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  • Writer's pictureMolly Elizabeth

Revisiting McQueen’s Complex Tenure at Givenchy

The late designer, who served as Givenchy’s Creative Director from 1996 to 2001, has been one of the most contentious appointments in design history.


The expressive styling duo of Law Roach and Zendaya struck once more on the Dune: Part Two press tour, with the actress donning a circuit-board suit from Givenchy’s FW99 Ready-to-Wear collection — one week after another remarkable Thierry Mugler FW95 Couture archival pull. As Zendaya, as always, commanded exalting attention, fashion historians' mouths hung agape — for this was no usual Givenchy artifact. This was Givenchy designed by Alexander McQueen; considered by many to be the most complex and contentious pairing fashion has ever witnessed.

Already generating controversy with his nonconformist works, of which he had created just eight, 27-year-old Lee Alexander McQueen took on the prestigious position of artistic director at Givenchy on October 15th, 1996. He had finished design school a mere four years prior. During his tenure, McQueen would produce 18 collections for Givenchy, meanwhile balancing his namesake label which he had founded in 1992. What would this defiant architect, bursting with vigour, bring to a luxury fashion house established with naught gimmick and endless class? In his own words, given to Hilary Alexander of The Daily Telegraph soon after his appointment: “I may be quite mad on the public circuit, but I’ve got my head screwed on — tight with a wrench.” The impending four and a half years would prove arduous. 

Givenchy SS97 Haute Couture

In many ways, the fleeting occupancy of the house by John Galliano ahead of McQueen should have acted as a slight buffer. After all, Galliano had initiated a more exuberant energy at the house — as he would go on to show at Dior and Maison Margiela. His scintillating, theatrical creations were far larger than anything beheld at Givenchy previously. When Galliano chose to break the mold introduced by Hubert, audiences cheered. When McQueen chose to do the same, audiences jeered. 

Inspired by the mythological legend of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, McQueen’s primary presentation (SS97 Haute Couture) signalled a fresh journey — one which endeavoured to honour Givenchy as well as invite in a contemporary mode of storytelling. Saturated in white and gold with distinct ancient Greek motifs, the show accented McQueen’s impeccable tailoring talent and enchantment with birds of prey. The reception to this newfangled creative was far from encouraging — to put it lightly. The ladies of the couture sorority were “taken aback, it seemed, by the sheer excess of youthful vitality and confusion parading before them in outrageous clothing. The distinctly now was clearly passing them by,” as noted by Hilton Als in The New Yorker. McQueen would pragmatically reply, “I’m not Givenchy. I’m Alexander McQueen.”

Givenchy FW97 Ready-to-Wear

If he could direct garment stories inspired by elegant mythology, McQueen could equally master the sensual art of seduction, proposing tight-fitting leather pantsuits, leopard-print skirts with alluring thigh-slits,  and suggestive strapless dresses for his sophomore outing — FW97 Ready-to-Wear

“He is also committed to creativity 120 percent. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” McQueen declared of LVMH’s Bernard Arnault at the dawn of his residency. How far would that willingness for creativity stretch? McQueen would not be afraid to test, and push, the boundaries. Strongly influenced by restrictive Victorian silhouettes, and a continual adoration of Scottish tartan, McQueen’s work for FW97 Haute Couture could easily be mistaken for works constructed for his own label. None of the restraint and delicacy of Givenchy was evident. McQueen had been handed more money than he could dream of to create to his heart's content — is it any wonder, therefore, that Hubert de Givenchy’s DNA dissipated in one fell swoop?

Givenchy SS99 Ready-to-Wear

Collections inspired by Dolly Parton (with many rhinestones), Japanese Art Deco (with intricate embroidery), Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner (which he closed wearing opaque metallic contact lenses) and Anastasia Romanov (who, in this imagination, escaped to the Amazonian jungle after her family’s downfall) ensued. 

It was for SS99 Ready-to-Wear that McQueen, who had allowed his ungovernable artistic licence to take glorious control, attempted commercial simplicity. Inspired by smokey jazz clubs, here were calm, pared-back garments in varying tones of grey, white, and black. “It’s kind of a new approach for me, trying to cut down the theatrical and trying to concentrate on people who buy clothes,” he said of this uniquely composed project. It was the first, and ultimately, only time McQueen would determine to cater to the traditional Givenchy consumer. The pieces were technically sound, however, the lack of intense passion was deafening. One would never assume this was the work of the complex genius Lee Alexander McQueen. 

L-R: FW99 Haute Couture, SS99 Haute Couture, FW99 Haute Couture

For SS99 Haute Couture, dedicated with great tenderness and vulnerability to McQueen’s aunt Patsy, late 19th-century features were married with leather biker pants, as well as checkerboard jester prints featured on acrobatic bodysuits. The half-woman, half-cyborg ethos of FW99 Ready-to-Wear (the collection Zendaya’s ensemble hails from) hinted at the endless computer-based possibilities at our fingertips on the brink of the new millennium. Modelled by fibreglass shop window mannequins, FW99 Haute Couture was displayed much like an art exhibit. “It was so you didn’t focus on the models but on the clothes,” McQueen explained to Suzy Menkes at the time. 

By the time he reached his closing presentation for Givenchy, McQueen had secured a life-altering deal with the Gucci Group (now Kering), who acquired a 51 percent majority stake in his eponymous label — allowing for major expansion and further investment. It was this that would pave the way for McQueen to create without the cracking whip of a house’s legacy. It was also this that would be the true making of a legend. Speaking to Andrew Wilson for his 2015 biography of the designer, a longtime friend of McQueen, Chris Bird, suggested: “I really think the reason he sold his share in the company to the Gucci Group was really to stick two big fucking fingers up to Bernard Arnault.” Arnault was seemingly committed to creativity back in 1997 — just perhaps not 120 percent. 

Givenchy SS97 Haute Couture

Julien Macdonald replaced the turbulent designer as Givenchy’s Creative Director. Under Macdonald’s tenure, he chose to reinstate Givenchy’s precursory codes, meanwhile retaining a fragment of the sex appeal McQueen dared to introduce. On the other hand, McQueen continued to extend his imprudent, revolutionary, and legendary shows to a global audience at his namesake label, changing the face of the industry forevermore. He may have shaken up the inner workings of Givenchy, come under fire season after season, and made his complaints transparent, but McQueen would eventually come to terms with this period of his artistic life. Of the time, he stated: “I treated Givenchy badly. It was just money to me. But there was nothing I could do: the only way it would have worked would have been if they had allowed me to change the whole concept of the house, to give it a new identity, and they never wanted me to do that.” 

It is unquestionable that this unsettled chapter provided some of McQueen’s most enigmatic moments and, ultimately, confirmed that no one, regardless of how much money provided, could tie McQueen down — he would always find a way to float onward and on his own terms. 🌀


Molly Elizabeth is a freelance fashion writer and commentator based in London.


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