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The Real Culture Wars: Who Killed Alexander McQueen?

It's impossible to know what's in a man's heart, especially when his heart is no longer beating.
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It's impossible to know what's in a man's heart, especially when his heart is no longer beating. Even when designer Alexander McQueen was alive, "mystification" was the one reaction that united the people who saw, wrote about, and bought his work. Whether it was the bizarre nature of not just the designer's collections but of the contrasts they created, his unpredictable habit for sticking his thumb in the fashion world's eye (by, for example, having models walk down the runway of one show while sticking their middle fingers out at the audience), or, in the final act, killing himself just when it seemed he was reaching ever-new heights.

Suicide is an unsolvable puzzle. In Mr. McQueen's case, no one knows or ever will know exactly what caused him to hang himself in his clothes closet. Neither the suicide letter nor the autopsy will tell us anything about the man or his death. But the man's death, like his funeral, tells us something damning about ourselves.

Paparazzi photos of Mr. McQueen's funeral show that it had been unmistakably perverted into the production of his last show. Maybe "he would have wanted it that way" (as the cliché goes), maybe not. But with Naomi Campbell decked out in an eye-drawing black-plumed hat, Kate Moss dressed up, similarly, in a black feathery bird costume, and "the heiress" Daphne Guinness striding down the funereal catwalk with a black zeppelin strapped to her back, it was clear that the McQueen funeral show, which might have been called "Remember Me Not," offered a unique opportunity to variate on the theme of black.

No longer Kate Moss the negligent mother-cum-coke addict, nor Naomi Campbell the serve-me-or-die diva, those in attendance could style themselves as mournful muses and remind the world, through the death of Mr. McQueen, that they had inspired him, they had provided him the silhouette of beauty, they, if you think about it in the literal sense, had a-mused him.

The models mourned the passing of this talent, as did the editors, the celebrities, and the fashion houses. But what about the man? If his talent had simply dissipated or if he had given up fashion and become, as his father had been, a taxi driver -- if the world had lost not a man, but just his function -- would it still have been a tragedy, this "massive loss to the fashion industry"?

Alexander McQueen, according to reports, was a long-time heavy drug user. He was obsessive about his body. He was at the top of every list and at the center of every party he chose to attend. He lived a life of pleasure, not necessarily because he himself was decadent (though maybe he was), but definitely because his genius lay in a fashion world quintessentially devoted to an exquisite satisfaction of the senses.

"The man who from the bronze of the image of the 'Pleasure that liveth for a moment'," Oscar Wilde wrote from the depth of his imprisonment, "has to make the image of the 'Sorrow that abideth forever.'" That is exactly what Mr. McQueen did, using the fabrics of the momentary pleasure of beauty-set-adrift to sew himself, in his case, a noose of sorrow.

It's no accident that Oscar Wilde, one of the leaders of the "art for art's sake" movement, can give us the best understanding of the nature of Mr. McQueen's life. The two were strikingly similar: young British geniuses whose work was tied closely to the worlds of fashion and society, and whose lives ended in misery.

It was Wilde's philosophy of art for art's sake, which he summed up perfectly in just one line in the preface to Dorian Gray -- "All art is quite useless" -- that is today the governing principle of the fashion world. And from fashion through the celebrity lymph nodes of "super"-models like Moss and Campbell, the celebration of beauty-in-and-of-itself, which is a nihilism of the senses, has metastasized into the body of Western culture.

It's tempting to say that it's a "sad irony" that a genius fashion designer hanged himself in his clothes wardrobe. It's tempting to say that it's a "celebration" of his life that the most famous models in the world showed up to his funeral wearing spectacular clothing. But it's neither ironic that he hanged himself in his closet, nor an act of redemption that fashion models came to his funeral looking like fashion models.

The closet full of clothes was the only place he could go, despite his unlimited access to inaccessible people, and the fashion models could never understand that a tribute to the man -- the person, not just his work -- would come in the rending of rags worn, in spite of the cameras, to his burial.