Visiting the Savage Beauty exhibition of work by this fashion legend, Mik Scarlet remembers the contribution to disabled inclusion made by Alexander McQueen, one of our own.
To say I was excited as I entered the Savage Beauty exhibition at London’s V & A Museum was an understatement. The retrospective of fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s work is currently a hot ticket and as a fan of his creations, who has always been far too poor to ever afford to actually own anything he designed, I couldn’t wait to see proof of his creative genius close up and personal. In all honesty, the exhibition surpassed my every expectation. Not only was each garment breathtakingly detailed in creation and stunning in design, but the exhibition itself has been built to be a real experience that will never be forgotten. As you travel round the show, each room captures a period of McQueen’s creative output in a style that emphasises just how beautiful and ground breaking his work really was.
For disabled people Alexander McQueen should be remembered as so much more than just a high end couture fashion designer. Very early on his career McQueen challenged the fashion industries obsession with perfection, by taking disabled athlete Aimee Mullins as his muse. Double amputee Mullins was soon strutting her stuff in McQueen’s catwalk shows, and she featured in much of his photographic publicity too. She continued to be his muse right up until his early death in 2010. McQueen openly claimed he wanted to re-frame what it meant to be beautiful, and in 1996 he was asked to guest edit the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused. This allowed him to run a feature called Access Able, which featured disabled people modelling high fashion. The photo feature was the first time disabled people were used to models in the mainstream, and marked a turning point in how the fashion industry considered disability. Actor Mat Fraser, dancer David Toole, artist Alison Lapper and Aimee Mullins, to name a few, proved that beauty is so much more than the narrow fashion construct. McQueen went on to use Rubenesque musician and writer Michelle Olley in another show, naked and encased in glass covered in butterflies, continuing his drive to confront fashion industry prejudices.
What is saddening is that while McQueen did so much to promote the place of disabled people within the fashion industry, he did not feel able to come out about his own disabled status. The fact that he lost his battle with mental health to suicide in 2010 meant that we not only lost a designer second to none, but that disabled people lost a champion and friend.
I did hope that McQueen’s drive to challenge fashion’s obsession with physical and mental perfection might be a part of the Savage Beauty exhibition but alas no. So I felt it only right that I highlighted just how important Alexander McQueen was in the history of the rights of disabled people. He paved the way for the new generation of disabled models, such as Chelsea Jay and Jack Eyers, and made it cool to be a fashionable disabled person. If you go along to the Savage Beauty show at the V&A, as you wonder at each of the stunning garments, please remember that they were all designed by one of us, a disabled person who probably did more to make the fashion industry change the way it thinks about disability and beauty.