February 2010


The inexorable rise of social media has quietly permeated into our everyday lives over the past two years. It serves as a space to re-unite with friends, promote events, and an immediate news source. It is through the vector of social media that the world initially learned the fate that met Lee Alexander McQueen. Within minutes of the statement being announced, a Google search overflowed with news coverage from around the world, sources increasing by the second.

McQueen’s work has long provided a visual commentary on excessive elegance, a glimpse at the darkness simmering underneath the steady composure of everyday life. McQueen’s designs speak to our vanity as much as our core; the marriage of theatre and function acting as the thread that binds its recipient in a powerful and protective layer.

From humble East End beginnings to Saville row, the front row and beyond; McQueen transcended his mentors, rivals and admirers, and now – the pressures and rewards his talent has afforded him. McQueen was as adept at grabbing headlines as he was a finely tuned craftsman, his early shows so excessive and engaging that you could not ignore them – or him.

From the shock-inducing early shows that confirmed his inauguration into the fashion elite, a raw but formidable style and persona emerged.  McQueen’s collections have garnered many awards, winning Designer of the Year on four occasions and awarded a CBE in 2003. Such accolades also mark his ascent from his Saville Row apprenticeship, working for Gieves and Hawkes; to his position as Head Designer at Givenchy in October 1996. It is here a friendship with Tom Ford arguably provided the necessary intervention that saw Ford as nurturer and patron. McQueen’s subsequent tenure at Gucci allowed him the time and space to concentrate on his eponymous label. The man whose work is often referred to as body armour seemed protected himself for a time by Ford’s unwavering support.

While McQueen displayed infrequently in the UK, he is strongly identified with British fashion. The highlights of his career are undoubtedly his live shows; they are his triumphs in communicating emotional and often pertinent social messages through design.

McQueen’s legacy has long been cemented as an iconoclast for British fashion.  The narrow silhouette cultivated at McQueen’s shows , once deemed too severe off the catwalk has long since pervaded throughout the high street, and on virtually every street McQueen’s influence as vanguard for pioneering British fashion is apparent via the popularity of skinny jeans, studs; and iconic McQueen imagery such as the skull and cross-bones motif. There is a prevailing sense of beauty in McQueen’s designs, even if on first encounter stronger emotions are evoked. The complexity of McQueen’s oeuvre is best exemplified when he sewed ‘I am a cunt’ into the lining of a coat designed for Prince Charles, or feelings that emerged after he commented of David Beckham: ‘That man is vainer than the veins running through my dick’. Even when one is faced with a powerfully aggressive style, it is that of a staunchly northern directness draped and balanced in carefully constructed beauty.

McQueen’s imagination and boundless creativity are epitomised at a show that took place in a disused Parisian school when the show opened to an empty catwalk and the chilling and unmistakable noise from a woman’s heels, a reference from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.  The sound increasingly grows louder as the figure in the shadows draws closer.  The effect results in a cinematic moment of McQueen’s embodiment of the quiet and sometimes horrifying emptiness from which beauty can still grow.

Even when Kate Moss fell out of favour with most of the fashion world and commercial partners due to her cocaine scandal, a “We love you Kate” shirt featured proudly on the chest of the designer. Perhaps McQueen was drawn to the rougher side of every day life, not in some morbid fascination with darkness but because it shines a light on the normality, the stresses and problems that everyone encounters; that makes us human. The theme of darkness and ambiguity of emotion in McQueen’s work can also be viewed on a superficial level as the flaws he saw in life and within his own surroundings.  It is this ideology, coming from someone so inherently compelling, creative and intelligent that makes the loss of this icon of British design so tragic.

It came to the end of January and I was quite pleased I had managed to get through a financially tough month and only marginally slip into my overdraft. Then I decided to start a career-enhancing but money-sucking course.  I am still somewhat trying to stick to new year resolutions – less on frivolous, more on life-enhancing pursuits. And so far, so skint. Money landed in my account on January 28, rested a couple of days and by Feb 1 we were separated. Gone – just.like.that.

