Few designers have had as radical an impact on fashion as Alexander McQueen. Referred to as “enfant terrible” by his contemporaries, McQueen is known for his revolutionary and conceptual approach to design. Not only did his designs change the course of fashion history, but the lavish spectacle that he created to showcase his collection completely transformed the role of the fashion show. But the McQueen story is also a tragedy. As a designer, he was, in his words, unafraid to explore the “dark places of his mind.” And while these dark places drove him to do the impossible, they would also have terrible consequences.
From His Beginnings
Lee Alexander McQueen was born in 1969 to a working-class family in London. After leaving school with only one qualification, he became a tailor’s apprentice on Saville Row. At London’s home for prestige tailoring, he demonstrated a talent for the intricate, bespoke work of these craftsmen and this quality construction would be a signature of his later work. After his apprenticeship, he moved onto working for designers, namely Koji Tatsuno, streetwear brand Red or Dead and, after moving to Milan in 1989 without any knowledge of the language, Romeo Gigli. Through these experiences, he learnt about experimentation with fabric and shape and the idea of conceptual collections. These lessons would have a significant effect on what would later become the McQueen style.
The next step in McQueen’s journey was to attempt to find a job with Bobby Hilson, the director of the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins. But Hilson was so impressed by his portfolio and his passion for design, he left with an invitation to join her course instead. His time at Central Saint Martins was fundamental to his evolution as a designer as it finally gave McQueen space to explore his creativity fully. He could take inspiration from artworks and historical moments and interpret them through fashion - all with a perception unfiltered by a stringent formal education. The course culminated in 1992 with a graduation show at London Fashion Week, where McQueen presented a collection entitled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims. The collection set the tone for his career, fusing his talent for luxury craftsmanship and the radically brutal imagery. The result was a powerful inversion of violence inflicted upon women - beauty born from darkness.
The Birth of Alexander McQueen
Immediately after graduation, he began his brand and, after deciding to drop his first name, Alexander McQueen was born. A controversial figure during the early days of his career his shows were daring and provocative - human hair was sewn into garments, and super-low bumsters exposed models’ pubic hair. Once more, McQueen’s identity separated him from fashion’s elite. His appearance played a substantial role in the way he was perceived. McQueen appeared as he was: a working-class boy from the East End. This, combined with his rebellious attitude, earned him titles like “the hooligan of English fashion” or “the king of yob culture”. He was also a gay man and a frequent patron of London’s queer nightlife scene. This subversive underground culture’s legacy can still be seen in the fetishist references of his work. His first collections often eschewed saleability by being almost impossible to reproduce. The aim of his shows more than anything was to provoke strong emotions - whether they be positive or negative. For McQueen, disgust was far more preferable than indifference.
Growing into the Industry
Eventually, the fashion industry would overcome their anxiety over this provocative new designer, and his revolutionary designs were impossible to ignore. He was awarded British Designer of the Year four times between 1996 and 2003 and his controversial bumsters launched a massive low-riding trousers trend. In 1996, McQueen was named as successor to John Galliano as Creative Director for Givenchy. Though the traditionally stuffy French haute couture community rejected McQueen at first, eventually he toned down his style and his time at the fashion house became a success too.
The radically increased resources Givenchy provided McQueen allowed him to funnel more money to his eponymous house and deliver higher quality collections under his own name with complete artistic freedom. Gone were the days of cheaply made, irreplicable designs that had no commercial opportunity. Instead, McQueen’s designs became more refined and sellable - although his radical spirit was never dampened. In 2000, the artistry and commercial potentiality of the McQueen brand caught the eye of the Gucci Group (and its creative director Tom Ford) leading to the firm purchasing 51% of his company and leaving McQueen as the sole creative force. Now with the financial strength to end his stricter relationship with Givenchy, he was free to fully explore what set him apart as a designer: his creative style.
