How did Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty become fit for a princess?

From its starring role in the Duchess of Cambridge's tour wardrobe, to a forthcoming retrospective at the V&A, the McQueen brand is riding high. So how did a label known for avant-garde fashion become the duchess's go-to supplier of elegant pastel outfits?

Someone recently defined a brand as the first image that comes into your mind when you hear the name of a company. With that in mind, consider this. The three Alexander McQueen outfits that made the most front pages from the Duchess of Cambridge's recent tour wardrobe were: a sky blue belted knee-length coat, accessorised with navy round-toe suede shoes and a matching clutch bag; a demure dove grey coat with a jaunty grey hat; and a ballet-shoe pink peplum top and skirt, which the duchess wore with LK Bennett courts and pearl drop earrings. When the Savage Beauty retrospective of McQueen's work arrives at the Victoria and Albert museum next spring, on the other hand, visitors will be confronted by a black leather and aluminium corset with a spine and tail from 1997, inspired by a character from The Omen who was half-raven and half-dog; and a jellyfish dress and armadillo boots armoured with iridescent enamel sequins, which, in 2009, McQueen said predicted a future in which "the ice cap would melt … the waters would rise and … life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish."

Can the real McQueen please step forward?

Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition
The Savage Beauty exhibition will remind the British public of the dark, twisted history of the McQueen brand. Photograph: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage Photograph: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

The Alexander McQueen brand, with its controversial beginnings and tragic history, has never enjoyed as much positive publicity as it is doing at this moment. April, in particular, was the kindest of months. For three weeks, the Duchess of Cambridge, it was generally agreed, "dazzled" Australia and New Zealand with a tour wardrobe in which the McQueen brand played a starring role. And just as the tour was winding down, the McQueen brand roared back on to the world stage with the announcement that Savage Beauty, which broke popularity records at the Met in New York in 2011, will be revived in the designer's hometown next year. A royal seal of approval, and the ultimate accolade from the world's largest museum of design and decorative arts: the combination is, without doubt, a publicity triumph of rare order, and one that resonated from London and New York to Sydney and Auckland.

And yet, by spotlighting how very far the brand has travelled under Sarah Burton in the post-Lee years, the Savage Beauty announcement, coming hot on the heels of the Antipodean tour, also flags up the contrasting identities that cohabit the McQueen brand. And while publicity counts for a great deal in the world of fashion branding, identity matters too.

The crucial link between the McQueen brand as portrayed in the retrospective – avant-garde fashion that "challenged and expanded the conventional parameters of fashion to express ideas about culture, politics and identity" – and the duchess's current lineup of pastel outfits with nipped-in waists lies in the royal wedding dress itself. That dress, while impeccably demure and feminine, had an inherent shock value – both because the name Alexander McQueen was at that moment still viscerally linked to the tragedy of Lee McQueen's suicide the previous year, and because the secrecy surrounding the dress lent a high drama and showmanship to the moment that exceeded even the most shocking McQueen catwalk extravaganza. That dress was very McQueen in the detailed nature of its design (the language of flowers, written in lace); the virtuosity of its craft; and simply in the extreme nature of its beauty. We wrote, that day, that the dress "rebooted" the McQueen brand, propelling it forward out of tragedy into hope, and light, and femininity.

The Duchess of Cambrigde's wedding dress
The Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress, which rebooted the McQueen brand. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

That dress was the beginning of a relationship with the duchess that has brought global mass appeal to McQueen. The power of celebrity is such that the looks designed by Burton for the Duchess of Cambridge find greater fame, these days, than the far more complex, avant-garde catwalk collections. With her prince, her diamonds, her huge hair and tiny waist, the duchess has merged the aesthetics of a Disney princess with the status of an actual royal. She is always pretty, and unfailingly elegant. But there is a frustrating absence of modernity to her look, which prevents her from becoming a style icon in the way that, say, Michelle Obama has done. The duchess appears to be constantly dressed for a christening. Surely, if any brand could infuse the severity and formality required for state dressing with an edge and intelligence that would give it a compelling twist, that brand would be Alexander McQueen.

Savage Beauty will remind the British public of the dark, twisted history of Alexander McQueen. The show will be a huge honour for the McQueen brand – and it will pose a challenge in how to marry this heritage, of Highland Rape and oyster-shell ballgowns, with the rather different McQueen outfits currently starring in the newspapers. But – as the unexpected triumph of the wedding dress proved – both the McQueen brand, and Burton, can rise to a challenge in glorious style. Here's to the next chapter in an extraordinary story. And this is Alexander McQueen, so we can expect the unexpected.


Jess Cartner-Morley

The GuardianTramp

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