Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.
In October 2009, Alexander McQueen presented what would be his final fashion show ever. The designer, who tragically passed away in February 2010, had made a name for himself as fashion's greatest showman. His runway presentations became historic moments, with memorable — and often still referenced — finales, including robots that shot paint at a dress (Spring 1999), a hologram of Kate Moss (Fall 2006) or a game of human chess (Spring 2005). But for all his genius on the runway over the years, the show that solidified him as a household name was arguably his last.
Compared to his previous performances, Spring 2010's "Plato's Atlantis" was arguably subdued. It's biggest visual set features were robot-mounted cameras that ran on a track up and down the runway, and a projected video of a naked Raquel Zimmermann covered in snakes. Pretty low-key by McQueen standards. The collection took inspiration from nature, specifically reptiles and the sea, while models were made up with prosthetics that made them look ever-so-slightly alien. Nature themes and extreme makeup were, again, par for the course for McQueen fans.
But maybe that's what made "Plato's Atlantis" so memorable — many of the people watching it weren't McQueen fans. At least, not yet. "Plato's Atlantis" was the first show to ever be splashed on to the internet in a live-stream on SHOWstudio, welcoming an entirely new audience to a singular creative world, with clothes that were destined to go viral.
The Armadillo Shoes
It's impossible to write of "Plato's Atlantis" and not talk about those damn Armadillo shoes. Never in fashion has a shoe eclipsed the rest of a collection the way those 12-inch heels did. They might possibly have been the most "McQueen" thing McQueen ever made. They took cues from nature while disfiguring the human body, they were theatrical, they were completely fresh, and above all, they were grotesque. That being said, the models who wore them still needed to be able to trek down the runway and back — a feat not all of them were confident they could make.
"We rehearsed in the shoes, and nearly all the models were saying 'I'm not gonna wear those'," photographer Nick Knight, who broadcast the show, recalled. Allegedly Abbey Lee Kershaw, Natasha Poly and Sasha Pivovarova actually backed out of the show due to safety concerns. But somehow the remaining girls were convinced otherwise, and stuck around. "Lee had a pep talk with them and said whatever he said to them," said Knight. "They all went out and none of them fell over."
The shoes caused a sensation. In a post that is sadly no longer available, editors at British Vogue test-drove the shoes around the office with some difficulties. Longtime McQueen friend Daphne Guinness got the honor of being the first person to wear them in public, rocking them on a red carpet in New York. But before her, the shoes made it on to the feet of a then-rising figure in pop: Lady Gaga.
Gaga and McQueen: Creative Romance
"I've got this American singer who might do a song for it," McQueen told Knight of the soundtrack months before the show. It seems so far away, a time when Gaga was merely "popular," and not a full-blown phenomena. One might say it was the video for "Bad Romance" that solidified her status. In 2009 she already had a smash album under her belt, and her second, The Fame Monster, was on its way. She had only just begun referring to her fans as "little monsters" that summer.
Lady Gaga's role in making "Plato's Atlantis" a bonafide pop culture moment outside the realm of fashion cannot be understated. After she Tweeted the news that her new song would debut in the show, she was literally the driving force behind the live-stream getting so many hits that SHOWstudio crashed.
But the show itself was only the beginning. For the "Bad Romance" video, she notably donned the closing look from "Plato’s Atlantis" — Armadillo shoes and all — during the bridge of the song, wherein which she chants, "walk, walk, fashion baby." It's a stunning visual, and (not to use this term lightly), one of the most iconic pop video moments of the 2000s. Gaga had arrived, and she did so in McQueen.
It was clear that though their friendship was brief, they had a deep connection. In the wake of his death, Gaga donned the Armadillo shoes (and more of his wears) on red carpets for the Brit Awards, and the MTV VMAs. She also won pieces of his archives through highly publicized auctions.
"These shoes are the only tangible piece I have left of our work together," she wrote in a heartfelt letter to V Magazine after winning the Armadillo heels in 2015. "This morning I got the call I would now be the caregiver to three pairs of armadillo platforms, just like the kind I wore in the "Bad Romance" video, the shoes from his crescendo collection "Plato's Atlantis," the ones that made everyone gasp from the front row because they had never seen something like them before."
She later continued: "He wanted me to have them. They made their way back to me. I am here today not just because of my talent, but because he believed in me. My weird brand of art pop manic expression of my emotions was the part of me he knew he taught me. I will be grateful long after I pass and join him wherever it is they put souls like us."
The Birth of a New Digital Era
Though it was the last show of McQueen's life, it ushered in a new era for the industry — fashion was now adapting to the internet. 2009 was an interesting time of transition. Instagram hadn't launched, nor had Vogue's website (both would happen in 2010). Bloggers (which we now refer to as "influencers") were still disrupting the system by finding new audiences online. Meanwhile, the digitally-native Style.com, which debuted in 2000, was coming in to its own as the go-to for up-to-the-minute coverage of fashion week.
When Gaga used social media to direct her fans to the live stream, she showed the industry an untapped hunger among the masses to have a glimpse into the highly exclusive world of fashion shows. Unlike watching a televised recap of the show after the fact, or even just waiting for images to appear, streams allowed people to watch fashion shows in real time, and social media allowed them to participate in the conversation. With every passing season more and more brands (or at least, the ones that can afford it) offer live streams of their shows.
As the fashion industry continues to shift and evolve to meet the needs of the internet, it's hard not to wonder what McQueen would have been doing today. Would live-streams have become a mainstay of his brand, or would he have grown bored with videos? Would he have embraced digital avatar influencers like Lil’ Miquela, or would he have continued to cultivate his relationships with models? And what of his relationship with Gaga? What ways could they have pushed each other, creatively? We'll never know, but it's that mystery and wonder that keeps his memory alive. And its our ability to look back on his legacy — much of which is preserved in images and videos for free online — that keeps him in our hearts.