The McQueen Style
Alexander McQueen was more than just a designer, he was a storyteller, and his collections were his narrative medium. From the beginning of his career, these stories were infused with an amalgam of themes - as Andrew Bolton, Head Curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, said: “McQueen was a great sponge” and his inspirations travel the length and breadth of history and culture. Yet while the stories changed every season, there were motifs, recurrent concepts that McQueen returned to again and again. He was a consummate studier of culture, both in terms of history and geography. Influences from China, Japan and India, can be seen in many of his creations, and he made many historical references; his Autumn 1998 collection that was inspired by Joan of Arc is but one example. However, these essential themes were never reflected purely in the designer work, for McQueen always saw the world in a darkly subverted way.
McQueen’s predilection for the twisted and subversion was typically presented through the tension of duality, the interwoven relationship between opposing forces. One major dyad that he visited recurrently was man vs machine (sometimes alternatively appearing as nature vs artifice). Two of McQueen’s most famous collections: No. 13 (Spring 1999) and Plato’s Atlantis (Spring 2010) are excellent examples of this.
No. 13’s show may be the most famous fashion show in all the industry’s history. After a collection featuring pieces with futuristically shaped skirts, tops and headpieces, the iconic moment occurred when model Shalom Harlow was sprayed with green and black paint by two robots, all while moving as if they were dancing together. It was poetry in motion, art and artifice coming together in harmony.
Plato’s Atlantis was based on the idea of man returning to the ocean once the land had been used up. Two robotic cameras slid back and forth on tracks as models wearing dresses in a print that, as Emma Elizabeth Davison of Dazed wrote: “veered between animal and alien”. Their hair too was in ridges that walked the uncanny line between otherworldly and animalistic, and they wore extreme platforms, including the now-famed armadillo boots. This was all accompanied by a soundtrack of feral animal cries. The atmosphere was a unique blend of the natural and unnatural that created something truly revolutionary.
Gothic vs Romantic
McQueen’s personal life had a significant influence on his work, and it is through his mother that he gained his love for the past. This can be seen through the Victoriana inspirations in his work - many pieces draw heavily on the silhouettes from the era as well as invoking the gothic imagination and the cult of death - McQueen often referred to himself as the Edgar Allen Poe of fashion. But there is also a constant exploration of the tension between Romanticism and Gothicism in his work. Like the Romantics, the natural world was a major inspiration to McQueen, with florals, feathers and patterns invoking the oceans repeatedly appearing in collections like Voss (Spring 2001) and Sarabande (Spring 2007). However, he rejected the idea that fashion should simply be a romantic ideal. He wanted to juxtapose beauty with the ugly. Thus, the aesthetics of the natural world were imbued with sublime terror - a concept that sits at the crossroads between the Gothic and the Romantic, between pleasure and pain.
It's A Jungle Out There
This is depicted strongly in his A/W 1997 collection It's A Jungle Out There. Inspired by The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells, a novel famous for the uncanny gothic horror of human/animal hybrids, the collection represents the relationship of predator and prey. Natural elements like cow print are mixed in with dramatic shoulder pads, strong black leathers and punk-inspired styles - all combined with massive, wild hair and heavy black eyeliner that invoked the image of wildcats. The result was an aggressive show, depicting nature as a ferociously primitive world where life and death go hand in hand.
This violent nature wasn’t exclusively seen through the lens of the natural world but also in regard to human history. McQueen was fascinated by his Scottish ancestry and the often-untold story of the massacre of the Highland clans by the British Empire.
He first mediated on this topic in 1995 with one of his most controversial collections: Highland Rape. Models stumbled down the runway in slashed dresses, wide-open coats with their breasts exposed beneath or extremely low-cut trousers. The result was an incredibly uncomfortable viewing. The imagery of the abused woman was blatant. The backlash was immediate, with many believing McQueen’s depictions of women to be misogynistic and objectifying. But the designer was defiant, stating that the rape being portrayed was not the rape of a woman but of the Scottish Highlands.
