How Alexander McQueen changed the world of fashion – by the people who knew him best
The term ‘disruptor’ is overused today, but in the case of Alexander McQueen it is apt. McQueen, the son of a London cab driver and a teacher, not only defined fashion in the 1990s and early 2000s, but became a byword for British rebellion.
At his catwalk shows, models’ bodies were encased by metal frames, live wolves snarled, and rings of fire flamed. And behind all this theatre, there were the clothes. Trained on Savile Row as a teenager, the designer had an eye for rigorous tailoring.
Tradition was mixed with groundbreaking, forward-thinking fashion.
McQueen – Lee to his friends, Alexander being his middle name and a stage name of sorts – revelled in his ability to shock; detractors pointed to cage-like structures that mimicked the apparatus of slavery, or extreme corsetry and spiked metal jewellery coloured with historic misogyny.
Darkness was part of his signature – his 1992 MA graduate collection was inspired by Jack the Ripper and subsequent collections also referenced rape, Satanism and murder. It was a darkness to which McQueen would eventually succumb privately, taking his own life in February 2010 at the age of 40, shortly after the death of his mother, and three years after his long-time collaborator Isabella Blow, the stylist who ‘discovered’ him as a student, died by suicide.
Blow may have unearthed this rough diamond – paying in instalments for his entire graduate collection and having it delivered in bin bags by McQueen – but his talent was always going to bring him fame. Alongside the challenging parts of his aesthetic, there was a poetic romance: fresh flowers spilling from necklines, delicate lace dresses with dramatic trains, a Grimms’ fairy tale in fashion form.
Friends talk of his sensitive side, and his loyalty. ‘When I was in exile,’ says Kate Moss, referring to the controversy surrounding a drug scandal in 2005, ‘Lee walked down the catwalk with “We love you Kate” on his T-shirt. He always had my back, and I always had his.’
The boy who was reportedly bullied on the backstreets of east London, and hid his face in an early photo shoot for i-D magazine in case it caused an issue with the dole office, went on to achieve a place in fashion history. Thirty years on from his debut as a professional designer we hear from the people who knew the mercurial man himself.
Before he attended fashion college Central Saint Martins, McQueen learnt his craft as a teenager on Savile Row. Danny Hall, now head cutter at Anderson & Sheppard, remembers his arrival in 1984:
‘Lee first came to us as an apprentice in the 1980s. I believe that his mother had found an advert for apprentices on Savile Row, and he turned up. The firm offered him a position as a coat-making apprentice, and he worked for one of our most experienced coat makers, Con O’Callaghan, in his late 60s at the time.
‘Under Con, Lee learnt about the intricacies of tailoring. He started by making what we call a “forward fitting”, which is the customer’s first fitting and includes all aspects of the body construction and shape. Cutters and tailors always work very closely with each other and tailoring apprentices are encouraged to understand the basics of pattern cutting to preserve the Anderson & Sheppard house style.
‘Everyone at the house remembers Lee as being hungry for knowledge. He wanted to learn about all aspects of the making process, frequently visiting other parts of the workshops, whether it was buttons or trouser-making, etc. What was telling was that, despite his own very distinctive style and his passion for house music, which was pretty unusual on Savile Row at that time, he preferred to work late into the evening rather than go to the pub with the other young apprentices.’
Savile Row gave McQueen a grounding in serious English tailoring, which he then broke down in his own early designs. Fashion historian Judith Watt, author of Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy, reflects on his formative years:
‘On his first day at Anderson & Sheppard, McQueen was given a thimble and a pair of shears (never “scissors”). Each apprentice trained under a master tailor; for two years, he worked under the eye of Mr O’Callaghan, also working on bespoke garments, some of which were for King Charles, then the Prince of Wales. It is urban legend that he wrote obscenities on the interlining of the King’s suits – no evidence was found – but it fell in with McQueen’s bad-boy persona. It normally takes three years for an apprentice to achieve the standard to be passed by a master craftsman. It took McQueen two.
‘There followed a trouser-making apprenticeship at Gieves & Hawkes, which he cut short after homophobic remarks by a colleague, ignored by the then management. His “bumster” trousers that followed, inspired by a homoerotic trope but employing the skills he learnt in trouser-making, were his revenge served up cold. “You’ve got to know the rules to break them,” he later said. “That’s what I am here for, to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.”’
Soon, McQueen set his sights on acclaimed London fashion college Central Saint Martins. Watt says:
‘It was the Red or Dead designer John McKitterick who urged Lee to apply for the Central Saint Martins MA fashion course in 1990… McQueen lurked tentatively outside course leader Bobby Hillson’s office, and, when she glimpsed him, said that he would like to teach on the course, having experience of Savile Row.
