Alexander McQueen has been praised as a visionary in fashion who continuously broke the rules. To honour the late designer, playwright James Phillips has written a dazzling story that will premiere at the St. James Theatre in London on May 12. Rather than a biographical depiction, Phillips’ McQueen captures the spirit of the designer in a haunting, fictional storyline. He invites his viewers into what he believes was the interior world of McQueen, channeling the designer’s imagination and his daydreams. Actor Stephen Wight will play the role of Lee, a name used by those who knew McQueen personally, alongside actress actress Dianna Agron.
Phillips took some time to speak to us about his new play and gives us his take on why the late designer has become one of fashion’s most fascinating figures.
S/: Tell me about yourself—how and why did you get into theatre?
James Phillips: I’ve always loved stories, which is all any of it really is—acting, writing or directing—storytelling. I did a lot of theatre at Oxford, acting and directing, which really reinforced my love for it. And I was lucky, there was an amazing generation of people doing plays when I was there: Rosamund Pike, Rory Kinnear, our current ‘McQueen’ designer David Farley—we all worked on shows together. Growing up working with that level of talent: it really forces your ideas and your hopes. I was very fortunate; the people you get to work with change you.
What inspired you to write a play about Alexander McQueen?
A sentence he himself wrote in 2008: “I’ve got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden. I made up a story: a girl lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and becomes a queen.”
Everything came from that, the whole play, the whole idea of writing about this contemporary artist, the whole fairy story of it.
Tell me about the plotline of the play.
It’s more than a bio-play; it’s a fairy story. It takes you into [McQueen’s] imagination, into his talent, his demons. It’s set on one London night, west to east. A girl has been watching his house for 11 nights. And then she breaks in. To steal a dress. She wants to be special, to be one of the shining people. She thinks he’s in Paris but he’s not—he’s home and he catches her. But he sees something in her, and instead of calling the police, he takes her on an adventure across London and into his soul.
Why do you think McQueen has left such a mark on the fashion industry? What is it that makes him so special and memorable?
He was a rebel with poetry in his heart. He knew something fundamental too: you can turn an urchin into an amazon with the cut of a cloth. His clothes were beautiful beyond belief but made with the sort of love that kisses with teeth; dark and biting and visionary. And the shows themselves were staggering works of imagination and invention, and I hope we’re harnessing all this for our play. And of course his biography was fascinating: coming from a poor background to be the head of a French couture house whilst still in his twenties.
The debate about whether fashion is art or business has been going on for ages. In your opinion, where does McQueen lie on this spectrum?
He’s fashion’s supreme contemporary artist. And my interest in him was as an artist: as someone who uses his craft to say something about the world. That’s the reason I wrote the play. I think he wanted his work to be transformative, to alter us inside as well as out. His career was one coup de théâtre after another. Just watch some of the iconic moments he created: Shalom Harlow on a wooden plinth all little girl lost in a white dress being painted by robots, or his show, “Voss,” which was set in an asylum and where the models were within a mirrored box. Or even “Plato’s Atlantis,” the show in which his famous armadillo shoes were introduced to the world.
Tell me about the costumes in the play—How did you approach costume design for a play in which the fashions hold so much importance?
I’m working with David Farley, our show designer, on this. David and I have worked together since we were teenagers, and he’s brilliant. And of course, the costumes are vital for this show. We’re going to have some stunning pieces, all of which will take you into the visionary dream world of Lee McQueen.
The play is set on a single night. How do you capture the brilliance of this man’s life in such a short time?
[It is captured] because we step into this fairy story world, the world of his shows; we step into his heart and into his creativity. It’s not an ordinary night—it’s a magical one. You know those nights. I bet I could find out everything that mattered to you on one night, on one adventure.
What do you hope the audience will take from this show? What will they leave thinking?
That that they have seen into [McQueen’s] soul, that they understand better what inspiration is, what it feels like, what this whole “being an artist person” thing is like. The play talks about a lot of different things, I hope. One of them is whether beauty can help save us. I hope they come out thinking about that. And the clothes!
We can all learn from the genius of a man like McQueen. What is something that this experience of looking into his mind and life has taught you?
That the most important nights are the ones you survive. Those ones are the miracles. And that darkness can be beaten back for a brief while and in those interludes we can create wonderful things.
What can we expect next from you?
My show City Stories is returning later in the year to St. James Theatre, a sequence of realist tales of love and magic in London, all scored with live music.
And in July, Camelot: The Shining City (my new version of the Arthurian Myths which is very dark and very contemporary), opens at The Crucible in Sheffield, with the same team that did my play, The White Whale, last year in Leeds.
McQueen is on view at the St. James Theatre in London from May 12 – June 27, 2015. Find out more here.