As the fashion world grieved for Alexander McQueen, at least one member was already trying to point fingers. Stefano Tonchi, editor of T, the New York Times style magazine, knew McQueen professionally and had attended “probably twenty of his shows through the years,” suggested that the fashion industry itself might be as responsible for the tragedy as any of McQueen’s personal travails.
“I think it is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said this afternoon at a lunch for Inglourious Basterds’ Quentin Tarantino and Christoph Waltz. “We all know that this is a very critical moment in fashion, and that basically he is the first victim of what is a conflict between creativity and business. Today to be a fashion designer, you have to be a superman or superwoman. You have to have nerves of steel. You have to be so strong. And if you are a little bit weak, if you have psychological problems or weakness, you end up like him.” When McQueen began in fashion, designers worked on two or three collections a year, said Tonchi. “Now you have to be a business manager, a marketer. It’s, what? Eight, ten, fifteen collections a year. Men’s, women’s, couture, diffusion. Then they want accessories. Then they want watches. Then they want jewelry. It’s a machine, and I think that killed him.”
Still, Tonchi didn’t discount McQueen’s personal issues. “Probably he has always been a creative person with a very, very kind of … always I think he has been psychologically kind of imbalanced, and I think he went through a lot of drug abuse and personal tragedies,” he said. “If you think about his relationship with Isabella Blow and how she died alone, and how maybe he felt guilty about that, and the relationship with the mother, the relationship with the father — it is very complex.” But add to that McQueen’s move from working on his own to working for LVMH as designer of Givenchy and then working for Gucci Group. “He is really someone who has been chewed by the system,” said Tonchi. “I think all these different bosses are part of the pressure that we are putting on our designers. And also the pressure on creators of topping what they have done before. But not once a year: Every three months, every six months you have to be better than what you have been. You always must feel like you’re running behind.”
Fashion’s transformation into a big business, Tonchi said, reminds him of the end of the Hollywood studio system in the forties and fifties. “Do you remember how many people were getting killed by the job?” he asked. “The Marilyn Monroes, the James Deans. It was the same kind of self-destruction complex that brings you to kill yourself or do something so stupid as suicide.”
Anger at suicide is a common reaction, but Tonchi said he was coming more from a place of concern about what the industry is doing to the people who work in it. “We cannot look at the poor Alexander McQueen, abused child or abuser of substance,” he said. “I think you have to put it in a larger context in terms of the fashion system. He’s just one of the little cogs that got squeezed.”