Who Was Alexander McQueen?
Alexander McQueen became head designer of the Louis Vuitton-owned Givenchy fashion line, and in 2004 he launched his own menswear line. McQueen earned the British Fashion Council's British Designer of the Year award four times, and was named Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He committed suicide in 2010, shortly after the death of his mother.
Lee Alexander McQueen was born on March 17, 1969, into a working-class family living in public housing in London's Lewisham district. His father, Ronald, was a cab driver, and his mother, Joyce, taught social science. On their small incomes, they supported McQueen and his five siblings. McQueen, called "Lee" by his friends for most of his life, recognized his homosexuality at an early age and was teased extensively about it by schoolmates.
At age 16, McQueen dropped out of school. He found work on Savile Row, a street in London's Mayfair district famous for offering made-to-order men's suits. He worked first with the tailor shop Anderson and Shephard, and then moved to nearby Gieves and Hawkes.
Finding His Niche
Deciding to further his clothes-making career, McQueen moved on from Savile Row and began working with theatrical costume designers Angels and Bermans. The dramatic style of the clothing he made there would become a signature of his later independent design work. McQueen then left London for a short stint in Milan, where he worked as a design assistant to Italian fashion designer Romeo Gigli.
Upon his return to London, McQueen enrolled at Central Saint Martin's College of Art & Design, and received his M.A. in fashion design in 1992. The collection he produced as the culminating project of his degree was inspired by Jack the Ripper, and was famously bought in its entirety by the well-known London stylist and eccentric Isabella Blow. She became a long-time friend of McQueen's, as well as an advocate for his work.
Givenchy Head Designer
Soon after obtaining his degree, McQueen started his own business designing clothes for women. He met enormous success with the introduction of his "bumster" pants, so named because of their extremely low-cut waistline. Only four years out of design school, McQueen was named Chief Designer of Louis Vuitton-owned Givenchy, a French haute couture fashion house.
Although it was a prestigious job, McQueen took it reluctantly, and his tenure there (1996-2001) was a tumultuous time in the designer's life. Even as he was pushing the limits of what people expected from fashion (one of his shows featured a model who was an amputee walking the runway on carved wooden legs), McQueen felt he was being held back.
The designer would later say that the job "constrain[ed] his creativity," though he also made the following admission: "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." 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 for McQueen to expand his business. McQueen left Givenchy shortly thereafter. In 2003, McQueen was declared International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England, 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 became more successful than ever. Already known for the flair and passion of his shows, he produced even more interesting spectacles after leaving Givenchy. For example, a hologram of model Kate Moss floated ethereally at the showing of his 2006 Fall/Winter line.
McQueen was also known for not being shy about his lack of traditional good looks or his lower-class background. One acquaintance described that during a first encounter, McQueen was "wearing a lumberjack shirt with the most low-class kind of schlubby-looking jeans falling down with a long key chain ... [and was] quite podgy." Another friend said that his teeth "looked like Stonehenge." According to those who knew him closely, McQueen was proud of breaking the traditional mold of a successful designer.
In 2007, the specter of death would come to haunt McQueen, first with the suicide of Isabella Blow. The designer dedicated his 2008 Spring/Summer line to Blow, and said that her death "was the most valuable thing I learnt in fashion." Just two years later, on February 2, 2010, McQueen's mother died. One day before her funeral, on February 11, 2010, McQueen was found dead in his Mayfair, London apartment. The cause of death was determined to be suicide.
McQueen's rise from lower-class high school dropout to internationally famous designer is a remarkable story. His bold styles and fascinating shows inspired and wowed the world of fashion, and his legacy lives on. Longtime co-designer Sarah Burton took over the still-operating Alexander McQueen brand, and McQueen's contribution to fashion was honored by a 2011 exhibition of his creations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The life of the designer was the subject of the 2018 documentary McQueen, by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. Along with interviews with family, friends and associates, the doc featured little-seen archival footage of McQueen, his comments hinting at the troubles beneath the surface and the sad ending to come.
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