Musings on Muses

The last model departed the runway and the theme from Schindler’s List filled the room — melancholic and menacing. A small hologram of Kate Moss, rendered through an ancient technique known as Pepper’s Ghost, gathered in an organza-like cloud inside a glass pyramid. An apparition, she remained suspended and fluttering in midair for mere moments. The audience gasped and the press called The Widows of Culloden (fall 2006) one of Alexander McQueen’s most emotionally charged, autobiographical collections to date. Not since 1995’s Highland Rape had he revisited his family’s native Scotland with such artistic urgency. And Moss — along with Isabella Blow, who’d commit suicide the next year by ingesting weed killer — was carved into popular memory as one of his most salient muses.

Muses are, in fact, borne out of memory, if one subscribes to ancient Greek mythology. They say that Zeus fathered nine Muses with Mnemosyne, who was memory personified. Today our muses operate in stealth, their voices filling writers’ heads with curling prose, artists’ minds with sensational and swimming colors, and, for fashion designers, finer focus on who their customer is (or could be). Particularly for men who dress women, the muse is an illusory ideal, obscured in fanciful abstraction and roaming the endless corridors of time. “Maria Lani, a formidable lady, had the charm to seduce fifty of the most incredible artists in the 1920s in Paris into portraying her. And she stole all the canvases, fled to Hollywood and no one ever saw her again,” John Galliano said of his muse for his spring 2011 collection. “And when I read that story, I just thought, ‘She’s a Galliano girl.’”

Rick Owens, on the other hand, rejects the idea of a muse entirely. “The entire vision was created for Michèle (Lamy, his wife), the volume of everything is created for her,” he told’s Tim Blanks. “[But] muse sounds so gay, like projecting something onto an icon instead of a wonderful, attractive, fuckable woman. I’m not dressing a doll.”

In her new book, Champagne Supernovas (Amazon, iTunes), Maureen Callahan writes that Kate Moss “wanted to be more than a face, a model, a hologram.” In little over 200 pages, Callahan unfolds the remarkable stories of three movers and shakers (and survivors) of the 1990s: Moss, Alexander McQueen, and Marc Jacobs. Their lives were real and raw. They did lots of drugs, had lots of sex (not with each other, though Callahan doesn’t bother disguising fashion’s incestuous undertones), and helped create some of the most incredible imagery of our age. But Callahan’s most interesting critique concerns the value and legitimacy of a muse, both as a concept and a creation. Before McQueen, it was Moss and Corinne Day; and, before Isabella Blow’s relationship with Alexander McQueen turned into a game of spite and strategy, they seemed set to rule the world.

Corinne Day, a former model turned photographer, discovered Kate Moss in 1989. She arrived at the fledgling Storm modeling agency looking for girls who might work for free, and was given “grudging access to the lower-tier girls.” There, from a stuffed drawer, she pulled out a Polaroid of the 15-year-old future supermodel. Their friendship blossomed. Day went on to photograph Moss for the cover of The Face in 1990, the model’s second cover that year (a feat then matched only by Madonna). Moss’s smile stretched from ear to ear, her hair swinging in the wind under a feather crown. Internally, though, she was already struggling with the image that others, including Day, wanted her to be. The muse was miserable. “I see a sixteen-year-old girl now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird,” she later said. “But they were like, ‘If you don’t do it, we’re not going to book you again.’ So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it.” In one shot, Moss is running completely topless along the sand. She made the hairdresser, the only man on the set, turn his back.

Two years later, Moss was fronting those notorious ads for Calvin Klein with Mark Wahlberg. It ignited heroin chic, and her advertisements were scorched with the words ‘feed me.’ Now, the blend of starkness and severity is said to have catalyzed the spirit of the 90s, if only for its fetish quality. “For me, Kate’s body represented closing the door on the excess of the 80s,” Calvin Klein said. Moss later objected: “I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks.” Wahlberg, too, opposed ‘the waif thing,’ saying, “She kind of looked like my nephew.” Moss and Klein were accused of promoting anorexia and drug use. Then, after she went to the Priory rehabilitation center toward the end of the decade, Klein turned his back and said, “I never meant to create a monster.”

