Alexander McQueen (1969 – 2010) Called by fashion critics and editors, “a leading light in British fashion design,” Alexander McQueen made a name for himself at his first runway shows. McQueen’s early collections employed controversy and shock tactics that earned him the title “L’Enfant terrible” and “the hooligan of English fashion.” There is little dispute that both his creations and his short life were nothing less than macabre.
Alexander McQueen was born on March 17, 1969, in Lewisham, London. His father drove a taxi and his mother was a social science teacher. On their meager salaries, they supported McQueen and his three sisters and two brothers. McQueen, called “Lee” by intimates and friends for most of his life, also recognized his homosexuality at an early age and was bullied about it by schoolmates.
At age 16, McQueen dropped out of school. He found employment in London’s Savile Row where he first worked with the tailor shop Anderson and Shephard, then moved to nearby Gieves and Hawkes. On Savile Row, McQueen’s clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles.
At age of 20, he spent some time working for Koji Tatsuno before travelling to Milan, Italy where he worked for Romeo Gigli.
McQueen returned to London and applied to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to work as a pattern cutter tutor. With his strong portfolio, McQueen was persuaded by Bobby Hillson, Head of the Masters course, to enroll in the course as a student.
In 1992, McQueen received his master’s degree in fashion design and his graduation collection was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow. It is Blow who is said to have persuaded McQueen to become known as Alexander (his middle name) when he launched his fashion career. She became a long-time friend of McQueen, as well as an advocate for his work.
When McQueen moved from Savile Row, he began working with theatrical costume designers Angels and Bermans. The dramatic style of the clothing he made there became integral to and a signature of his later independent design work.
McQueen’s first shows featured trousers named “bumsters” that rode low on the hips and a collection titled “Highland Rape”. In 2004, journalist Caroline Evans wrote of McQueen’s “theatrical staging of cruelty,” referring to his dark and tortured renderings of Scottish history.
Among the runway shows for which McQueen is most remembered are a recreation of a shipwreck for his spring 2003 collection; spring 2005’s human chess game; and his autumn 2006 show “Widows of Culloden” that featured a life-sized hologram of supermodel Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric.
McQueen’s “bumsters” spawned a trend in low rise jeans and a debate that still rages. Michael Oliveira-Salac, the director of Blow PR and a friend of McQueen’s said, “The bumster for me is what defined McQueen.” McQueen also became known for using skulls in his designs. A scarf that used the design became a celebrity must-have and was copied around the world.
It took only four years after his graduation that McQueen was named Chief Designer of Givenchy, the French fashion house. Though the job offered prestige, McQueen took it reluctantly. His time there (1996 to 2001) was nothing less than tumultuous. While he pushed the limits of what people expected from fashion (one show featured an amputee model who walked the runway on carved wooden legs), McQueen felt he was being held back.
He later said that the job “constrain[ed] his creativity.” However, he also said, “The only way it would have worked would have been if they had allowed me to change the whole concept of the house, to give it a new identity, and they never wanted me to do that.” Even with his reservations about his work, McQueen won British Designer of the year in 1996, 1997, and 2001, all during his time at Givenchy.
In 2000, Gucci bought a 51 percent stake in Alexander McQueen’s private company, and provided the capital to expand the business. McQueen left Givenchy shortly thereafter.
In 2003, McQueen was named International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and A Most Excellent Commander of the British Empire by the Queen Elizabeth and won yet another British Designer of the Year honor.
Meanwhile, McQueen opened stores in New York, Milan, London, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. With the help of Gucci’s investment, McQueen had become even more successful. Already known for his unique, impassioned shows, McQueen continued to produce spectacles, one of which employed a floating hologram of model Kate Moss at the showing of his 2006 Fall/Winter line.
McQueen designed the wardrobe for David Bowie’s1996-97 tours as well as the Union Jack coat Bowie wore on the cover of his 1997 album, Earthling. Icelandic singer Björk employed McQueen’s designs for the cover of her 1997 album, Homogenic. McQueen also directed the music video for her song “Alarm Call” and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video, “Pagan Poetry.”
McQueen’s jewelry designs include bracelets, necklaces, and rings. Most pieces incorporate McQueen’s signature skull design sometimes using bold metal complements. Some pieces also feature leather especially on cuffs that use strap/belt clasping.
“People thought I was crazy,” recalls Shaun Leane, the goldsmith and master metalworker who designed Alexander McQueen’s runway shows. “They just didn’t understand the vision and the direction of what we were doing.” To spark controversy and outrage, Leane and McQueen dreamed up pieces that included an elaborate metal-coil bodice and a ferocious steel mouthpiece that also appears in many of McQueen’s skull designs.
Also seen in McQueen’s jewelry is his fascination with pre-historic tribes. Some of his jewels look like the Picasso works inspired by African masks. McQueen’s use of skulls, with gems cast into the eyes, tusk-looking pendants, snakes rings are all reminders of tribal cultures.
Alexander McQueen was well-known for not minimizing his lack of traditional designer good looks or his lower class background. While McQueen realized very young that he was gay, it took his family time to accept him for what he called, “[the famly’s] “pink sheep.” His adolescence coincided with the explosion of AIDS and forced him to witness the scenes that haunted the youth of his generation: sex and death in the same bed. Arguably, this informed both his work and life.
McQueen’s death was announced February 11, 2010 after his housekeeper found him hanged at his home. Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. McQueen had killed himself nine days after his mother died from cancer at age 75.
McQueen left a note saying, “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”
Two months later, the official inquest ruled that McQueen’s death was a suicide. McQueen, who had been diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, took an overdose prior to hanging himself with his favorite brown belt.
The inquest further recorded that he had slashed his wrists with a ceremonial dagger and a meat cleaver. Coroner Dr. Paul Knapman reported finding “a significant level of cocaine, sleeping pills, and tranquillizers in the blood samples taken after the designer’s death.”
When the shock of McQueen’s untimely passing had somewhat subsided, his longtime co-designer, Sarah Burton took over the Alexander McQueen brand and continues to oversee it today.
McQueen’s contribution to fashion was honored by a 2011 exhibition of his creations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His rise from lower-class high school dropout to internationally famous designer remains a remarkable story. His bold styles and energy-driven shows inspired the fashion world where his legacy lives on.
While still at Givenchy, the chubby, twenty-seven year old with his buzz cut and a baby face, once boasted, “When I’m dead and gone, people will know that the 21st Century was started by Alexander McQueen.”