“You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I am here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition,” said designer Alexander McQueen of his approach to fashion.
Almost a decade after his taking his own life in 2010 at age 40, McQueen’s contribution to the world of fashion – from using and often subverting traditional tailoring techniques to staging provocative, groundbreaking live presentations – continues to cast a long and influential shadow.
The intervening period included retrospective exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, both of which attracted record-breaking crowds; the continued success of the McQueen label under the steady hand of creative director Sarah Burton (who worked alongside McQueen when he was at the helm); and now a motion picture screened during New York’s Tribeca Film Festival simply titled McQueen. The documentary is set for a summer 2018 wide release.
As a designer McQueen was lauded for not only producing beautiful and dramatic clothes but also imbuing them with a sense of power and strength. “He was trying to give women a kind of armor, because the women close to him had not had particularly easy lives,” says Marion Hume, London-based international fashion journalist and fashion editor at the Australian Financial Review Magazine. “His designs were quite harsh, and they could be brutal and sharp. It was a kind of protection.”
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. With six children to support money was scarce and at age 16 McQueen dropped out of school to begin an apprenticeship on London’s Saville Row, the bastion of custom-made clothing for British gentlemen. After stints at Anderson & Shephard and then Gieves & Hawkes, McQueen worked with costume designers before briefly relocating to Milan where he worked as a design assistant at Romeo Gigli.
Soon after he returned to London and enrolled at Central Saint Martins college where he 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 purchased in its entirety by the London stylist and eccentric Isabella Blow. She became a long-time friend of McQueen and one of the greatest champions of his work.
McQueen would design from the side view. “That way I get the worst angle of the body,” he said. “You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way around the body.”
Soon after launching his eponymous label he garnered enormous success with the introduction of his "bumster" pants, named for the extremely low-cut waistline that elongated the torso, giving the wearer a longer silhouette. A mere four years out of design school, McQueen was appointed to the top creative job at the storied haute couture house Givenchy. The iconic French label was owned by fashion conglomerate LVMH and McQueen accepted the appointment reluctantly, describing his time there (1996-2001) as creatively constraining. According to the museum exhibition book “Savage Beauty,” his stance on Givenchy softened over time with the designer eventually recalling his work in the atelier as “fundamental to my career… because I was a tailor, I didn’t totally understand softness, or lightness. I learned lightness at Givenchy. I was a tailor at Saville Row. At Givenchy I learned to soften. For me it was an education.”
Education, particularly for those like himself who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, became a driving force for the designer. In 2007 McQueen established the Sarabande charitable trust. Named after his 2007 spring/summer collection, the foundation provides scholarships to students at graduate and postgraduate level as well as housing 12 artist studios at the headquarters (opened in 2015) in former Victorian-era stables in London’s East End neighborhood of Haggerston.
It is Sarabande, alongside his eponymous label, that is his greatest legacy says Hume. “He started it when he was alive, which is very unusual but very significant because he framed it.” He had a desire to “help people who come from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds and have enormous creativity. Helping them out of that and into a creative future.” Hume describes the scholarships as some of the “most generous” on offer and foundation support continues after graduation when scholars are offered a studio space for 12 months to continue their practice and to further enable their developing relationships with industry professionals.
“The genesis of all Lee’s achievements was his open-minded approach to absorbing diverse creative influences and applying them in new and exciting ways,” reads a statement on the foundation’s website. “It is that openness, bravery and sense of cross-disciplinary collaboration that Sarabande seeks to inspire in future generations of creatives.”
McQueen’s collaborative way of working was the impetus behind his extraordinary runway presentations, precursors to today’s big-budget, live fashion extravaganzas. “Those shows were beyond anything else,” says Hume, who attended the majority of McQueen’s presentations. “It was the bumsters and blood-spattered torsos wrapped in Saran wrap, one housed in cubes with snow falling, and we really had never seen anything like it. There was a shock factor that he put into his shows and got everyone’s attention. There was this enormous imagination but also fantastic collaboration. He was rare in that he always acknowledged his collaborators. He never pretended he was doing it all himself.
“We still have extraordinary shows, but there was a kind of pure artistic rage with McQueen that you are not going to get at, say Chanel, for example,” Hume adds. “He made people think beyond the clothes. It was always really on the border of being offensive. I think he would have liked nothing more than if we’d all walked out. He would have thought that was brilliant, but of course we weren’t going to do that.”
McQueen, the documentary, focuses more on the man behind the label than his exemplary sartorial creations and runway spectaculars. “We didn’t want to make a fashion film. We made a film about an extraordinary man who happened to work in fashion,” co-director Ian Bonhôte told Vogue.com following the Tribeca Film Festival screening.
While he valued his collaborators at the highest level, the notoriously private McQueen allowed very few access to his personal life. Away from the spotlight he relied on close relatives (his mother in particular), friends such as Isabella Blow, Annabelle Neilson and Katy England, and showered affection on his beloved dogs.
Though success and wealth were abundant in the first decade of the 21st century, it wasn’t enough to banish the specter of death that had come to shadow McQueen. In 2007 he was deeply affected by the suicide of close friend Blow. Two years later his 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.
At the time Cathy Horyn, then chief fashion critic for The New York Times, described McQueen as one of the most complicated designers — and humans — she had spoken to in the years she had been covering fashion. “There was no doubt about McQueen’s talent. Saville Row-trained, he could cut clothes, do the patterns, do the draping. He was a great showman. But more than his elaborate often dark and deeply romantic shows, he could really conceptualize fashion,” Horyn said. “He realized that fashion was not just about nice clothes to wear. It was about ideas and imagination and expanding the boundaries.”
A visionary who not only changed the way fashion was created but also showcased, McQueen once said that beauty “can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places… It’s the ugly things I notice more, because other people tend to ignore the ugly things.”