ARGUABLY THE MOST INFLUENTIAL DESIGNER OF THE 21ST CENTURY, AN ARTIST WHO’S MEDIUM WAS CLOTHING, THE GENIUS THAT WAS ALEXANDER MCQUEEN FOUNDED HIS EPONYMOUS FASHION HOUSE WITH THE VISION TO IGNITE STRONG EMOTIONS IN HIS AUDIENCE WITH HIS WORK.
With his highly conceptual collections and theatrical fashion show productions, McQueen was much more than a fashion designer – he was an artist. He himself described his work as “an artistic expression, which is channelled through me. Fashion is just the medium.”
OUT OF NOWHERE
South London-born, the youngest of six children, Lee Alexander McQueen spent his childhood years confronted with financial and emotional struggles. Leaving school at the age of 16, McQueen acquired an apprenticeship on Savile Row with Anderson & Sheppard and later Gieves & Hawkes. An apt student, his early-acquired tailoring expertise would later become essential to the Alexander McQueen look. After several years in the trade he got bored with the creatively restricting craft of tailoring and moved on to work on theatre costumes at Angels and Bermans. From here he obtained a position with London-based Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno, then Romeo Gigli in Milan – all the while soaking up knowledge from each source, resulting in his celebrated technical brilliance. Upon his return to London to apply for a teaching position at the renowned Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, Bobby Hillson, founder of the postgraduate fashion course, recognized McQueen’s exceptional talent and persuaded him to enrol as an MA student instead. Two years later he graduated with distinction. His degree collection based on Jack the Ripper caught the attention of fashion icon Isabella Blow, who famously bought the entire collection. She would become his close friend and mentor, enabling his vision as a fashion design artist. It was also allegedly she who came up with the idea to use his more grand-sounding middle name ‘Alexander’ for his public persona.
Early on in his career, McQueen received incremental media attention for using “shock tactics”, for example with his “bumster” trousers in 1993, cut so low they revealed the buttocks. His Fall/Winter 1995 collection titled Highland Rape caused further outrage because it was erroneously assumed that it was inspired by the raping of women, although the actual reference was England’s historical rape of Scotland. These contextually extreme presentations earned him the reputation as a fashion anarchist. It is unsurprising, therefore, that McQueen’s appointment as John Galliano’s successor at Givenchy, as creative director of the traditional French couture house in 1996 was met with scepticism.
McQueen’s debut couture collection for Givenchy received mixed reviews and although he was commended for subsequent seasons, his heart wasn’t really in it. Instead he kept the position to fund his true passion – his eponymous label in London – allowing him to realise more and more of his lavish ideas. Although his time at Givenchy was relatively short-lived – he left the house in 2001 because he felt it inhibited his creative energy – the designer also utilized the opportunity to learn the softer techniques of draping and dressmaking, as well as couture handcraft at the prodigious atelier. The paradox of combining austere tailoring with the spontaneity of draping, executed with technical excellence, is, to this day, fundamental to the Alexander McQueen DNA.
As seen in the Highland Rape collection , the designer had a deep appreciation for history, especially that of fine art and craftsmanship – a source of inspiration essential to the brand philosophy of Alexander McQueen. Several times his research was informed by tracing back his own Scottish genealogy, only one of many autobiographical elements incorporated in his designs.
McQueen’s creations, beautiful as they were, always had a dark, tortured aspect to them, and often featured sadomasochist influences. The designer once stated: “I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.” One of the most memorable collections to address this relationship between the beautiful and the grotesque was the Spring/Summer 2001 collection titled VOSS. The setting – a two-way mirrored glass box, inside which the models roamed around as if in an insane asylum – as well as the collection itself, had that eerie, disturbing feel typical of McQueen.
The well of inspiration flowing from McQueen was seemingly endless. Yet, according to Thomas P. Campbell, director at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, what all of his collections had in common was a commentary on themes “normally beyond the ambitions of fashion.” Some of his leitmotifs include perversion and sexuality, nature, animalism, tribal references, and the cycle of life. There would always be a paradox to his aesthetic – horror and romance, life and death, lightness and darkness (Bolton).
FASHION AS ART
From the very beginning of his career, the shows are what drove McQueen’s creativity. Closer to performance art than fashion shows, fashion photographer Nick Knight referred to his productions as “fashion theatre”. For McQueen, a fashion show wasn’t merely a medium to present his collection to the public or to market his brand – it was a platform for his concepts as an artist. Consequently, a McQueen show was far from conventional, to say the least. He would shock and surprise his audience, consistently aiming (and succeeding) to induce an emotional reaction in the viewer. As Andrew Bolton put it, “McQueen validated powerful emotions as compelling sources of aesthetic experience.”
