How to shock an audience like Alexander McQueen

Andy Rodriguez Sep 9, 2020 2:23:00 PM

Think Alexander McQueen and you think spectacle. Controversial shows were a hallmark of the designer's iconic career. But how did he manage to repeatedly stun catwalk audiences? McQueen's unique brand of storytelling has much to teach us.

Lee 'Alexander' McQueen named his 1995 autumn/winter collection Highland Rape. And if the title wasn't shocking enough, the show more than made up for that.

Models stumbled along the runway in torn tartan, with flesh exposed and in a state of distress.

When Lee had an idea for a collection... It was a character, a story, not a look

– Sam Gainsbury


McQueen said he was commenting on the historic brutality of the English in the Scottish Highlands – and on romanticised images of Scotland in English fashion.

But many onlookers were appalled. McQueen was accused of glamorising sexual violence against women and of being a misogynist – a claim he fiercely rejected.

I don't want to do a cocktail party. I'd rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions

– Alexander McQueen

Does shock make the story more powerful?

Highland Rape was McQueen's first iconic in-your-face moment. But what can his other astonishing acts teach us about the power of shock in storytelling?

1) Turn the mirror on them


McQueen unveiled his spring/summer 2001 collection Voss with a truly macabre show. For over an hour, the audience sat around a large mirrored box – with nothing but their own reflections to stare at.

When lit, the box was revealed to be a padded cell. For the finale, the boards of an inner box fell away to expose a naked, plus-size model inside a glass case – wearing a bizarre gas mask and surrounded by huge moths.

The idea was to turn people's faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think, am I actually as good as what I'm looking at?

– Alexander McQueen

2) Appeal to their senses


Isabella Blow is credited with discovering Alexander McQueen – she bought his entire first collection and convinced him to use his middle name instead of Lee. They remained close until the troubled Blow took her own life in May 2007.

Later that year, McQueen unveiled a collection dedicated to Blow. McQueen had the room drenched in Fracas – Blow's signature perfume – before the show began.

Smell is a sense which triggers our emotions; it was more eloquent a tribute to Blow than any of the flowery eulogies I had read

– Jess Cartner-Morley

3) Provoke emotional reactions


The Widows of Culloden collection was shown in March 2006. A wooden catwalk surrounded a large glass pyramid. The show's finish was so ethereal and haunting that the audience cried as much as it applauded.

The room was plunged into darkness and the theme from the movie Schindler's List began. A ghostly projection of model Kate Moss appeared in the centre of the pyramid – floating, rotating and wearing a white dress of rippling fabric.

He wanted to move people. Like he always said, whether you liked it or hated it, he really wanted you to feel something

– Sarah Burton

4) Involve them in the story


Not content with having a double amputee model walk the runway on a pair of carved wooden legs, McQueen created a dazzling climax to his spring/summer 1999 show No.13. He finished the work before their very eyes.

Wearing a simple white dress, model Shalom Harlow stood on a rotating platform flanked by two menacing, industrial-sized robotic arms. They stalked her briefly, before unleashing jets of black and neon green paint.

It was not really about showing clothes to the press, it was actually telling a story or painting a picture

– Sam Gainsbury