A Hard-Edged Genius Interviewed by His Mum

“I like Alexander McQueen’s work a lot: he’s always pushing boundaries, and he’s rough around the edges. The idea of this hard-edged genius being interviewed by his mum, by the person that spawned him, really appealed to me.”

Sam Taylor-Woods

 
 

 
 

Joyce McQueen: I would have liked to have invited the late Peter Ustinov for dinner, for his wit and conversation. Who would you like as a dinner guest and why?

Alexander McQueen: What, if I could choose anyone?

JM: Anyone in the world.

AM: Elizabeth I …

JM: Why would you want Elizabeth I? The history maybe?

AM: ‘Cause she’s an anarchist.

JM: She’s an anarchist?

AM: She was an anarchist, yeah. Do you want to have a bit of debate on this?

JM: Well, not at the moment, no.

AM: Because, y’know, she kind of founded the Church of England under her father, with all the upheaval from the French and the Scottish …

JM: Who are your other ones?

AM: Jesus of Nazareth, to check if he really exists, and it’s not just we’ve been reading some Peter Pan book for the past 2,000 years. Or Mel Gibson, to be there if Jesus wasn’t true.

JM: If you could live and work as a designer in any era, which one would it be?

AM: Any time? Future as well?

JM: Future as well. But particularly the past.

AM: Let’s stick to the past then. I’m thinking cavemen and loincloths.

JM: What about Tudors and Stuarts?

AM: Er … I’m answering the questions! Most probably …

JM: What about –

AM: I’m thinking ! Fifteenth-century Flemish, Netherlands. My favourite part of art. Because of the colours, because of the sympathetic way they approached life.

JM: Simplicity, you mean.

AM: I’m not going to get into a big art debate with you.

JM: No, I’m trying to get to the bottom of why you like that.

AM: ‘Cause I think they were very modern for their times, in that period and in that part of the world.

JM: You spend as much time as possible in your beautiful cottage in the country. Do you find that the inspiration you get down there features in your work?

AM: I don’t find inspiration there – it gives me a peace of mind, Mum. Solitude, and a blank canvas to work from, instead of the distractions of the concrete jungle.

JM: Right. So it does inspire you in some ways then.

AM: Not technically. Not country life or bobbing rabbits. It’s the peace and quiet.

JM: As you know, I’m a Simply Red and Elton John fan. Who are your favourite artists?

AM: As in singers?

JM: Yeah, well, y’know, groups, whatever. Because at one time, you were very much into classical music.

AM: Beyoncé. No, I’m only joking.

JM: He was about, what, 15. I know because I’ve still got them at home.

AM: I think composers. People like Michael Nyman, who compose an original piece of music – believe it or not, the artists today are inspired by people like Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, who come up with unusual sounds.

JM: I know, I know, that’s where pop music comes from …

AM: Nah, it’s like the architect who designed the Gherkin [Norman Foster and his Swiss Re tower in London] inspires people, or Alexander McQueen does a collection that inspires other people to do different things and move things forward. Rap music’s been around for too long now to be inspirational. The words are, but the music isn’t.

JM: You haven’t given me an answer there. You haven’t come out with a group.

AM: I have – Philip Glass and Michael Nyman.

JM: All right, then. I’ll ask another question. You have traveled extensively around the world but still have not been to the Isle of Skye, which is the root of your McQueen history. Will you ever visit that area?

AM: Mmm … yes.

JM: In the near future?

AM: Yes.

JM: Right. And that follows on to my next question: what do your Scottish roots mean to you?

AM: Everything.

JM: Well, where do I come in?

AM: [laughs] Oh you’re from the Forest of Dean, yeah. What do you mean, where do you come in?

JM: Well, your Scottish roots mean a lot to you. So where does your mother’s side come in?

AM: What does my mother’s side, the Welsh side, mean to me?

JM: I’m not Welsh! I’m Norman!

AM: All right, Norman! Where does this Norman come from?

JM: Well they come from Viking stock.

AM: That answers a lot for an awful lot of people, I think. I feel more Scottish than Norman.

JM: You recently got your deep-sea diving certificate, didn’t you?

AM: Yeah, underwater diving.

JM: Well, two of my family discovered the wreck of the Marie Rose, deep-sea divers. Just explains that you’ve taken up deep-sea diving as well. It’s a follow-on really, isn’t it?

AM: So from the McQueen side I’ve got anarchy, and my mum’s side, underwater diving.

JM: The calm part. You are often described as an architect of clothing, and I know that you have a keen interest in architecture. What is the most breathtaking building you’ve ever seen?

AM: Ronchamps, by Le Corbusier.

JM: What do you think of the modern buildings in London?

AM: I love the Gherkin.

JM: You do?

AM: I think it’s fantastic.

JM: But you don’t like any of the old architecture in London?

AM: Well, yeah, but it’s not as nice as it is in Italy or Paris.

