Paris Is Gurning: How McQueen Turned Givenchy Upside Down
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Givenchy Haute Couture by Alexander McQueen, 1997-1998.

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Givenchy Autumn Winter 1999.

Words Joe Bromley

Alexander McQueen’s four and a half years at the Parisian couture house were contentious. Fashion critics were torn, the pressure immense. Eventually it ended in flames.

“Are you excited about taking over at Givenchy?” David Bowie asked Lee Alexander McQueen in a 1996 Dazed & Confused interview. “I am and I’m not” he replied. “To me, I’m sort of saving a sinking ship…it doesn’t really seem to know where it’s going at the moment.” The designer was right, and would soon find steering the couture juggernaut in a straight line, amongst the cacophony of critics and conglomerates, no easy task.

 

News broke in October 1996; McQueen would be head of Givenchy, taking over from John Galliano who after two years was moving to Creative Director of Dior. Then 27 and 35 years old respectively, the two Saint Martin’s graduates from London were leading a controversial British wave in Paris fashion. Both were pawns in the game of Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s CEO, who had a plan to dust off old maisons using young, provocative designers, producing spectacles and maximising press.

 

McQueen appeared polar opposite to Hubert de Givenchy who, with an ennobled family lineage, founded the house in 1952, making it known for minimal elegance. Sophisticated women in wonderfully structured, simple line designs – guided by the great Spanish couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga and worn by house muse, Audrey Hepburn – were his signature. He sold up to LVMH in 1989, and stopped designing in 1995.

These things get very hyped up to create a drama. It was a lot of pressure to put on such a young person

Storming London Fashion Week, McQueen had eight collections before the appointment, including Highland Rape AW95, which materialised the historic, bloody relations between England and Scotland through torn lace dresses, exposing tartan shirts, and his ‘bumsters’ (with waistbands two inches below the hip). He was known as fashion’s “yob”, so the papers relished holding him to Mr Givenchy, “a white-coated couturier who made grand frocks for rich ladies; now his fashion house is led by an East End fat boy with a thing about buttocks” said Lynn Barber in The Observer. “The newspapers just loved that angle – of expensive clothes being made by people who hadn’t come from privileged backgrounds” says Lisa Armstrong, The Telegraph’s Fashion Director, then at Vogue. “I’m sure it was very, very annoying.” 


As Jodie Kidd winged round the gilded archway of the École des Beaux-Arts on 19th January 1997, and the extensive train of a white frock coat, with fanciful golden embroidery, billowed – the fashion press were watching internationally. Whatever the conclusion on the clothes, Arnault’s publicity scheme worked. It was the opening of McQueen’s Givenchy debut; Search for the Golden Fleece, Haute Couture SS97. Splashy white and gold designs followed, passing over the Golden Age Hollywood sleek of the old Givenchy in favour of Greek mythology prompted by the house logo. One question hung in the air - was it brave enough?

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Fittings with Eva Herzigova and Naomi Campbell for McQueen's first collection for the house of Givenchy, Spring 1997. Images: British Vogue.

The reviews said not. “It seemed too strange for Givenchy couture and not creative enough for his own name” said Amy M. Spindler in The New York Times. “What he left out was a dark side” Marion Hume said in her Financial Times piece, “M'sieur McQueen misses out.” Exposed breasts and mini-skirt tunics shocked older clients, however in nodding to the old logo, and showing in Mr Givenchy’s former art school, McQueen neither ditched nor improved the house’s history. But Armstrong thinks the backlash was too harsh: “When I look back I think it aged pretty well…These things get very hyped up to create a drama. It was a lot of pressure to put on such a young person.”

 

And the pressure took its toll. “Lee really cared what people wrote about him” says Susannah Frankel, Editor-In-Chief of AnOther Magazine. They first spoke on the phone at The Guardian, 1996, after McQueen rang to question her reporting of his new appointment. Did that early onslaught of critique de-rail his confidence? “I think it did, for sure”, she says. 

 

He wasn’t alone in Paris, working alongside friends including Katy England, styling, and Simon Costin, art directing. Together they sprung off bad reviews with Lady Leopard for Ready-to-Wear AW97. Animalistic models clad in floor length cheetah print overcoats and tailored jackets sauntered through a former slaughterhouse; ladies of the night stepping into new Givenchy territory. It excited some; “This collection proved that the young punk from East London is now ready to play with the big boys” wrote Iain R. Webb in The Times. But a new issue was clear - Givenchy’s Ready-to-Wear lived in the shadow of McQueen’s own, back home.

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Jodie Kidd wearing the opening design at Givenchy Haute Couture, SS97, McQueen’s debut at the Maison. Image: Vogue Runway.

McQueen scooters the runway to close the Givenchy Ready-to-Wear Autumn/Winter 2000 show. Image: Vogue Runway.

I’m not sure he was fully appreciated. It made Lee more driven, more determined to prove himself

“His peaked shoulders sometimes looked as if they might, at any moment, sprout into horns”, Robin Givhan wrote of the collection in The Washington Post. But they didn’t. It was at McQueen’s AW97, It’s a Jungle Out There, where from Debra Shaw’s pale-brown hide jacket, with its exaggerated pagoda shoulders, show-stopping gazelle horns grew. His Givenchy designs look sanitised in comparison. Givhan left pessimistic: “It's doubtful that he is the man to save the house of Givenchy.”

Divided opinion peaked at the most dramatic of McQueen’s Givenchy shows; Eclect Dissect, Haute Couture AW97.  Telling the story, crafted by McQueen and Costin, of an 1890s surgeon who killed and pieced together women around the world, the fifty designs leaped through cultural references in a style now deemed appropriation. But they were nonetheless masterpieces of construction. A funnel-neck silk satin kimono exposed a model’s clavicles, its embroidered sleeves brushing against a knee-length pencil skirt. One model wore a hat trapping a live bird, another held a falcon. 

 

“Yesterday's show was McQueen at his brilliant, anarchic best” Frankel wrote afterward, while some found his morbid edge blasphemy against French couture. “What exactly is the British designer doing, letting rip his obsessions in haute couture?” said Suzy Menkes. And by the beginning of 1999, Mr Givenchy himself slammed McQueen; “I glance at the fashion pages to see what’s happening at Maison Givenchy” he told The Telegraph. “Total disaster… I suffer when I see what’s happening at my old house.”

Edging into the new millennium, McQueen was shackled: by the daunting history of the house, the critics who held him up to it, and the pressure of four collections on top of his own. His Givenchy shows jumped erratically from highly stylised plastic mannequins appearing from the floor, Haute Couture AW99, to the plainly commercial clothes for his final Ready-to-Wear collections, AW00 and SS01. 

 

“He never felt fully appreciated”, Frankel says now. “I’m not sure he was fully appreciated. It made Lee more driven, more determined to prove himself.” In December 2000 it was announced McQueen had sold 51% of his label to Gucci Group, LVMH’s rivals, and his final two collections were shown behind closed doors.

 

McQueen entered Givenchy as a fresh-faced emerging British designer, but left with new skills from the ateliers’ petit mains, with capital, and with an internationally renowned name. In the 1996 Bowie interview, he seemed to accept he would face restrictions: “There’s a certain way fashion should go for a house of that stature, not McQueen bumsters, I’m afraid”, he said. His working there was no tragedy, but it was time to get back to the bumsters.