March 17, 1969 – Lee Alexander McQueen:
“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists.”
McQueen was a great, but incendiary British fashion designer. He worked as chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001 and then founded his own Alexander McQueen label. His achievements in fashion earned him four British Designer of the Year Awards (1996, 1997, 2001, 2003), as well as the CFDA’s International Designer of the Year Award in 2003.
In his personal life, McQueen was quite shy. At the end of every catwalk show, he would dash out to take a quick bow in his plaid shirt, sweatshirt and baggy jeans. His longtime friend Daphne Guinness, whom McQueen met after seeing her across the street wearing his dragon-embroidered kimono, wrote that he was: ”Adorable and kind, and he’s unbelievably good to his friends, generous without noise”. He was loyal to his friends; in 2005 after the scandal in which Kate Moss was caught on camera using cocaine, McQueen took his catwalk bow wearing a tee-shirt that read: ”We love you Kate.”
McQueen was renowned for theatricality of his fashion shows, but because of his imagination, precision tailoring and attention to detail, the effect was more beautiful than shocking. His catwalk shows were never less than 10 minutes of pure theatrical energy. Featuring spray-painted gowns, a hologram of Moss, amputee models, or dresses made from fresh flowers, a McQueen show was always innovative, unexpected and much anticipated.
Openly gay, he described himself as ”the pink sheep of the family”. He said of coming out at a young age:
“I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I’ve had nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother’s womb onto the gay parade”
In 2000, he married his lover, filmmaker George Forsyth. The wedding was held on a yacht in Ibiza, with Moss as a bridesmaid. They divorced a year later.
No profile of McQueen could ever resist the phrase ”enfant terrible”. McQueen was the bad boy of fashion, yet he was beloved by the establishment.
Designer John Galliano:
”McQueen was daring, original, exciting. He shook up the establishment with his creativity and understood what it takes to be a great British ambassador for fashion. I admired him very much. He put his own unique mark on the industry. He will not be forgotten.”
”Lee was a fashion genius. I don’t say that lightly. He was a real friend. I will miss him as a mate, a peer, and as a true British talent, full of life and energy in everything he ever did.”
The son of a taxicab driver, McQueen rose to the highest peaks of the fashion world. He dropped out of school when he was 16-years old and went to work on Saville-Row. His career was ignited with his seminal and highly controversial Highland Rape collection of 1995, cobbled together with remnants from fabric shops.
In 1996, Bernard Arnault, chairman of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, hired the then-27-year old designer to give new life to Givenchy, one of the most famous names in French fashion, where he succeeded Galliano, who Arnault had moved over to Christian Dior. McQueen wrestled with the decision whether to take the position with Givenchy, but he saw the opportunity it gave him to increase his expertise and raise his profile. After five years at Givenchy, he had a major falling out with Arnault, at one point turning up to a press event wearing a Gucci hat.
McQueen was just coming off the success of his own label, but he was really raw and very gutsy. His manner was wild. He was outrageous. He would sometimes go missing for weeks at a time. He felt a lot pressure to be creative and still be very true to himself.
McQueen’s tenure at Givenchy was rough. His eclectic collections, space aliens one season, rockabilly for another, failed to galvanize the house, and he was vocal about his discontent with large corporations and commercial fashion. However, the exposure to French couture made a lasting impact on his business, with garments in his recent ready-to-wear shows resembling couture in workmanship and price.
Gucci Group, then led by Tom Ford, swept in in 2000 and bought a 51 percent stake in McQueen’s company, expanding his signature boutiques in London, NYC, Los Angeles and Milan; and with a secondary line of men’s wear and leather goods, plus collaborations with brands including Puma and Samsonite.
In 2003, he was honored with a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the fashion industry.
Known for his transporting runway shows, aggressive one season, ethereal the next, McQueen could hardly be bothered with the business part of his company. Yet, he was proud of the fact that his label made money and that his clothes amounted to more than just showmanship.
McQueen’s meteoric ascent in the Fashion world mirrored some of the fairy tale themes of his shows:
”Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment.”
His razor-sharp tailored looks fused the romantic with the avant-garde, a fresh contrast that won much acclaim. McQueen maintained that his shows were highly autobiographical. The men’s collection he showed just before his passing was titled The Bone Collector and featured engineered prints of skulls on tailored clothing. Some models were muzzled, Hannibal Lecter-style. The show was a return to the runway for his men’s line after a year off, when he issued a rambling statement about creative exhaustion and the relentlessness of the fashion system, and opted to screen a film about the anguish of making art. His final women’s show was fantastically futuristic, with models stalking the runway in otherworldly shoes and dresses as robotic cameras whirled around them.
McQueen worked with musicians throughout his career. He art-directed the cover of Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic and directed the music video for one of the album’s tracks. He designed the distressed Union Jack coat worn by David Bowie on the cover of his album Earthling (1997). Rihanna and Sting were fans of McQueen, and Lady Gaga wore McQueen, including those notorious Armadillo shoes, in the music video for her single Bad Romance. Sandra Bullock wore a McQueen gown to the SAG Awards in 2010.
His fashion shows were always hot tickets, attracting celebs such as Grace Jones, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Naomi Campbell. At one of his shows, Kate Moss appeared and vaporized in a glass pyramid to the haunting strains of John William’s theme for Schindler’s List, and para-Olympian record-holder Aimee Mullins walked catwalk on hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs with integrated boots.
McQueen was known for his fascination with dark subjects, with fashion shows that referenced witchcraft and bondage. Yet those that knew him, found McQueen to be extremely sensitive and very fragile, with a deep affection for dogs.
Donatella Versace called McQueen a true icon:
”His imagination had no limits and his strong personality, together with his strong creativity, made him unique. I think every designer’s dream is to have that talent, that vision and that integrity.”
”He is such a great guy and such an amazing talent. I miss him, and I will miss the beauty that he created, and his vision and his world.”
”He brought a uniquely British sense of daring and aesthetic fearlessness to the global stage of fashion. In such a short career, McQueen’s influence was astonishing, from street style, to music culture and the world’s museums.”
Before he left this world, McQueen had hoped to create special capsule collections, so the public could buy clothing right off his runway, setting up glass pyramids anywhere in the world and beaming holograms of his fashion shows into them. McQueen:
”This is the birth of a new dawn. There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
McQueen took his own life in February 2010. His suicide stunned his fans and the hundreds of international magazine editors and store buyers who had just gathered in Manhattan for the first day of the fall collections at NY Fashion Week at Bryant Park. His mother had died just a few days before.
His friend, photographer David LaChapelle, said that McQueen ”was doing a lot of drugs and was very unhappy” at the time of his death
McQueen left a note saying:
”Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a posthumous exhibition of McQueen’s work in 2011 titled Savage Beauty. The exhibition’s elaborate staging included soundtracks for each room. Despite being open for only three months, it is one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history. The exhibition was repeated at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2015. It sold over a half million tickets, making it the most popular show ever staged at that museum.