JM: If you hadn’t trained on Savile Row, how would you have entered the fashion industry?

AM: I’d have slept my way there.

JM: Or, I don’t know …

AM: Other ways. I’d have found other ways of getting into it.

JM: Do you look at something else and say, “I could have done that as well”?

AM: Photo-journalism. It’s art for the modern times. I think it captures a moment in time that is spontaneous and that reflects where we are. The one I couldn’t have done is be an architect, because I don’t have the brain capacity or the patience.

JM: No, you haven’t got the patience, have you? You mix with VIPs, celebrities, aristocracy … How does coming home and being the baby of the family make you feel?

AM: I’m never fazed by it, because whenever I get home, Dad will always ask me to make him a cup of tea. So it’s just normal.

JM: If you were prime minister or in government, what policies would you implement to make the UK a better place to live?

AM: More politically correct police officers on the streets. And more focus on the north of England instead of just the south, on not so developed parts of the country.

JM: What do you mean, “politically correct police”?

AM: Well, not homophobic police, not racist police, you know? The police need to come down to street level.

JM: Success has brought you financial security. But if you lost it all tomorrow, what would be the first thing you would do?

AM: Sleep. I’d be pleased.

JM: I said you’d go on holiday.

AM: What with? I’d lost it all!

JM: When you received your CBE last October, you told me and Dad that you locked eyes with the Queen and it was like falling in love. What was it about her presence that captivated you?

AM: I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to look into her eyes.

JM: But you did.

AM: I did. There was a simultaneous lock, and she started laughing, and I started laughing …

JM: It was a nice moment, wasn’t it?

AM: It was. We caught it on camera where we’re both laughing at each other. She asked a question, “How long have you been a fashion designer?” and I said, “A few years, m’lady.” I wasn’t thinking straight – because I’d hardly had any sleep.

JM: You were nervous.

AM: I was really tired. And I looked into her eyes, it was like when you see someone across the room on a dance floor and you think, “Whoa!” It was like when I looked into her eyes, it was obvious that she had her fair share of shit going on. I felt sorry for her. I’ve said a lot of stuff about the Queen in the past – she sits on her arse and she gets paid an awful lot of money for it – but for that instant I had a bit of compassion for her. So I came away feeling humbled by the situation, when I wouldn’t have even been in the situation if it wasn’t for you.

JM: I thought it was a great honour.

AM: I didn’t want to do it.

JM: It was an honour for you …

AM: Yeah, but I had my views on what it stands for.

JM: What is your most terrifying fear?

AM: Dying before you.

JM: Thank you, son. What makes you proud?

AM: You.

JM: Why?

AM: No, no, ask the next one: “What makes you furious?” You! [laughs]

JM: No, go on, what makes you proud?

AM: When things go right, when the collection goes right, when everyone else in the company’s proud.

JM: What makes you furious?

AM: Bigotry.

JM: What makes your heart miss a beat?

AM: Love.

JM: Love for children? Love for adults? Love for animals?

AM: Falling in love.

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The Whole Picture

“This Album is dedicated to Matthew Shepard and Oliver Johnstone.

You will be never forgotten”

Elton John

 
 

Cover art photographed by Sam Taylor-Wood

 
 

The booklet contains a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens allowing more of the scene that’s happening inside a western cafe. The whole picture alludes to the song lyrics of this album. And the outfit Elton John is wearing (a sequined black jacket by Atelier Versace) might be a reference whether to The Emperor’s New Clothes, Black Diamond or Look Ma, No Hands. While the doves refers to the sixth track,  Birds:

 
 

 
 

“How come birds

Always look for a quiet place to hide

These words

Can’t explain what I feel inside?

Like birds I need a quiet place to hide…”

 
 

 
 

“Gonna miss the sunlight

When I lose my eyesight

Give me my red shoes

I want to dance…”

(Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes)

 
 

“I can’t eat, can’t sleep…”

(Original Sin)

 
 

 
 

“It’s a case of paradise lost

Ten years back on the hands of the clock…”
 

“….Sometimes the magic of the past is all we’ve got…”

(Mansfield)

 
 

 
 

“You may not believe it

But I don’t believe in miracles anymore

When I think about it

I don’t believe I ever did for sure…”

(This Train don’t Stop There Anymore)

 
 

 
 

“Western skies don’t make it right

Home of the brave don’t make no sense…”
 

“…Three lives drift on different winds

Two lives ruined one life spent…”

(American Triangle)

 
 

“Some days I think it’s all a dream

The things I’ve done, the places that I’ve been

This life of mine seemed surreal at times

Wasted days and nights in someone else’s mind…”

(The Wasteland)

From Room to Room

 
 

The video features actor Robert Downey Jr. lip-synching the song in one long shot as he walks from room to room of a large empty house (Greystone Mansion, a estate designed by architect Gordon Kaufmann, which is popular as a filming location due to its beauty, manicured grounds and Beverly Hills location). Director Sam Taylor-Wood came up with the idea and Elton felt Downey was a perfect choice. At the time, Downey was in drug rehab and the lyrics were pertinent to what he was going through. It seems a reminiscence of Lisa Loeb‘s Stay music video.