Not letting a lack of funds stop me, I decided to check out the best Manchester has to offer on a budget.  And well, you don’t ask you don’t get. Unsurprisingly, the city has a lot going on and many of the most exciting events taking place are free, or very cheap.

Every Monday, The Royal Exchange theatre offers people aged 26 and under the best available seats for £4;  and while I can still avail of this offer for one more month I managed to catch Blythe Spirit in its final week for a bargain price.  Having already head rave reviews since the show opened in December I was really looking forward to it.

Initially I just could not warm to the characters. Perhaps it is the adopted northerner in me, but the twee introduction of a upper-class 1920’s couple – writer husband and actress wife recount a heady period when they invite a psychic to their home for an evening as part of the husband’s research for his next book. None of the characters assume a very sympathetic role in the beginning and the couple along with their two friends appear to have joined in for the free food and non-stop martini chasing and chain-smoking, which left me wondering if the upper-class elite in the 1920’s were all bored alcoholics. And of course, in all the hilarity, the husband doesn’t bargain on his dead wife being resurrected in the process. The display of formal communication between the characters results in the audience being aware that such a stiff dialogue died a long time ago, and it’s resurrection here did feel a little staid and self-aware in the opening scene.

So Blythe Spirit doesn’t get off to the most auspicious start, but it is the dramatic introduction of hilarious psychic Mrs Arcati, played by Annette Badland, that really lifts the play from passable to surpassable in expectation. Badland’s presence enhances the emotion and the laughs;  and brought out the talents and comic timing of the other characters. Suranne Jones, of Coronation Street fame, once all manc-lite dialect and gold hoop earrings is incredibly deft and captivating as the hard-done-by wife . With a little patience on the viewer’s part, once the production hit its stride the production shines and is a real winner. If the cheap seats are not available or the theatre isn’t your thing then the eponymous film is excellent, shot like an Alice in Wonderland for adults – gothic, dark-humoured and captivating from first cocktail sip until the eventual demise of all concerned.

Alan Fletcher’s exhibition – 50 Years of Graphic Work and Play – previewed last Thursday at Cube gallery (free entry on preview night, £4 after).

Peter Saville opened the show with a heartfelt introduction to the work of Alan Fletcher the artist and an insight into the creatives’ relationship as friends. The show maps out Fletcher’s life in images, taking us from his early post- Royal College of Art posters, to the arresting work that grew out of his co-founded design agency Pentagram and on to later life as he produced work as Creative Consultant for Phaidon from his home studio.  Fletcher-poineering British graphic designer, originating a visual identity for brands as far-reaching as V&A identity maker,  indie band visualiser and Phaidon book cover artist, this show was a great triumph for Cube Gallery, as well as the North West.

Being perennially skint these days means my socialising/culture fix is confined to the North West, so it is a great coincidence that there are so many quality events to take advantage, and get more holla’ for the dolla’.  A new show at the Whitworth GalleryWalls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture (free entry) aims to challenge our sedentary view of wallpaper as the radio of the art world; a polite, non-demanding aesthetic but one that is often understated.  The show is divided in to four sections – subversion, commodification, imprisonment and sexuality.

Each room acts as a visual debate on whether wallpaper should be seen as design first, a game played with the senses of the viewer second. The artists exhibiting here, including Sarah Lucas, Damian Hirst and David Shirgley; seem to be more concerned with the latter.  Wallpaper is a strange, unpredictable art-form; it serves to cover and conceal people’s most private places such as their homes but paradoxically it can reveal so much about the person who possesses it. These artists have taken this idea and used the space to allow their realities to emerge from a fixed pattern and the exhibition demonstrates brilliantly when that freedom from a frame or plinth is used to its fullest extent we can appreciate wallpaper as a medium from a very different perspective.