309 best fashion illustration - Alexander McQueen (by for him)

309 best fashion illustration - Alexander McQueen (by for him)

As the major exhibition on the iconic work of British fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty, opens at the V&A, here we publish some of McQueen’s conceptual sketches and republish an essay by the director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, Abraham Thomas. It appears with 27 other essays in the show’s catalogue book.

Blueprint

Words Abraham Thomas

Alexander McQueen's drawings provoke a particularly intriguing set of questions, given that the designer was so well known for his skill at working directly with materials. How does one interpret the distilled qualities of a flat drawing when considered alongside the textural and sculptural possibilities of fabrics?

Very few of these drawings, whether from his student days or from his professional career, have been published or researched before. Therefore, they offer a rare glimpse into McQueen's design process. Acting both as private musings and as tools of communication within the studio, the drawings performed a number of functions. They indicated McQueen's initial thoughts; facilitated conversations between members of the design team; and, at the outset, established the tone, atmosphere and creative direction of a particular collection.

Sketch, Irere, Spring/Summer 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2002
Sketch, Irere, Spring/Summer 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2002. All drawings courtesy of Alexander McQueen

Sarah Burton, who joined McQueen in 1996, recalled how incredibly fast McQueen was able to sketch, and described how she would run after him desperately trying to make notes on the drawings as he went along. Indeed, many of the annotations on the drawings are in Burton's hand rather than McQueen's, reflecting their close collaborative relationship during these early design stages. Selected sketches were also copied and transmitted to the studio's textile partners in Italy in order to convey vital instructions for fabrication, as confirmed by the scattering of annotated faxes that exist amongst original drawings.

McQueen's drawings provide an important opportunity to understand how ideas were expressed at a stage prior to any cutting or tailoring using fabric on a mannequin. Highly accomplished and supremely confident, the boldness of these sketches creates a sense of equivalence to the bravery that was evident in his method of working with textiles and three-dimensional forms.

Sketch, Scanners, Autumn/Winter 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2003
Sketch, Scanners, Autumn/Winter 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2003

The drawings that relate to his Central Saint Martins MA graduation portfolio are especially interesting in that they seem to provide a direct line of evolution from his early career as an apprenticed tailor on Savile Row. Many exude a refined, almost clinical, quality. Others demonstrate how his drawing skills were able to adapt to a variety of contexts and scales with a deftness and clarity of approach.

Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004
Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004

A fellow student, print designer Simon Ungless, recalls seeing McQueen's drawings in those early days:'I remember the drawings. I just thought, they are so chicken-feet scratchy. Chicken-claws turning into ink. Really scratchy, feathery, girls with really pointy noses, bald heads, turtlenecks that covered their faces. A really different vibe to all the other students ... A not very cool kind of thing. He really stood out tome. Here is someone with a point of view.'

Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004
Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004

In many design disciplines, sketch drawings often acquire a quasi-sacred status due to their representations of the initial moments of conception. Although it is true that early drawings can play a crucial role in articulating future design thoughts, such a simplistic analysis runs the risk of belying the true situation. For example, within architecture, designers often choose to explore initial design ideas through more physical material processes such as model-making, describing spatial concepts that later will be expressed more explicitly through formal drawings.

Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004
Sketch, Pantheon ad Lucem, Autumn/Winter 2004. Pencil on paper, London 2004

One of McQueen's drawings for his Scanners collection (Autumn/Winter 2003) exhibits a particularly architectural aesthetic, with the fabric articulated as a series of interconnected flat planes, and the inclusion of notes indicating a 'fully embroidered fabric ... all engineered, no flat parts'. This interest in the volumetric qualities of a drawing might be compared to McQueen's deep engagement with textile fabrics, and his preference for directly manipulating tactile materials so as to express ideas in a way that might have been frustratingly difficult if relying exclusively on the mediated process of drawing on a flat page. Indeed, from some accounts it appears that McQueen drew less and less towards the end of his career, deciding instead to focus on working directly with fabrics, which offered him an outlet for creative expression that drawing never did.

Sketch, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, Autumn/ Winter 2008. Pencil on paper, London 2008
Sketch, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, Autumn/ Winter 2008. Pencil on paper, London 2008

However, in an interview with the photographer, Nick Knight, McQueen revealed that his earliest memory of wanting to design clothes expressed itself through the process of drawing. At the age of three, at a time when his family was living in a council house, he recalled outlining a sketch for a dress on an area of bare wall that had become exposed through the gradual peeling of wallpaper.

This sense of immediacy and gestural flourish permeates a number of McQueen's design drawings. Some are compelling for their minimalism and reduction, as exemplified in one example that provides the subtlest indication of an outlined silhouette.

Others are memorable for suggesting an approach towards abstraction, where the drawing seems to exist simply as a statement of pure materiality. Throughout all the sketches, though, there is a deft use of the medium to describe the various qualities of different fabrics. Subtle shifts in texture and weight are articulated through the delicate and precise application of smudging techniques.

Sketch, Irere, Spring/ Summer 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2002
Sketch, Irere, Spring/ Summer 2003. Pencil on paper, London 2002

Laborious contour lines and crosshatching are employed to indicate the quality of workmanship required for detailed embellishments and other surface details, for example, becoming intently focused on the details of a frock coat. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which McQueen manages to suggest a sense of movement within the fabric, giving the gentlest hint as to how these textiles would behave once they were on a human body -- breathing life into what might have been a rather more static image in anyone else's hands.

Much of this was possible due to McQueen's profound sense of instinct when it came to working with fabric, and his ability to faithfully communicate his designs through his drawing techniques. He clearly strived to ensure that the emotional content of his designs would never be lost through the explicit articulation of the drawn line. These unique drawings are invaluable as records of a creative vision, capturing as they do a series of conceptual thoughts at a particular moment in time.

They are also crucial to an understanding of McQueen's creative process because of their ability to maintain a sense of poignant inference and poetic ambiguity.

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