PARIS — In a season clouded with economic fear, when most designers did all they could to play it safe, it was easy to forget about the runway's power to provoke -- until Alexander McQueen's outstanding show. An absurdist piece of theater with a touch of gallows humor, the show sent up the whole fashion system, just as it teeters on the brink of collapse with magazine closures, declining ad and retail sales, and a burgeoning class of cyber critics who are their own arbiters of chic.
Drawing on the theme of "reinvention," the collection was presented on a runway of broken mirrors, around a trash heap of props from past McQueen shows, old car parts, a broken merry-go-round horse, even a kitchen sink.
If it sounds like the setup for Mugatu's "Derelict" collection in the 2001 film "Zoolander," it wasn't far off. McQueen was in high-camp mode, showing cartoon versions of couture classics that mixed the expensive with the mundane, the beautiful with the grotesque -- Dior's signature houndstooth New Look suit worn with a lampshade hat, Givenchy's little black dress done in a tangled mess of trash bags, a voluminous opera coat in silk "bubble wrap."
He even remixed elements from his own past collections -- the all-over feather-flocked gowns, the chain-mail head coverings, the harlequin prints -- making fun of his own compulsion for extreme runway drama.
The show continued the philosophical self-examination that began last season when Hussein Chalayan riffed on fashion's obsession with speed by creating fiberglass dresses caught in suspended animation. For fall, Chalayan searched for steadier ground, showing sexy, molded foam dresses and suits resembling the craggy surfaces of boulders. Viktor & Rolf, too, grappled with the idea of what is lasting and classic, something designers should be thinking about profoundly now. Set against classic statuary, the collection mimicked the draped, swagged effects of marble and stone.
Similarly, McQueen shook the very foundations of a top-down industry that expects designers to invent every few months to keep the wheels turning. The irony is that the industry also stands or falls on the concept of reinvention (or ripping off), as trends trickle down to places like Target, where McQueen's McQ line is on sale this month, one of the store's popular high-low designer collaborations.
At the same time, by referencing the old masters (including Givenchy, where you'll recall McQueen spent five unhappy years), he underscored the idea that high fashion will always be tied to the past, so long as there are old houses with new designers, and long-gone style icons who continue to be worshiped. So nothing, it seems, can ever truly be new.
The collection was controversial from the start. The hobbling high heels and clownish makeup mimicking surgically enhanced lips (inspired by Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil") prompted some to label McQueen a woman hater.
Others sneered that he would have plenty of his own clothes to recycle because they don't sell. But McQueen is not alone in that -- most of the clothes that designers sell are not from runway shows but from more wearable pre-collections, commercial collections or even Target collections. So why not just make a show about showmanship?
McQueen wasn't denying that he's part of the system. And I don't think he is expecting that these clothes will be worn (though they were all beautifully made). This show was a statement, an expensive and risky one in such a no-nonsense business climate. But it made us all think, and it reinforced McQueen's reputation as the reigning enfant terrible of fashion, not even afraid to bite the hand that feeds him. Let's hope it doesn't cost him too much.