Photo: Condé Nast Archive
Twenty years ago, when I was just starting out as a fashion writer, I managed to get a ticket to Alexander McQueen’s New York debut on the Lower East Side. The event was at the Angel Orensanz Center, an old synagogue converted to a community center on Norfolk Street, and I remember being nervous that the people at the door wouldn’t let me in, and fighting through the crowds at the gates.
New York back then was changing for sure, but it still bore the scars of a rougher and, many would argue, a more interesting time. No one I knew had email or a home computer or a mobile phone—club nights were still advertised on handbills, you needed quarters for phone booths, you could smoke everywhere, and most corners remained blissfully free of chain drugstores and banks.
The McQueen show, with its air of menace, was a big event. From my seat high up in the bleachers, I took in the unicorn horns and the crucifix masks, the slashed tops and the lace corset dresses, the male models with their rear ends on glorious display in notorious bumsters. I felt like I was at a show in London, even though I could walk home. Believe it or not, back then, the endless layers of publicists and flaks that now block the path from reporter to designer didn’t really exist. I went backstage and McQueen was just sitting there, but if he was notoriously shy, I was even shier, and I don’t remember saying anything to him.
Though I did attend a few of his shows subsequently in Paris, it is this early New York show, with its combination of innocence and darkness, naïveté and canny sophistication, that lives in my mind. It represented everything that I thought was cool and transgressive in fashion, the reason I was attracted to the field in the first place.
Fourteen years later, on the morning we found out about McQueen’s death, I was in a taxi heading with Dr. Lisa Airan to the opening of the Rodarte show at Cooper Hewitt. Lisa, devastated, said she felt sure that the designer had killed himself because of the rigors of his job and the endless cycle of collection after collection exerting an intolerable pressure. “It has to be the hardest job in the world!” Lisa said, and I disagreed, saying it isn’t cancer research, no one’s life is at stake.
Now I think we were both wrong. No one can know the dark ways of a heart, the longing and sadness that lead to a terrible and terrifying decision. Alexander McQueen would have been 46 years old today. Think of the mastery, the magic he would have created in these lost years! But at least we have our memories, in my case, of a woman with a notebook sitting high up in a very bad seat at a fashion show and feeling like she was on top of the world.