Lee McQueen had a dark side to his personality, which was the primary source for his sinister and melancholy design influences. He struggled with depression and drug abuse, especially towards the end of his life. Some claim that his great success and the consequential nonstop media attention took a toll on his mental health, yet he had also stated that he had experienced emotional trauma as a child, which he hadn’t come to terms with. Another great blow to his psychological stability was his contraction of the HIV virus. Following the death of his mother, Joyce, the anguish he felt in his personal life tragically lead him to take his own life at the age of 41.
The last collection Lee McQueen personally worked on, but was unable to finish due to his untimely death was arguably the most epic of them all. Presented during Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2010-11 under the unofficial title Angels & Demons, it consisted of only 16 looks, featuring elements of paintings by old masters, intricately woven into jacquards and embroidery or engineered onto the garments, the models resembling goddess-like empresses of the Byzantium.
After his tragic suicide, his long time assistant and right hand, Sarah Burton, succeeded McQueen as creative director of the brand. With a tangible feminine touch and a softer, less psychologically heavy approach, Burton is taking the fashion house in a more approachable direction, to great critical acclaim. Highlights since her appointment include, to name a few, the unforgettable gown Kate Middleton wore for her wedding to Prince William, as well as the Fall/Winter 2013 collection in which Burton, due to her advanced pregnancy, presented only 10 looks – yet they were 10 technically exquisite works of art, inspired by the excesses of Catholicism, as well as the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. Like the genius that was her mentor, Burton continues to captivate the fashion world with her interpretation of the “Savage Beauty”, that is the essence of Alexander McQueen.
Traditional tailoring meets draping and couture handcraft with a signature sinister edge.
A recurring motif in the collections that became a worldwide must-have is the skull motif, printed onto ready-to-wear, as well as accessories. Another popular commercial item is the bodycon dress with elaborate prints or intarsia knit patterns. The Armadillo shoe from Lee’s last full collection Plato’s Atlantis, also featured in Lady Gaga’s music video for “Bad Romance”, became a universally talked-about novelty item.
A sinister undertone accompanies the exquisitely executed and always concept-driven collections.
The concept of each fashion show was the starting point for each collection Lee McQueen designed. To this day the brand is known for its artistic theatrical fashion show productions – albeit slightly less so with Burton at the helm.
Lee Alexander McQueen, the youngest of six children, is born March 17, in Lewisham, South London to a taxi driver father and a science teacher mother.
After leaving school at the age of 16, McQueen acquires a position as an apprentice on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard and later Gieves & Hawkes, where his clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles.
McQueen is persuaded to enrol in the MA Fashion Design program at the renowned Central St. Martins College of Art & Design, London.
McQueen graduates with distinction. He bases degree collection on Jack The Ripper, sparking the attention of soon-to-become mentor, Isabella Blow.
The designer first introduces the infamous “bumster” trousers, which reveals the buttocks. The look is featured more prominently in the next two collections.
The presentation of the Highland Rape collection causes outrage in the media.
To many a sceptic’s disbelief, this “rogue” young British designer starts to attract international attention, which is verified by his winning the Designer of the Year Award for the first of four times in total (1996, 1997, 2001, 2003).
Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, also appoints McQueen to succeed John Galliano as head designer at Givenchy in Paris, a decision met with equal doubt by the public.
The Gucci Group buys 51% of the Alexander McQueen brand shares. This, along with the newly available funding through his position at Givenchy, allows McQueen to climb to new heights with his eponymous label – his true passion. The brands presentations move from London to Paris.
After four years of struggling to constrain his limitless creativity to fit the traditional French couture codes, McQueen decides to leave Givenchy. That same year he presents his groundbreaking VOSS collection.
Lee Alexander McQueen is awarded the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE, by her majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The McQueen brand launches its menswear line. A year later the younger, more commercial diffusion line, McQ, is established.
Close friend and mentor Isabella Blow takes her own life, leaving Lee in a state of despair.
Further evidence of the personal anguish induced in him by the world in which he worked, The Horn of Plenty collection is a “scathing satire of the fashion industry” (Frankel).
Lee McQueen’s final complete collection titled Plato’s Atlantis is arguably the height of his career.
Little over a week of his mother’s death, Lee Alexander McQueen takes his own life in his Mayfair home.
After his death, his right hand assistant of 15 years, Sarah Burton, is named as his successor. His last work, an 80% unfinished collection unofficially titled Angels & Demons, is presented in Paris in an intimate setting.
Sarah Burton makes her debut as head designer of the Alexander McQueen brand, proving that she embodies the McQueen DNA.
That same year the brand receives a further incredible marketing and image boost with the creation of Kate Middleton’s legendary wedding gown. To this day the iconic gown is among the most emulated (albeit inimitable) wedding dress designs worldwide.
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