homepage_name! > Editions > Number 142 > Giants - McQueen

Alexander McQueen

Lee Alexander McQueen, CBE (17 March 1969 – 11 February 2010) was an English fashion designer and couturier. He worked as chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001 and founded his own Alexander McQueen label in 1992. His achievements in fashion earned him four British Designer of the Year awards (1996, 1997, 2001, and 2003), as well as the CFDA's International Designer of the Year award in 2003. McQueen died by way of suicide in 2010, shortly after the death of his mother. He died at the age of 40, at his home in Mayfair, London.

Born on 17 March 1969 in Lewisham, London, to Scottish taxi driver Ronald and social science teacher Joyce, McQueen was the youngest of six children. It was reported that he grew up in a council flat, but in fact, the McQueens moved to a terraced house in Stratford in his first year.

McQueen attended Rokeby School and left aged 16 in 1985 with one O-level in art, going on to complete a course in tailoring at Newham College and serve an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors, Anderson & Sheppard, before joining Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers, Angels and Bermans. The skills he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert in creating an impeccably tailored look. While serving his apprenticeship, McQueen attended the Rosetta Art Centre led by Yvonne Humble, who also wrote him a reference that saw him go straight on to the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

Because of the strength of his portfolio, Bobby Hillson, Head of the Master’s course at St Martins, encouraged McQueen to enroll as a student. He received his Master's Degree in Fashion Design and his 1992 graduation collection was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who was said to have persuaded McQueen to become known as Alexander (his middle name) when he subsequently launched his fashion career. Isabella Blow paved the way for Alexander McQueen using her unique style and contacts to help him. She was in many ways his mentor. It was during this period that McQueen relocated to Hoxton, which housed other new designers, including Hussein Chalayan and Pauric Sweeney. It was shortly after creating his second collection, ‘McQueen's Theatre of Cruelty’, that McQueen met Katy England, his soon-to-be ‘right-hand woman’, when outside of a ‘high-profile fashion show’ trying to ‘blag her way in’. He promptly asked her to join him for his third collection, ‘The Birds’ at Kings Cross, as ‘creative director’. Katy England continued to work with McQueen thereafter, greatly influencing his work – his ‘second opinion’.

McQueen designed the wardrobe for David Bowie's tours in 1996–1997, as well as the Union Jack coat worn by Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album, Earthling. Icelandic singer Björk sought McQueen's work for the cover of her album, Homogenic, in 1997. McQueen also directed the music video for her song, ‘Alarm Call’, from the same album and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video for ‘Pagan Poetry’. McQueen also collaborated with dancer, Sylvie Guillem, director, Robert Lepage, and choreographer, Russell Maliphant, designing his wardrobe for the theater show, ‘Eonnagata’, directed by Robert Lepage. The film, Sylvie Guillem, on the edge, produced by French production company, A DROITE DE LA LUNE, traces the whole history of the creation of the show, from the first rehearsals which took place in Quebec, until the world premiere which was held in 2008 at Sadler's Wells theatre in London.

McQueen has been credited with bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk. He used new technology and innovation to add a different twist to his shows and often shocked and surprised audiences. The silhouettes that he created have been credited for adding a sense of fantasy and rebellion to fashion. McQueen became one of the first designers to use Indian models in London.

Givenchy Appointment

Upon arrival at Givenchy, McQueen insulted the founder by calling him ‘irrelevant’. His first couture collection with Givenchy was unsuccessful, with even McQueen telling Vogue in October 1997 that the collection was ‘crap’. McQueen toned down his designs at Givenchy but continued to indulge in his rebellious streak, causing controversy in autumn 1998 with a show that included double amputee model Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs. That year also saw McQueen complete one of his most famous runway shows previewing Spring/Summer 1999, where a single model, Shalom Harlow, graced the runway in a strapless white dress, before being rotated slowly on a revolving section of the catwalk whilst being sprayed with paint by two robotic guns. Givenchy designs, released by Vogue Patterns during this period, may be credited to the late designer.

