Anarchists Of Style: A Review Of Maureen Callahan’s Champagne Supernovas

“I hate fashion,” Yohji Yamamoto — famous for his minimalist black clothing — has said. Maureen Callahan’s latest book, Champagne Supernovas, focuses, on two other designers — Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs — and model Kate Moss, but the aggressive sentiment neatly sums up an attitude that runs, in a certain way, through the book and the lives of the individuals it focuses on.

The journey begins in the early nineties, which, collectively today, we seem to remember only vaguely, as somehow less cool as the Sixties or the Hippie generation of the seventies. As less offensive and less fun than the materialistic eighties, with its Wall Street hedonism and big shoulder pads. And less connected and spiritual than today, with the net, iPhone, yoga, and feeling that we live in a global village.

Goth style by Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen.

Callahan reminds us of the energy of the nineties — of an underground that was beginning to push its way up to the surface, both in fashion and even in music, with Nirvana and grunge. But the changes weren’t accepted lightly.

While the waif may be the standard for modelling today, Kate Moss’s appearance sent shock waves through system. Contrasting the omnipresent “glamazon” — the supermodel of the day: tall, beautiful, voluptuous — Moss’s body was regarded as too thin, and her face, imperfect. She was also regarded as too young-looking. The knives were out for the teenager.

When Calvin Klein chose Moss as the new face of the brand in 1992, it helped re-launch CK, but “Kate and Calvin Klein were accused of promoting anorexia, heroin use, child pornography, and the downfall of Western civilization.” (p. 69) The following year, Corrine Day — who had launched Moss’s career — was commissioned by British Vogue to shoot a lingerie story. Titled “Under-Exposure”, the shoot was published in the June issue. But, featuring Moss, the photo story was instantly attacked in the press, with British Cosmopolitan proclaiming it could, “only appeal to the pedophile market” (p. 93).

Kate Moss, model.

kate Moss photographed by Corinne Day.

Moss had first appeared in the edgier British youth culture magazines such as i-D and The Face, photographed by Day, and styled by Katy England. More interested in decay than glamour, Day went out of her way to have the models staged in seedy, rundown environments, looking bored, depressed, and somehow against the media conventions of the day, but depicting the reality of Generation X. Also revolutionary for the time, Day mixed streetwear with high fashion, as if high and low culture were equally valid. It was aggressive.

Though she herself would not really be given the recognition she deserved, Day’s radical new approach would eventually influence such photographers as Juergen Teller, and fashion photography and aesthetics more broadly. As Callahan notes, in 1996, in the New Yorker, Hilton Als described Day’s early images of Moss as “a first testament to the fashion industry’s now pervasive flirtation with death” (p. 143).

Around the same time, doing everything he could to offend his audience, Alexander McQueen was bursting onto the fashion scene. It was an attitude he’d take with him, even after being picked up by Givenchy. For one show for the French fashion house, McQueen took inspiration from the “Island of Dr. Moreau.”

These Givenchy women were victims of a mad doctor who slayed and flayed women and beasts, then sewed them together. McQueen loved using real skin and bones, and someone, most likely McQueen himself, started a rumor that he’d be using real human limbs this time. He’d also used blood and semen before, which he’d collect from friends and lovers. The fashion world was horrified, and they loved it… (p. 165.)

McQueen attacked clothing, ripping and slashing them. He attacked his audiences with images designed to offend (such as the heads of female models encased in bird cage like constructions). After moving to Paris, and working for Givenchy (with his own brand already a success), he attacked Isabella Blow, the eccentric fashion stylist and muse who took McQueen under her wing and gave him a studio, money, and advice on how to present himself (something he badly needed).

Models wearing Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen (1990s).

As I’ve mentioned before, I knew McQueen around the time of Highland Rape, one of his early, high-profile, and much-criticized shows. We were acquaintances, not friends; but I visited a couple of his studios (including the one, dark, and full of junk, in a basement in Pimlico — one of the more expensive areas of London — given to him by Isabella Blow), and saw him out, socially, occasionally.

McQueen was uncouth. He looked like a skinhead or a thug, and didn’t sound much better. I have a vague recollection of one Saint Martins fashion student refusing to believe that “Lee” (his real name) was the designer he was so inspired by (or ripping off, depending on your perspective).

But McQueen was a genius both at creating clothing and creating spectacle. Having apprenticed as a tailor after leaving school (before studying on the M.A. course at Central Saint Martins — without having taken the normally obligatory B.A. and foundation courses), he knew how to cut and construct clothing better than probably any other designer around. But he married this skill to the bizarre and disturbing, so that it became an expression of an inner torment for which he had no words.

Callahan uncovers not just the McQueen of high fashion, but the struggling tailor wanting to become something more. One of those she mentions is John McKitterick, my teacher at Saint Martins. Known to us only for his launching of a “gay barbie doll” for men — Billy — I had no idea that he had once hired McQueen as a pattern cutter, or sent him off to Italy with a list of contacts, so that he could try to make it there (this was before McQueen had even been to college). A testament to how thoroughly researched the book is, I learned more about McKitterick from Champagne Supernovas than I knew about him at the time.

Fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs

Champagne Supernovas (left), Alexander McQueen (center), and Marc Jacobs (right).

While I was personally less interested in Marc Jacobs, Callahan’s description of the mid-1990s East Village scene, especially around “it girl” and X-Girl fit model Chloe Sevigny, was fascinating. As Moss, off the catwalk, influenced fashion — as the paparazzi snapped her and design houses copied her everyday dress — so Sevigny did the same, being given an extraordinary eight-page profile in the New Yorker magazine.

The many anecdotes of Moss’s days-long drug binges, and McQueen’s sleeping with prostitutes, and his unpleasant, aggressive side, reveal the seamier and somewhat depressing side of glamour. And after the reader getting high on tales of excess and rebellion throughout, Blow’s and McQueen’s tragic suicides near the end of the book bring it to a bit of a low. But, perhaps in a certain sense, it brings the narrative full circle, to the angst and morbidity at the beginning of the book, in Day’s photography of a young Kate Moss.

Champagne Supernovas is a history, and, as such, it was necessary to include all of the above. But the more depressing aspects do not constitute the core — and certainly not the life — of the book. Callahan does more than remind us just how pivotal the early nineties were to reshaping the culture and transforming our understanding of the female body. She reminds us that art is more than amusement. It is an anger, an anarchism, the expression of a desire to destroy and build something from the ashes that occasionally consumes the artist and even his muse in a spiral of self-destruction.

But, with the transformation of the East Village into a more middle class and expensive area, and the recent closing of Yaffa Cafe, Champagne Supernovas is also a timely book, capturing a moment in time and an energy and an aggression that changed everything. Personally, I felt I not only understood the early nineties and fashion better, but that I understood myself better after reading Callahan’s excellent work. And I wasn’t expecting that.

You can pick up a copy of Champagne Supernovas at Amazon.com, here. On on Amazon.co.uk here.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.