‘He was too young, but Hillson saw an interesting and talented conundrum: a boy who had trained as a tailor but also had some work experience under fashion designer Romeo Gigli. She asked him to bring more of his drawings to look over the next day, and then offered him a place on the course. It was past the deadline for interviews and offers for places, but they made it happen.
‘His technical abilities and passion for independent research (pre-Google) helped him evolve his own ideas. According to his friend and fellow student Simon Ungless, “We were blue-collar people and at Central Saint Martins that was unusual. The other students looked down their noses at you.” The issue of appearance also played a part. “We both looked so different that we were bullied.”
‘It is part of the myth of Lee McQueen that he was uncouth, but the fact is that he was sophisticated when it came to comprehending fashion. He also developed a passion for nature, in particular birds, eggs, skins, fossils.’
The jeweller Shaun Leane was an early collaborator and friend:
‘Lee and I first met on the nightclub scene, about 30 years ago. I was working as a Hatton Garden apprentice and had a friend at Central Saint Martins who was on the same course as Lee; gradually we became a little unit. Lee and I were both Londoners who came from a working-class background and ended up gay and going into the fashion industry. There was a grit, determination and work ethic in him that I think came from his background.
‘[Later] I remember going to Hoxton to see a studio space that Lee had found – it wasn’t the trendy hub of east London it is now. I turned up to discuss jewellery for his upcoming show, and found Lee and his team working on different iterations of the McQueen logo, debating the curls on the Q and C. Whenever I see the now-famous lettering, in some far-flung corner of the world, I think of those early days.’
In 1992, McQueen’s graduate collection was bought by the fashion editor and stylist Isabella Blow, who soon offered him a base at her London home, along with another young fashion talent, milliner Philip Treacy. He recalls:
‘My first impressions of Alexander were of this tough little thing. We were introduced by Isabella Blow, who had installed us both in her house in Belgravia after seeing his graduate collection. She came back saying she’d just witnessed something that was like nothing she’d ever seen, and suddenly Alexander was living upstairs.
‘The two of us were just starting out – he in fashion and me in millinery – and moved into a condemned building around the corner on Ebury Street, where we would argue about the electricity bill. Neither of us had a penny.
‘Alexander was aware that he was something of an outsider. When he would go to Vogue House at lunchtime to show the editors his creation, he would be taken up in the service lift at the back. But aside from that toughness there was a very romantic, articulate side to him.
‘It’s hard to overstate the importance of Isabella to McQueen’s journey; they were in sync in a way that’s hard to describe. They had a constant dialogue about everything that would feed into his work, whether clothing, nature, historical references, literature. She was crucial to his trajectory. Not only did she believe in him so wholeheartedly, she made sure everyone else did.
‘We didn’t know at the time that those early shows would become part of fashion history, of course, but we knew we were part of something different. There was no strategy. Alexander was doing what came naturally to him. He knew what women wanted to look like. He’d grown up with strong women and he wanted to express that in his designs.
‘The other important thing to note was that he could do every step of the process himself; he was extremely skilled technically. He could cut away at a garment and sew it back together – that’s actually quite rare.’
The fashion writer and author Plum Sykes was another friend:
‘I worked a great deal with Alexander while I was at British Vogue from 1993 to 1997, where I was an assistant for Isabella Blow, and then later at American Vogue. His situation in those days was very hand-to-mouth. It was all about being his most creative. He made dresses for me out of bits of fabric he’d got from here and there, and they were incredible; edgy, cool and different.
‘He could sketch a design in 30 seconds and cut without a pattern, then drape and suddenly there was this amazing dress. He was an artist whose medium happened to be fashion, but everything he did was a sculpture that ended up in that McQueen silhouette that is so recognisable today.’
McQueen founded his company straight after college and presented his first professional collection in February 1993 with a single rack of clothes at The Ritz – no photographs survive, but it marked the debut of his notoriously low-cut bumster trousers. In the years that followed, shows such as The Birds (s/s 1995), Highland Rape (a/w 1995) and The Hunger (s/s 1996) marked a breakthrough period – and were splashed on front pages. Shaun Leane was backstage:
‘It was an electric time. The 1990s were so energetic in fashion, art, politics and music, and it was a wonderful time for creatives – people like Sam Taylor-Wood, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Oasis, Björk. McQueen rode this wave. The shows were unlike anything the fashion industry had seen before, a meeting point where fashion, art and immersive theatre met; you didn’t know whether you’d get fire, ice, snow, wind, wolves, moths. Lee wanted them to be challenging, he wanted to make people uncomfortable.
