Now, nearly two decades after they were thought to have been lost forever after being seized by bailiffs, some of the celebrated late designer’s earliest clothes are set to fetch thousands of pounds at auction.
A handful of rare items from McQueen’s lauded Highland Rape collection will come up for sale next month for the first time, prompting calls for them to be acquired by a Scottish museum. The garments, some of which have never been seen in public, formed part of the controversial show which suggested the models had been brutalised, in doing so allowing the designer to explore the pillaging of the country’s culture and identity.
Although McQueen, who died in 2010, was singled out by outraged sections of the press as a sexist over the outfits, the publicity ensured his profile went into the stratosphere. The year after the collection was shown at London Fashion Week, he succeeded John Galliano as head designer at Givenchy.
Remarkably, in the wake of the 1995 show, the clothes were not snapped up by rich buyers or celebrity enthusiasts. Rather, the vast majority were gathered up in bin bags by McQueen and taken back to his London flat. At the time, the aspiring young fashionista was in dire straits and, ultimately, the clothes that made his name were snatched away, never to be seen again.
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Kerry Taylor, the founder of Kerry Taylor Auctions, which will be selling two items from the collection next month, told Scotland on Sunday: “Highland Rape was Alexander McQueen’s big breakthrough moment when everyone took notice of him, but at the time he was in financial difficulty. After the show was over he gathered up the clothes in bin liners and took them back to his flat.
“At some point after that, bailiffs went to his property and repossessed his goods, including the bags of clothes, so to this day we still don’t know what happened to them, or whether the people they ended up with knew of their importance.”
The show, which drew international media attention, was the first time the world became aware of McQueen’s love of Scottish iconography and how he was prepared to appropriate in bold new ways.
On a catwalk strewn with heather, glum models with dishevelled hair wore his bloody and torn creations, imagery harking back to the Jacobite rebellion and the Highland Clearances.
Billed by McQueen as an antithesis to the kind of romanticism which exploited the nation’s image, his designs – and the narrative behind them – drew vociferous criticism from the media, with some branding him a misogynist who glorified violence.
But after the furore had settled down, the designer lambasted the press reaction to a show designed to “provoke an emotional response”.
“They should have been grateful to me. At least I gave them something to write about,” McQueen hit back in 1996.
“They completely misunderstood Highland Rape. It wasn’t anti-women. It was actually anti the fake history of Vivienne Westwood. She makes tartan lovely and romantic and tries to pretend that’s how it was.”
The clothes to be auctioned at the Passion for Fashion sale on Saturday are the property of drag artist Trixie Bellair, also known as Nicholas Townsend, who was a close friend of McQueen’s. It is understood McQueen gave her the outfits after the show ended, but before he had a chance to gather them in the bin bags.
In all, Bellair is selling two items made for the collection: a rare lilac vinyl pencil skirt which has an estimate of £1,000 and – even more rare – an ensemble made for the Highland Rape collection but never used in the show. Its estimate is £2,500.
While the Met in New York has exhibited one other item from Highland Rape, the fate of the remaining collection remains unknown 19 years after the bailiffs paid McQueen a visit.
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