They say that legends never die - and in the case of Lee Alexander McQueen, fashion's king of rock n' roll and one of the most innovative, unique creatives of all time, that's exactly true.
Born into a working class family on March 17, 1969 in Lewisham, McQueen and his five other siblings barely got by on his parents' small incomes. To say that "Lee" (a name he was commonly known as by his friends and family) had a rough childhood is an understatement. Though he was beloved by his family, school is, naturally, a nightmare when you're an outsider. He recognized his homosexuality at a very young age and was ruthlessly teased for it by his schoolmates. "I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I've got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother's womb onto the gay pride parade," described McQueen later on in life when discussing coming out.
McQueen dropped out of school at sixteen, just before his A-levels, and found work on the prestigious Saville Row as an apprentice to tailors Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes. He later moved on from Saville Row and started working with theatrical costume designers Angels & Bermans as an assistant designer. There, he discovered his love for dramatic clothing. The flamboyance and extravagance later became a signature in his independent designs.
McQueen then applied to Central Saint Martin's College of Art & Design to work as a pattern cutter tutor. Due to his strong portfolio and his evident talent, he was persuaded by the head of the Masters course to enrol as a student. By 1992, McQueen had graduated with an M.A. in fashion design. For his culminating project, McQueen designed a collection inspired by Jack the Ripper, an infamous unidentified serial killer in London between 1888-1891. The entire collection was purchased by Isabella Blow, an eccentric magazine editor, who later became one of McQueen's dearest friends and advocators.
Freshly graduated McQueen shortly started his own business designing womenswear and invented the "bumster" trousers. The extremely low-waisted trousers were met with tremendous success. It is said that the bumster defined McQueen, as did his signature display of skulls in many of his designs. However, what really defined McQueen and separated from from anyone else were his catwalks. His often dark and twisted themes shocked his audience. This kind of innovation was controversial because it was unfamiliar. The essence of discomfort in the room was rebellious as well as fantastic.
Twenty-seven-year-old McQueen was then appointed the prestigious position of Chief Designer at French fashion house Givenchy in 1996. Though this was an enormous achievement for a young designer, McQueen took the position reluctantly, to say the least. He managed to stay at the house until 2001, despite calling the founder "irrelevant" upon his arrival. McQueen had always been different in the best way possible. To say that he was well-beyond his years creatively would be an understatement. Too inventive for the time and always pushing the boundaries of what was expected in fashion, he felt that Givenchy "constrained his creativity." One show featured a model with an amputated leg walking down the runway on carved wooden legs - and well, that sort of difference was definitely not the norm.
"I treated Givenchy badly. It was just money to me. But there was nothing I could do; 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," explained McQueen when discussing his time at the haute-couture house. Regardless of his personal opinion, he still won British Designer of the Year in 1996, 1997 and 2001.
In 2000, Gucci purchased a 51% stake in Alexander McQueen's independent label which allowed him to expand his business internationally, hence why McQueen departed from Givenchy shortly after. By 2003, McQueen was named International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, A Most Excellent Commander of the British Empire by the Queen of England and received another award for British Designer of the Year. Stores opened in New York, Milan, London, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. McQueen had become a world-renowned designer and was more successful than ever.
The next chapter of McQueen's life was a short and tragic one. After the death of Isabella Blow, McQueen dedicated his Spring / Summer 2008 collection to her, describing that her death "was the most valuable thing I learnt in fashion." Only two years later, McQueen's mother passed away on February 2nd. Friends of McQueen said he went into a downward spiral, abusing drugs and that he was extremely unhappy. Though he had the support of his friends and family, McQueen was found dead in his Mayfair apartment on February 11th, one day before his mother's funeral. His death was deemed as suicide. This tragic and devastating news shook the fashion community as the world lost a true legend.
McQueen's work was truly like no others as his innovation and creativity was apparent from the very beginning. His 1995 collection titled "Highland Rape" was the commencement of his dramatic catwalks as models flashed their rears to the audience in "bumster skirts." His 1997 collection titled "Walking on Water" featured models in high heels walking through a shallow pool of water. This collection included high collars, metal frames that connected model's arms and legs and a tent-like dome filled with butterflies that encased a model's body. His Spring 1999 collection was described as "futuristic" and is remembered for its finale when a model wearing a white strapless dress was sprayed in paint by robots as she stood on a spinning circle. One of his most memorable shows was Fall 2006, when Kate Moss emerged as a hologram. A longtime friend of McQueen, Moss wore a flowing gown as she floated above the crowd. His S/S 2010 was one of McQueen's last shows, the collection embodied the depths of his creative mind to a T. Futuristic and truly one of a kind, this colourful collection featured structured mini dresses and jumpsuits, as well as the iconic Armadillo heel which is next to impossible to walk in. (Find images of the collections at the bottom.)
Not only did McQueen break the rules of fashion, but he reformulated the appearance of what a successful designer was supposed to look like. An introverted individual that didn't try to hide his lower-class roots, McQueen was often seen in loose-fitting jeans and oversized lumberjack shirts. This was something that empowered him, he was proud of where he came from and didn't care to change who he was despite his extortionate success. Upon his death, McQueen left 50,000 GBP of his wealth to his pet dogs, as well as donating 100,000 GBP to charities including Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Blue Cross Animal Welfare Charity.
Lee Alexander McQueen was one of the most extraordinary designers and artists of all time. He redefined fashion in its entirety by creating avant-garde collections and shows that changed the industry forever.
"If you leave without emotion, then I'm not doing my job properly. I don't want you to walk out feeling like you've just had Sunday lunch, I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it's an emotion," said McQueen (quoted from the trailer for documentary McQueen in cinemas June 8th).
To this day, the Alexander McQueen brand (with Sarah Burton is the current creative director) continues to thrive as a leading fashion house that has stayed true to McQueen's unconventional, unique and soft punk aesthetic. The definition of an icon and a creative genius, McQueen may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.
Watch the McQueen documentary trailer here
By: Isabel de Carteret
Alexander McQueen 1995 - Highland Rape
Alexander McQueen 1997 - Walking On Water
Alexander McQueen Spring 1999
Alexander McQueen Fall 2006 - Kate Moss Hologram
Alexander McQueen Spring 2010 featuring the iconic Armadillo heels