 
 

 
 

In 1990 Loeb formed a full band called Nine Stories. The band, which was named after the book by J.D. Salinger, included Tim Bright on guitar, Jonathan Feinberg on drums, and Joe Quigley on bass. Loeb began working with producer Juan Patiño to make the cassette Purple Tape in 1992.

Her big break came through her friendship with actor Ethan Hawke, who lived in an apartment across the street from her in New York City. They met through mutual friends in the NYC theater community. Loeb gave Hawke the Juan Patiño-produced version of Stay (I Missed You), who in turn gave it to director Ben Stiller during the making of the 1994 film Reality Bites, with Stacy Sher. Stiller subsequently decided to use the song in the film’s ending credits, and it was included by Ron Fair on the soundtrack on RCA records. Hawke also directed a rare one-take video on film, a continuous Steadicam shot operated by Robin Buerki.

 
 

A Reversal of Gender Roles

Annie Leibovitz’s original 1980 photo

 
 

26 October 1993

 
 

26 October 1993 is the title of an artwork created in 1993 as a collaboration between English artists Henry Bond and Sam Taylor-Wood both of whom were involved in the Young British Artists or YBA scene of contemporary art. It consists of a pastiche or remaking of a well-known photographic portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono that was made by Annie Leibovitz a few hours before Lennon’s murder.

In his 2001 book High Art Lite, art historian Julian Stallabrass states that the Bond/Taylor-Wood version offers a “reversal of gender roles” (however, the original also has Lennon and Ono in the same position). Stallabrass also states that:

The work refers to naïve 1960s idealism, though not entirely mockingly, rather asking the viewer to contrast the situation in the 1990s with the 1960s … for such artists, it is clear we are living in a time of the twilight of ideals.

Commenting on the photo-work in 2010, Taylor-Wood said:

The bizarre thing is that I’d completely forgotten about that piece until it was brought up in an interview … I don’t remember what drove us to make it. Must have been high concept in there somewhere, but God knows what it was. I guess there’s a running interest in male vulnerability in my work, so maybe it’s just that.

The authorship of this artwork has been contested with both artists, at different times, assuming control of the image and asserting origination/intellectual property; indeed, it has been suggested that the photographer that the pair hired to shoot the photograph also later claimed authorship of it.

Sam Taylor-Wood befriended Yoko Ono in 2009, during the making of Nowhere Boy, her acclaimed film about John Lennon’s early years. They are survivors. Somehow, Yoko has lived through Lennon’s assassination (on 8 December 1980). Sam has coped with cancer (colonic and breast). Each woman has experienced painful separation. Forty-five-year-old Sam’s father then mother left her when she was a child. Yoko’s daughter Kyoko was abducted by her second husband, American art promoter Tony Cox, when she was eight and Yoko did not see her again until Kyoko was 31. Yoko also had to weather the disapproval of conservative, aristocratic parents when she first got together with Lennon. They put out a press release saying: “We are not proud of Yoko Ono.” On a more trivial level, there is the older woman tag they have had to live with – Yoko was seven years older than John; Sam Taylor-Wood is more than twice the age of 22-year-old Aaron Johnson, who played John Lennon in her film and is father to two of Sam’s four daughters. There is going to be so much to talk about.

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan is a story and subject in art from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces, or rapes, Leda. According to later Greek mythology, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. In the W.B. Yeats version, it is subtly suggested that Clytemnestra, although being the daughter of Tyndareus, has somehow been traumatized by what the swan has done to her mother. According to many versions of the story, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched.In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.

 
 

Greco-roman mosaic

 
 

Giovanni Battista

 
 

(atributed to) Leonardo da Vinci

 
 

Raphael

 
 

Virgil Solis

 
 

Cesare da Sesto

 
 

Michelangelo Buonarroti

 
 

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

 
 

Paolo Veronese

 
 

Peter Paul Rubens

 
 

François-Edouard Picot

 
 

Théodore Géricault

 
 

Giovanni Boldini

 
 

Paul Cézanne

 
 

Gustav Klimt

 
 

Henri Matisse

 
 

Cy Twombly

 
 

Jerzy Hulewicz

 
 

François Boucher

 
 

Gustave Moreau

 
 

Salvador Dalí

 
 

Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto)

 
 

Arturo Michelena

 
 

Fernando Botero

 
 

Constantin Brâncuși

 
 

Frederic Leighton

 
 

Warwick Globe

 
 

Louis Icart

 
 

Sam Taylor Wood

 
 

Helmut Newton

 
 

Joel Peter Witkin

 
 

Kate Moss photographed by Steve Klein

 
 

Derrick Santini