McQueen received press attention after the May 2007 suicide of international style icon Isabella Blow. Rumors were published that there was a rift between McQueen and Blow at the time of her death, focusing on McQueen's under-appreciation of Blow. In response to these rumors, McQueen told an interviewer:

"It's so much bollocks. These people just don't know what they're talking about. They don't know me. They don't know my relationship with Isabella. It's complete bullshit. People can talk; you can ask her sisters ... That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella's life. What I had with Isabella was completely dissociated from fashion, beyond fashion."

One of McQueen's most celebrated and dramatic catwalk shows was his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, named VOSS. The center piece tableau that dominated the room was an enormous glass box. But because the room outside the box was lit, and the inside of the box wasn’t, the glass walls appeared to be large mirrors, so that the seated audience only saw their own reflection. When the show began, the lights came on inside the enormous glass case and revealed the interior to be filled with moths and, in the center, a naked model on a chaise longue sofa with her face obscured by a gas mask. The glass walls then fell away and smashed to the ground.

The model chosen by McQueen to be the center of the show was British writer Michelle Olley (the show also featured Kate Moss and Erin O'Connor). McQueen said that the tableau was based on the Joel Peter Witkin image, Sanitarium.

Alexander McQueen later described his thoughts on the idea used during VOSS of forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection in the mirrored walls for over an hour:

"Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, everyone was trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry – turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows."

In 2011, Michelle Olley was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to contribute to their Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty. She was interviewed by The Met about VOSS for the audio guide to the show. Olley's detailed diary/journal of modeling for McQueen – written between 18–27 September as the show was being planned and staged – was included in the Met Museum website coverage of the Savage Beauty exhibition. The VOSS diary relates details of the show and encounters with McQueen, ending with how Olley returned home after the show to find:

"...a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers had arrived, with a note [from McQueen] saying, "Thank you for everything – you were beautiful! – Lee xxx"

By the end of 2007, Alexander McQueen had boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and Las Vegas. Celebrity patrons, including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rihanna, Monica Brown, and J-pop queens, such as Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro, and Koda Kumi, have frequently been spotted wearing Alexander McQueen clothing to events. Björk, Hamasaki, and Lady Gaga have often incorporated Alexander McQueen pieces in their music videos.

Personal life

McQueen was openly gay and said he realized his sexual orientation when he was six years old. He told his family when he was 18 and, after a rocky period, they accepted it. He described coming out at a young age by saying, "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 parade".

In 2000, McQueen had a marriage ceremony with his partner, George Forsyth, a documentary filmmaker, on a yacht in Ibiza. Kate Moss and Annabelle Neilson were bridesmaids. The marriage was not official, as same-sex marriages in Spain were not legal at that time. The relationship ended a year later, with the two maintaining a close friendship.

McQueen was HIV positive.

McQueen was an avid scuba diver and used his passion as a source of inspiration in his designs, including spring 2010's ‘Plato's Atlantis’. Much of his diving was done around the Maldives.

McQueen had close relationships with the teams of designers he worked with and oversaw. His life was dedicated to his work, and his friend and colleague, Sebastian Pons, described him as a workaholic. He held the work ethic of his colleagues to the same standard as himself, which ultimately created strife within his team, pushing Pons to quit his job and end his friendship with Lee.

In film

In 2016, it was announced that Jack O'Connell would play McQueen in an upcoming biographical film about his life.

On 8 June 2018, the documentary, McQueen, written and directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, was released in the UK. It was described by Harper's Bazaar as ‘among the most accurate, sensitive, and moving. Using his collections as cornerstones, the documentary features candid interviews with colleagues, friends, and even family of McQueen’s, who was known as Lee to the people he loved." The film was favorably reviewed, earning a score of 84 on the critical aggregator website, Metacritic, indicating ‘universal acclaim’, as well as a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a Critics Consensus reading, ‘McQueen offers an intimate, well-sourced, and overall moving look at a young life and brilliant career that was tragically cut short.’