ALEXANDER MCQUEEN (1969- ) burst onto the fashion stage in 1992, courting controversy as headlines hailed him as the new enfant terrible. Though contentious and frequently misunderstood, he established the fashion label that is now internationally acclaimed and coveted without compromising his approach.
From the start of his career McQueen has both shocked and delighted his audience with raw presentations often depicting bleak history and anarchic politics. These shock tactics began in dimly-lit warehouses away from the staid environment of the London Fashion Week tents. His autumn/winter 1995 catwalk show in particular captured the headlines. Entitled Highland Rape, the collection featured dishevelled and battered-looking models in torn clothing. It was McQueen’s comment on the rape of the Highlands at the hands of the British; interpreted by others as a perverse and misogynistic celebration of the sexual violation of women. His spring/summer 1997 collection, La Poupee, featured a black model whose movements were restrained by a metal cage attached to her limbs, hit the headlines again. Inspired by the German puppet-master Hans Bellmer, the rusty contraption was designed to evoke a marionette; inevitably, again, some of the press saw bondage, slavery and the subordination of women.
McQueen’s flair for showmanship has led him to be celebrated as much for outrageous theatricality as for the unique combination of aggressive tailoring and lyrical romanticism in his clothes. As the stature of the McQueen name grew, so did the twice-yearly spectacle. His weird and whimsical catwalk narratives have included models encircled in flames, drenched in rainstorms or spun like music-box dolls on revolving circles in the floor. The shows are inspired by cult films by Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfred Hitchock, or by the dark photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. It Witkin’s work which inspired McQueen’s spring/summer 2001 show. Models staggered around, trapped in a mirrored box that obscured their view of the audience. Their bandaged heads and confused expressions evoked disease both physical and psychological. The spectacle ended as the walls of the glass box shattered to the floor to reveal an obese model wearing nothing but a gas mask, surrounded by hundreds of moths.
None of these sensational spectacles has eclipsed the substance of McQueen’s design. The avant-garde narrative rhetoric belied a very traditional training in bespoke tailoring on London’s famous Savile Row.
Lee Alexander McQueen was born in the East End of London on March 17th 1969, the youngest of six children; his father a taxi driver, his mother a social history teacher. From an early age he knew he wanted to be a designer and he spent his formative years at Rokeby, the local boys’ comprehensive school, drawing and reading books on fashion.
He left school at the age of 16 with a single O-Level and worked for a time clearing glasses in his uncle’s pub. He completed his A-Level in Art at night-school at West Hampton Technical College before being offered an apprenticeship at the revered Savile Row tailors Anderson & Shepherd. Here he learnt the intricacies of cutting jackets before moving up the street to Gieves & Hawkes, (founded in the 19th century as a military outfitter but now a successful menswear brand) to apply and develop these skills to trousers. It was here that that the anti-establishment McQueen legend began, when he famously scrawled obscenities in tailor’s chalk in the inner-lining of a jacket destined for the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.
He moved to the theatrical costumiers Angels & Bermans to work on productions for big musical shows such like Les Miserables, while continuing to master the skills of pattern-cutting – including techniques from earlier centuries that are evident in his work today. He then went to work for London-based designer Koji Tatsuno, then backed by Yohji Yamamoto, before moving to Milan to work with his hero, Romeo Gigli. This was in the late 1980s when Gigli was still enjoying the media hyperbole that had propelled him into the limelight. McQueen was undoubtedly influenced by the power of the press machine he witnessed in Milan, and convinced of its contribution to a designer’s success.
In 1990, when Gigli separated from his friends and business partners Donato Maiano and Carla Sozzani, McQueen returned to London where he sought work teaching pattern-cutting at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Instead of a job, he was offered a place on the MA design course, his drive and impressive curriculum vitae making up for his lack of formal qualifications. With a loan from his Aunt Renée he completed his MA in 1992 and sold his graduate collection to the influential stylist Isabella Blow who went on to become his muse, patron and unofficial public relations agent.
McQueen immediately established his own label with a small collection presented at the Bluebird Garage on the King’s Road, Chelsea. It was here that his signature “bumsters” – jeans cut just above the pubic bone to reveal the cleft of the buttocks behind – made their first appearance. The brutally sharp styling of his collections could not obscure their sublime craftsmanship, historical cut and exquisite detailing. Impeccably tailored suits are softened with fine lace, while skin-tight leather is unashamedly sexual and subversive.
In October 1996, at the age of 27 and having produced only eight collections, McQueen was appointed Designer-in-Chief at Givenchy in Paris, replacing John Galliano, who went to sister label Christian Dior. Givenchy brought the backing of luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and enabled McQueen to continue developing his own label. A turbulent four-and-a-half years at Givenchy began with disappointing reviews of his first Haute Couture collection in 1997. Fond journalists, mostly French, demanded that McQueen’s uncompromising avant-garde designs be softened to meet for the house whose most famous muse was Audrey Hepburn.
In 2001 McQueen again made the headlines with the controversial move of selling a 51 percent share of his label to the rival Gucci Group. Their financial backing and insightful decision to encourage rather than suppress McQueen’s talents made the label an international brand. Today, McQueen has flagship stores in New York, Milan, London and LA; an accessories collection a menswear collection; and eyewear. He has been named British Fashion Designer of the Year four times, in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003. In 2003 he was awarded International Designer of the Year by The Council of Fashion Designers of America and in the same month he was honoured as a Most Excellent Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the British fashion industry and in 2004 McQueen was awarded British Menswear Designer of the Year.
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Armstrong, Lisa. Move to Gucci….I’d Rather Die. The Times, 3rd March 2003
Alexander, Hilary. ‘I’m not having bumsters on Georges V’. The Daily Telegraph, 14th October 1998
Menkes, Suzy. Mr Letterhead: McQueen Shows a Corporate Side. International Herald Tribune, 18th September 2001
McDowell, Colin. Shock Treatment. The Sunday Times Style Magazine, 13th March 1996
Frankel, Susannah. Bull in a Fashion Shop. The Guardian, 15th October 1996
Barber, Lynn. Emperor of Bare Bottoms. The Observer, 15th December 1996
The Independent Fashion Magazine, 18th September 1999