstarts, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, thumbed their noses at an outraged fashion Establishment – weaving fury and fantasy into haute couture.
By Chip Brown

New York
August 25, 1997

When you’re new to the big shows, there’s a moment when you worry that maybe you won’t be able to hold onto your old life. That maybe haute couture has upped the ante of desire and gratification so high you’ll never go back but will live out your days as one of those pathetic wretches in Hello magazine entreating egretlike 18-year-olds to join them at Regine’s for a glass of Sambuca…

And to think that once you were attached to functional clothes, and prompted by dreary egalitarian tendencies to look askance at capitalist mannequins in $30,000 frocks. Now you just want to keep your illicit squat at the Dior show, as if there was some emotional stability in the anchorage of a chair by a potted tree in a stage-set greenhouse. And there was for a while, wasn’t there? Until Shalom blew through the Bagatelle Gardens…

Of the dozen or so fall shows in Paris, John Galliano’s haute couture collection for the house of Dior and Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy were the only two must-see events. Tension, surprise, breaches of taste, and egregious disruptions of the status quo are not normally hallmarks of haute couture, but ever since the so-called Britpack invasion – the vanguard of which consists of McQueen and Galliano – the season wouldn’t be complete without a scandal to excite the press.

At 28, McQueen crashed the Paris couture scene with a reputation as an enfant terrible and an eye for designs suffused with violence and other darkly unaristocratic emotions. Galliano, a rather seigniorial 37, had earned a reputation for impolitic behavior (he once stood up a dinner date with the Queen of England) and cut-on-the-body clothes that put the practical needs of heiresses and socialites a distant second to his own sense of fantasy and romance.

McQueen’s show was first. In case any of the older Givenchy clients had a heart attack, it was conveniently booked into the Paris medical school named after René Descartes, the great French thinker who propounded a despiritualized view of the human body. Before the show, the British newspapers were all in a decidedly un-Cartesian lather about some daft rumor that McQueen was using human remains in his collection.

Inside the hall, where TV-camera lights created bright pockets of glamour in the moody red-blue gloom and the music of a string quartet warred with chirring cell phones, the long, high-ceilinged galleries were hung with swags of red cotton; the floors were covered with Persian carpets and the skins of bears and tigers and lions. Live ravens huddled miserably in man-size birdcages. You got the feeling that it would not be a Marxist-Leninist brigade bursting in to machine-gun the tony crowd but a cabal of outraged animal-rights activists.

“Five American dollars for the first eye those birds peck out,” said a publisher of a U.S. fashion magazine. “It’s Tippi Hedren all over again.”

Isabella Blow, who had carved out a niche as McQueen’s muse, arrived in skintight vinyl with a collar and chain. “I am my own dog,” she declared. Her reflections were cut short by banshee screams, and out from behind a red screen at the top of some candle-littered stairs, a flock of international swans emerged in the handiwork of Alexander McQueen – plaid bustles, gaiters, split-open boots with long, wagging tongues, orange gloves, stiltlike platform shoes, hats made of bird-inhabited birdcages, magnificently trashy jumpsuits made of purple leather and leopard skin. The hair on the models was wound into wheels or piled into overgrown compost heaps or, in one case, coiled into a blonde ziggurat so tall it was hard for the woman to get her coif under a transom and into the back gallery. One poor model had to navigate the route with her head and faced completely cloaked in a red chador, though she seemed much more at ease than her comrade Honor Fraser, carrying a hooded falcon on a couture glove.

On each pass, the goddesses paused before the tiers of photographers to project their ideas of animality, power, helplessness, degradation, and sovereignty, and otherwise suggest confusion in the categories of predator and prey. Perhaps these were aristocratic emotions that McQueen was trying to elicit: contempt and disdain and rage and tooth-and-claw class consciousness all thrown together in a Mad Max miscellany. It was as if McQueen suspected that couture, which purports to eroticize women and tailoring, actually eroticizes money and the dominion of elites, and he hated himself for participating in it, and was going to indulge the perversity of fetishizing brutality and ugliness as a righteous commentary about the nasty business of royal pleasure.

At the end of the show, McQueen himself shuffled down the aisle with the side of his head shaved and a falcon perched on his arm. He looked like a zhlubby gaffer hunting for a place to pug in a light. But you knew he was onto something because people were so pissed off. They milled around outside where the limousines were idling on the Rue des Saints-Pères. “I hated it. I’ve seen it all before – it’s a collection for necrophiliacs,” cried one of the deans of fashion criticism. His opinion was distorted in retransmissions until it became “It’s a collection for narcoleptics.” Bedwear for sex with the dead is bad enough, but a collection that puts people to sleep is the real kiss of death.

Models trickled out of the med school in civilian clothes. Demi Moore emerged wearing sunglasses and a ring of couture bodyguards who plowed through the crowd and body-slammed her into a waiting minivan. Good grief! If it was so hard for her to get from the hall to her transportation why didn’t she just borrow one of the couture chadors and make the trip in the perfect leisure of anonymity? (But then what pleasure would there be in being Demi Moore without the raiment of slef-importance?)