Widows of Culloden
The designer revisited his ancestry directly in 2006 with Widows of Culloden, named for the decisive battle that led to the destruction of the clan system by the British. The collection made heavy use of the red McQueen tartan but was far less severe in its depiction than Highland Rape. Its pieces were finely tailored: a mixture of gowns that invoked both Victorian mourning-wear and 1940s style suits that brought to mind women waiting for their loved ones to return after WW2. But the standout moment of the show was at the end: a hologram of Kate Moss, dressed in a voluminous gown of flowing organza. The message was clear; Moss was a spirit representing those lost, the perfect final punctuation to a collection ruminating on ever-present death.
The macabre was probably the most enduring element throughout all of McQueen’s work. The symbol best associated with his house was the skull, which to this day regularly appears on the accessories produced by the house. It is not simply a skull though, but a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death.
This motif of death was not just morbid curiosity however, but rather a product of darkness of McQueen’s mind. Throughout the designer’s life, he struggled with mental illness and the twisted stories his collection told were often artistic manifestations of the artist’s trauma. At age eight, he witnessed his sister’s abuse at the hands of her husband, who also abused McQueen himself. This violent start in life was played out on the runway. While McQueen stated his early collections were inspired by Jack the Ripper and the Highland Clearances, it can easily be read that they depict his relationship with abuse. Tragically, his art not only provided a means of expression for his struggles but also a source of exacerbation. It’s A Jungle Out There’s visceral portrayal of a predator stalking prey reflects the way the media and fashion industry hounded McQueen, who once said he saw himself as a gazelle, always being devoured. Unfortunately, the success that arrived in the late 90s did not serve to remedy the adverse effect his work had on his mental health; in fact, they worsened it. The stress of increased expectations deteriorated his mental health, and he turned to drug-taking. Yet, somehow, he was still able to tap into these emotions and create landmark collections.
For Spring 2001, McQueen produced his most obvious examination of mental health and relationship with his industry: Voss. What greeted the audience as they arrived was a huge metal box with sides made of two-way mirrors, so until the show began, all they could see was themselves. When the lights went up inside the box, they revealed a recreation of a psychiatric hospital with padded walls, a second mirrored box in the centre. The models then appeared, wearing garments with various natural elements: collars of flowers, ostrich-feather skirts, headdresses made of taxidermy birds and embroidered chrysanthemums, but all with their heads wrapped in bandages. Together with their sudden, strange movements, the models were depicted as insane while the fashion industry looked on. At the culmination of the show, the walls of the second glass box crashed to the floor revealing writer Michelle Olley recreating Joel-Peter Witkin’s Sanitarium: naked save for a mask with tubes protruding from the mouth and covered in moths. The message here: nature stands for artistic expression in fashion, and it is trapped and fed upon by the industry around it.
Death & Legacy
Tragically, on 11th February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen committed suicide. In his last days, the depression and anxiety that had long plagued the designer had severely worsened and eight days prior, his mother, with whom he was exceptionally close, had passed away. This had all taken one final toll on McQueen. A memorial was held for him at St Paul’s Cathedral, and his ashes were scattered at Kilmuir on the Isle of Skye, the homeland of his ancestral clan. His death was felt by many in his industry and beyond, with many of his famous friends, including Björk, Kate Moss and Lady Gaga paying tribute to him publicly. In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum held a posthumous retrospective exhibition on his work entitled Savage Beauty. It was so popular it became a travelling exhibition, moving to the V&A in London. It remains one of the most popular exhibitions either museum has ever shown. Today, the Alexander McQueen brand lives on, under the creative direction of Sarah Burton, McQueen’s long-time assistant. However, to say it remains as influential as ever would be disingenuous - a Google Image search for Alexander McQueen now results in pages of white trainers, the brand’s current biggest seller. But this is perhaps evidence of the inimitable genius of McQueen himself. His showmanship, craftsmanship and daring are beyond compare and have left an indelible mark on the fashion industry.
By Jonny McKinnell