Remembering Alexander McQueen
Born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.
Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.
By the time he was 21, Mr. McQueen had also worked for Angels & Bermans, the theatrical costume company, and for the designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli. He then pursued a master’s degree at the Central St. Martins design college, where his graduate collection caught the attention of Ms. Blow. She acquired every piece of that collection and took him under her wing.
As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.
“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.
In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.
He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.
“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.
In 1996, Mr. McQueen received an offer from LVMH, the luxury conglomerate, to be the designer of the white-glove couture label founded by Hubert de Givenchy, whose elegant little black dresses had been immortalized by Audrey Hepburn. Mr. McQueen, who succeeded John Galliano in the role, stoked the fires of the French press, however, when he dismissed Mr. de Givenchy’s past work as “irrelevant.” But the move enabled Mr. McQueen, who had struggled financially, to do something he had always wanted: to buy a house for his mother.
Though he worked for Givenchy until 2001, his tenure did not produce remarkable notices, other than frequent reports of bickering between him and management. His departure was typically confrontational. He shocked his employers by selling the majority stake of the Alexander McQueen label to LVMH’s biggest rival, the Gucci Group. The investment allowed him to show his own clothes in Paris, alongside the major French houses.
He had since opened stores in New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, licensed his name for fragrances and a lower-priced line called McQ, and made collections of sneakers and suitcases for the athletic company Puma. The deal with Gucci, he said, enabled him to turn his company into a commercially successful venture while retaining his design independence. The first shoes he showed for Puma, for example, included an image of his bare foot imbedded in the clear soles, and the suitcase was molded in the shape of a spine.
By Guy Trebay.
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