The next morning in the International Herald Tribune, the incorruptible Suzy Menkes wrote that couture was supposed to make women look wonderful, not weird. But what women, exactly? The market for couture has largely collapsed in the past ten years. And perhaps McQueen didn’t want to be a dress-making lackey for the superrich. Maybe in the enraged idealism of his youth, he thought designers should do more than enchant the likes of Demi Moore. Was he nourishing some secret revolutionary impulse to incorporate the otherness of the outcast, the un-thin, the un-rich, the un-beautiful, the un-Nan Kempners who were massed behind the barricades outside the medical school?

Could a designer disdain conventional ideas of beauty under the banner of an aesthetic that took into account the moral and political contexts of beauty? Given its association with female subjugation, what was a couture chador, really, but and elaborate joke on couture itself? Westerners could no more applaud its lines and tailoring than they could a collection of Nazi winter coats with appliqué Stars of David made of iridescent taffeta. Perhaps the young British firebrand was saying that art, even the art of haute couture, had an obligation to be more than simply beautiful lest its beauty be employed in the service of political oppression, class inequities, or for that matter, merchandising. (McQueen would be his own dog very quickly, and looking for a new kennel, if he were determined to gnaw on this old Commie bone.) More likely, in an age of market accommodation and cultural relativism, the design house wanted to tap some big Middle Eastern clients who were rabid for designer chadors.

The Dior show took place the next afternoon in the Bagatelle Gardens in the Bois de Bologne. Straw hats and fans wee issued, and waiters circulated with glasses of champagne, and then gradually people were gentled into their seats under an elaborate greenhouse done up as a garden ramble with winding lanes, a little bridge, even a topiary bed.

A set, music, lights, and lots of bony goddesses: Baywatch for aristocrats? Where McQueen’s show was as dark and gritty as its setting, Galliano’s was sun-washed and daydreamy, an interlude of theater full of dream-logic allusions to Mata Hari, the giraffe-necked Ndebele women of East Africa, the artists Klimt and Toulouse-Lautrec, and Art Nouveau illustrator Alphonse Mucha. Critics, editors, buyers were collapsing under the drama of Galliano’s creations. Even an unlettered fashion eye could see that the outfits were fab. They articulated some utopian fantasy of idleness and beauty, a fantasy realized as much in the way clothes were worn as in the clothes themselves. A model in a bias-cut silver-lamé sheath dress with a draped cowl décolletage and falling lingerie shoulder straps reclined against a metal post, clutched her hands to her breast, then doubled over, rolling her eyes heavenward as if under the burden of unspeakable boredom. It was as if she were saying that the highest achievement of Woman was to resist whatever would dare attempt to make an impression on her. Oh, the unendurable banality of the haute monde! The incalculable weight of monied tedium! It was as marvelous as it was phony, a sort of high-wire act that could have been ruined by the slightest intrusion, a rip of the priceless fabric, a stanchion toppling, someone’s Pekingese breaking free and sinking its McQueen-like teeth in a pretty ankle. Or something even baser, like commerce breaking in.

And commerce did keep breaking in. The models had to saunter a winding course through the artificial forest, and some of them failed to make passage up a little backwater where one squad of photographers was deployed. The shooters whistled and shouted and yelled, “Hey! Over here!” It was terrible, like seeing a lioness brought down by hyenas. The fundamental premise of haute couture is that hauteur must never falter. Class rules by the power of its own appointment, by never letting on that its dominion is not in the natural order of things. In the “natural” order of things, we were meant to defer to the goddesses, not vice versa, and yet when they heard the shouts, the whistles, sometimes even their names, and realized they had missed a leg of the circuit, some of the goddesses vacillated, and cracked self-conscious smiles, and meekly came toward the cameras trying to maintain that little swiveling sex-walk, which no longer seemed so imperial, so condescendingly erotic; the aura was gone, the goddesses were suddenly human, their disdain fatally compromised. Some of the veteran models had the right instinct. They weren’t about to compound their mistake by attempting to correct it; they didn’t deign to give the hyenas the time of day.

Near the end of the Dior show, Shalom appeared. Shalom of the long throat and the body fat of a red ant, VH1’s 1996 Model of the Year. She came traipsing through the Bagatelle Gardens wearing, well, what exactly? Was it the “all-over invisible tulle bodysuit with sarong miniskirt, embroidered Indian dancing girl jewelry and Mughal-inspired big ruff necklaces and bracelets in ruby, turqoiuse and jade,” or was it the “antique gold tulle embroidered in an oriental style of arabesques, stars, crescents, and butterflies in passamenterie with bird of paradise aigrette at the shoulder”?

Ask not what she was wearing; ask what she wasn’t wearing. She wasn’t wearing a goddamned thing except for some little thong job and what looked like a very beautiful piece of a very expensive screen door. She was sauntering the Bagatelle Gardens in the berserk splendor of her bare-breastedness, coyly covering and uncovering her… her… her real estate!

Her merchandise!

Her perfectly despiritualized, chadorless front porch!

Right then you understood the machinery of the haute couture, how it sets the objects of desire just out of reach, but not beyond wanting, how it is an illusory world unto-itself, a merry-go-round built by the gods who tormented Tantalus: The harder you hold on, the faster it spins. In the end, the crowd melts away in a kind of post-coital shame, and the whole chimerical pageant moves on. A few last stragglers scuff their way through the litter of name tags and programs. As ever, half an hour in Heaven is long enough.