‘Some of the moments were genuinely dangerous – a fire breaking out in an enclosed space which people thought was supposed to be part of the set but really wasn’t – and I think he relished that line between beauty and fear. Lee was the composer who oversaw this captivating chaos.
‘Behind the headlines and the outrageous shows, Lee was meticulous and thoughtful about the art of craftsmanship; but the adrenalin of being part of those moments was like nothing you’d ever felt before.’
McQueen’s shows became the hottest ticket in town, known for their daring, creative exuberance. Model Jodie Kidd recalls the atmosphere:
‘Working as a model in the 1990s could be an impersonal, demoralising process, but Lee wanted his models to be themselves, to have personality, to engage us. It’s important to remember how different fashion shows in Britain were at that time – very proper and polite. Suddenly it felt like this force was ripping through the industry.
‘Being part of Lee’s shows was mad, chaotic and addictive. I remember in one show he put me in contact lenses designed to give me a freaky, reptilian look; I could barely see the end of the catwalk but it looked great. In another I was in an absolutely minuscule corset designed by Mr Pearl, the famous corset-maker, and literally could not breathe – it was all I could do to stop myself from fainting.
‘In another moment that has since become infamous, a car caught fire [during 1997’s It’s a Jungle Out There show, a heater was accidentally knocked over]; everyone was panicking but Lee held his nerve and continued the show, even as the models – and probably the audience – thought they might be in mortal danger. He knew how to keep the front row on their toes. Lee wanted to tell stories with his shows; it was never about just presenting some clothes, and everything about inviting you into his world.’
LVMH boss Bernard Arnault knew talent when he saw it, and in 1996 McQueen landed the job of head designer at LVMH-owned Parisian couture house Givenchy. Until 2001 he would make collections for both Givenchy in Paris and his own brand, then headquartered in east London. Says Sykes:
‘It was wonderful to see Alexander go from that dark basement studio in Hoxton to the couture salon at Givenchy. He was a fish out of water in Paris, but that was what made his stint there so interesting; he was outrageous.’
Kidd remembers walking in his Paris debut:
‘It was a big moment; he’d dreamed up this set where a giant tree, cupids, giant angel wings and an opera singer all featured. The couture salon was, as you’d expect, an extremely genteel environment where things had been done a certain way for decades. Suddenly this east London guy was in there in a polo shirt, switching things up, but what was remarkable watching him work and fit clothes in that set-up was how his skills were up there with the best Parisian couture seamstresses.
‘I was being fitted for a white coat, which would open the show, a thing of total beauty. Suddenly Lee took a pair of scissors and just started slashing and hacking at it. The ladies in the salon were gasping in shock; I remember the cries of, “Zut alors!” But he knew exactly what he was doing, of course: his cutting days on Savile Row instilled a profound knowledge in him.
‘During Lee’s time at Givenchy, I saw him grow in confidence, but it was a double-edged sword because as he became more important the pressure grew. There was a heaviness weighing him down. He was known for this bravado, but he could be extremely pensive and would go into himself. He was a calm and quiet soul, with a side that was pure wild genius. Lee was a van Gogh of fashion.’
Despite the security of his Givenchy contract, McQueen – who used the money to support his own label – faced a backlash. Says Watt:
‘He seems to have faced more hostile criticism than any other designer. He made Hubert de Givenchy want to “weep”. Vivienne Westwood said that he had “zero talent”… In the early days, Blow, truly his fairy godmother, fought for him, explaining his ideas and importance as a visionary designer. The press thought the fact that he could be inarticulate in talking to them meant that he was in some ways uncivilised, but missed the fact that he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about history, art and fashion.
‘At Givenchy, among those rarefied environments, this was amplified and he was referred to as “The Yob of Couture”. With the help of the petites mains [the couture atelier] at Givenchy he might manage, wrote one journalist in 1997, but “whether the fittings by a working-class London oik with bad teeth will be so appealing is another thing”.’
In 1998, McQueen’s show No 13 put supermodel Shalom Harlow at the centre of a presentation that would go down in history. In front of a rapt crowd, her immaculate white muslin dress was sprayed with paint by two robots, as she stood on a rotating disc. Harlow recalls:
‘When you got the request through to take part in a McQueen show, it was always a yes. You never knew what to expect – would you be walking through a snowstorm? Would you have stag antlers coming out of your head? Models could count on being surprised, but I had no idea that No 13 would be beyond anything that had happened on a catwalk before. I arrived on the red-eye, did the fitting and there was actually no rehearsal – there wasn’t time – so I was just shown this platform, and told that it would rotate and that mechanical arms would spray me. The team just trusted in Lee’s vision and his ability.