Moss’s career wasn’t a steady ascension, but rather an apotheosis — like those ancient Greek Muses. Everything she touched seemed to turn to gold. Nicolas Ghesquière’s Lariat bag, a prototype he never intended to put into production, was gifted to her. Within the week Ghesquiere’s Paris office was inundated with calls, and Balenciaga officially launched the bag in 2001. The sequined dress Moss wore to her 30th birthday party, once worn by the actress Britt Ekland, spawned a copy on the Gucci runway four weeks later, Tom Ford’s last collection for the house. And the Hunter Wellies she wore to the Glastonbury Festival in 2005 sent sales soaring. It didn’t take long for Topshop to surrender to Moss’s magnetism. There was no point in pretending she belonged solely to Day or Ford or even to herself — she was everyone’s muse.

Perhaps Rick Owens is right. Muses are not born; they are made and made up for outrageous fashion whimsies. Because Moss was a doll — albeit a short and rather flat one (she considered getting implants early in her career) that defied 80s Amazonian perfection — the industry inevitably retreated back to “wholesomeness and predictability” when Gisele Bundchen emerged. And, as Anna Wintour suggests, Moss was a volatile phenomenon. “There’s something quite hidden about her. And I think that’s why so many photographers and editors —and, later on in her career, artists — were drawn to her,” the editor said. “Because it was hard to say exactly what she was or who she was, and they could put their own fantasies onto her.”

And while Moss was consumed (or subsumed) by those fantasies, Alexander McQueen was creating his own: vicious, bloodied, brutal — without apology. His early muse, Isabella Blow, was from an aristocratic but cash-poor family, and had been fired from various styling roles at Vogue and Tatler for running editorial budgets to dizzying limits. McQueen was the brash and brazen son of a cab driver, and would continue to spend that defining decade with the unease of imposter syndrome tugging at him. The aristocrat and the iconoclast — blue blood and hot blood — met after McQueen’s Central Saint Martins graduate show in July 1992. As Maureen Callahan writes, Blow wanted to buy every piece she saw. “Three fifty, love,” he allegedly told her. “Take it or leave it.” Blow could only afford to pay in installments. Later, McQueen would say that he charged her 5,000 pounds for the collection. She never argued with him on that point.

We have relegated Isabella Blow’s role to McQueen’s single muse, though their relationship was far more complex. They both carried enormous emotional baggage. They both hated their physical appearance. Blow, in fact, would hide behind Philip Treacy’s extravagant, engorging hats while McQueen, claiming that he was still on the dole and trying to evade the government, would wrap his face in tape. She put a roof over his head and introduced him to the right people. He, at least initially, provided the kind of love that seemed to evade her for years. She hated her mother, resented her father, and later discovered that she was infertile. But it wasn’t enough to be his muse. Blow, trudging through perpetual penury as McQueen’s celebrity continued to rise, would have to be paid for it.

Their relationship soon suffered. “When McQueen took the job at Givenchy, she assumed she’d be the house muse, that McQueen would put her on salary,” Callahan writes. “He gave her nothing. She was heartbroken.” Later, Isabella Blow said, “He likes to use the clothes as power over me,” though McQueen was growing increasingly tired of Blow “bottomless pit of need.” He continued to hurl cruelty at her, always covert, always among mutual friends. His muse became his monster.

Maureen Callahan paints a wry, grotesque picture of fashion in the 1990s that completely distorts accepted fiction about artist and muse. It was rarely glamorous or romantic for the people who lived it, least of all the people who ultimately bowed to the pressure. Blow committed suicide in 2007, McQueen three years later. Kate Moss was a reluctant muse, patiently waiting to feel as beautiful as the swarms of photographers and designers around her believed her to be. Isabella Blow, on the other hand, resigned herself to the belief that she’d never be beautiful, lending her creative power to exaggerated personal myth and propelling the talent around her. But McQueen wasn’t going to let her take credit for his career. “I fucking discovered Alexander McQueen,” he said.

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