90s Supermodel Shalom Harlow Reveals True Story Behind *That* Alexander McQueen’s Spray-On Dress

"I'd just gotten off a red eye, I hadn't been told anything."

The closing moments of Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 show has gone down as one of the most iconic moments in fashion history. Supermodel Shalom Harlow stood alone, rotating like a ballerina on a platform while two robots encircled her. The audience began to clap, believing it was the end. Then, the robots – the exact type used in car factories – began to spray paint Harlow’s white dress in an acidic yellow and black, splattering her face and collarbones.

It was primal. It was electric. And Harlow had no idea about any of it before the show.

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Shalom Harlow in the spray-painted dress at Alexander McQueen’s Spring 1999 show. (Credit: Robert Fairer (courtesy of the NGV))

“I’d just gotten off a red eye, I hadn’t been told anything,” she told marie claire Australia. “I was just thrown into it. There was zero rehearsal.”

Luckily, as Shalom herself puts it, she’s “an instinctual creature”, and so took whatever McQueen threw at her – quite literally. When the robots finished their work, she continued the performance, strutting towards a wall of photographers while the audience erupted in applause.

“He put the right person on that podium,” she continued with a laugh. “And I just responded naturally to the stimuli. It was pure improvisation. It was psychological. It was like pathos, and there was a predatory threat, and there was some kind of sexual overlay, and there were so many elements that were very complicated that revealed itself in time. I was just responding to that.”

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Alexander McQueen walks the runway at his Spring 1999 show. (Credit: Getty)

It was moments like the spray painted dress that solidified Lee Alexander McQueen, as he was born, as one of the most original designers of all time — and why we’re still so fascinated by his work, more than a decade after his death.

His famous knack for creative storytelling, wide-ranging sources of inspiration, and of course that exquisite tailoring, are now on display at Melbourne’s NGV, where an exhibit showcasing more than 120 of his garments and accessories has opened for the summer.

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Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter 2009 show in Paris. (Credit: Getty)

“He’s so deserving of an exhibit like this,” Harlow said. “And the NGV has done a monumental job at curating what I think is just such an astonishingly executing array of his [work]. He’s got such an incredible breadth of work, and to encapsulate for an audience that might not actually be so fashion orientated — I hope that people who wouldn’t necessarily be fashion curious come, because he deserves to be understood.”

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Shalom Harlow in a black Versace gown and Tiffany necklace at the NGV Gala, opening an exhibit dedicated to Alexander McQueen. (Credit: Courtesy of the NGV)

Like his contemporary John Galliano, McQueen was nicknamed l’enfant terrible by the press. This is the man who supposedly sewed “I am a c—t” into the lining of a suit for Prince Charles’ while working as a tailor on London’s Savile Row. His work frequently dabbled in the dark and twisted, like when he sent bruised models in torn clothes down the runway for his Fall 1995 collection, called Highland Rape, as a meditation on England’s violation of Scotland – or when he cut off his own hair and encased a lock in each garment of 1992 graduate collection. “I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists,” he said in a 2007 interview. “I have to force people to look at things.”

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The iconic shoes from Alexander McQueen’s spring/summer 2010 show. (Credit: Getty)

But while the press might not have known what to do with McQueen, those in the know – whether that was his fashion contemporaries or the gay club scene he both frequented and celebrated – knew that what they were witnessing was extraordinary.

“Those who knew, knew,” Harlow said (IYKYK). “The depth and breadth of his talent was just unmistakable at the time, it really was.”

One of those who knew from the get go was Isabella Blow, the fashion darling who bought McQueen’s entire graduate collection and became both his mentor and muse. She was “just obsessed from the second”, Harlow says.

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Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen at a dinner in 2003. (Credit: Getty)

McQueen possessed the rare attributes of a master artist, Harlow says. “That focus and precision and obsessive execution – I mean, that is what it takes,” she said. “And he had that, on top of the wild imaginings and the open porous nature.” She pauses. “I wish he could still be creating, but unfortunately he was swept up in that time where fashion was going through a massive transition, and the demands that were made on somebody with such delicate, artistic nature – it’s just unsustainable, that pressure.”

Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse is open now until April 16, 2023 at the NGV. Book your tickets here.

This story first appeared in ELLE Australia. Read the original piece here.

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