‘I had trained as a dancer, so when the moment arrived I moved instinctively to the music and lights. I had no idea it would become part of fashion history – those machines spraying me in my white dress with paint – I was just trying to carry out what Lee needed from that moment. Looking back, it’s astonishing how forward-thinking Lee was in terms of technology and its invasion of all our lives; I think of the machines as a premonition of that. There was almost something quasi-sexual about their invasiveness… I don’t know if that’s something Lee designed but, looking back, it feels that way. He created strange, dark fairy tales through fashion.
‘When I think of Lee, I think of a balancing act between mayhem and precision – the mania around him in the industry and the exacting, methodical way he worked. He elevated every single thing he touched, from show to clothes to the people he worked with. It’s easy to forget that, as well as being groundbreaking through what he created, Lee was one of the first to perform and work on that level, at a hugely intense pace, and that took its toll. He was caught in a vortex.
‘There was something very childlike about Lee; he was impish and mischievous. There was a softness and vulnerability to him that people didn’t expect; it was an honour to be let in and know him. And to be part of a defining moment in fashion.’
At the turn of the millennium, McQueen was a global star. In 2000, Gucci Group bought 51 per cent of his company, with McQueen remaining as creative director. He continued to rely on close personal collaborations. In the early 2000s he met aristocratic artist and fashion muse Daphne Guinness. She recalls:
‘I was wearing one of Lee’s creations, a kimono, from Givenchy. I had been wearing his clothes for a while – thanks to being introduced to them by our close friend Isabella Blow – but I hadn’t met the man himself. That night, I was going to a film premiere in Leicester Square and heard a rather loutish, “Oi, you!” behind me. It was Lee. We went to the pub, and our friendship blossomed.
‘People have labelled me a muse. I don’t know how to describe it, but I had various functions within his world. We could share ideas. He would come to my house, riffle through things, tear linings out of gowns, rip the arms off – I’d say, “Darling that’s couture, if you could possibly sew it back together when you’re done that would be great, thanks!” We’d look at a wealth of things together: art, fashion, history books. He was fascinated by history, which you saw in his collections: Highland Rape [inspired by the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries], Joan [of Arc], In Memory of Elizabeth Howe [Salem, 1692 – referencing the witch trials].
‘Alongside the theatrical pieces, Lee could make you the perfect pair of black trousers, grey dress or sweater – it wasn’t all about the high-impact gowns. That said, even the most over-the-top pieces were so light to wear. He was a master of engineering. Everything that had come before him suddenly felt old by comparison.’
In May 2007, Blow took her own life. McQueen’s response was a creative outpouring, his s/s 2008 show. Recalls Guinness:
‘Lee and I were destroyed by the death of Isabella, and he took it especially hard. Some time after, he met with a psychic who said there was ‘Le Dame Bleue’ [the name of the s/s 2008 collection] coming through and that she had a trunk for him in an attic. That moment became his tribute show to her. We were all in tears. It was his love letter to Isabella, beautiful and tender.’
By now McQueen had been received a CBE, several Designer of the Year titles at the British Fashion Awards and enough of a windfall from Gucci to allow him to buy a Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. Says Leane:
‘Lee was generous. He was on this journey, but wanted others to be a part of it – it was never just about his own ascent. Lee lived three lifetimes in one, such was his passion… For all the talk about him today and the legend, really he was an east London, working-class boy who kept his integrity throughout the whirlwind… I remember his laugh most of all; Isabella and him started laughing in a room together, they could light up the world.’
‘What was he like as my friend? There was a sweet side to him that you wouldn’t know if you just looked at his reputation, or at the man himself. He was a force like no other, utterly fearless in his conviction and his point of view, but underneath that he was a sweet, gentle boy from the East End of London who loved his mum.’
In 2010, McQueen took his own life. At his label Sarah Burton, his right-hand woman, took up his mantle. Guinness says:
‘Just before he died – I don’t believe this has been said publicly before – he told me he intended to take a sabbatical from fashion and study art at Goldsmiths; he wanted to step back from the pace of the industry and was desperate for time to recharge as an artist. I would say, “You can’t put yourself through this.” The pressures were too much, especially for someone as sensitive as him. Lee looked tough but he was so fragile. He made my life such an interesting and joyous place. There has been no one like him, before or since.’