Alexander McQueen, the hooligan of fashion
Inside Fashion Houses: Alexander McQueen
It’s the classical tragic story of success. Once you achieve it, it consumes you. Lee Alexander McQueen was arguably on the top of his career as a fashion designer when he chose to leave it all. Everything became too much, and when his mother died, he chose to follow her on the night before her funeral.
Lee, whose name was rebranded to Alexander by his “discoverer” and friend Isabella Blow, had an extremely strong connection to his mother. In an article in the Guardian in 2004, McQueen is interviewed by his mom. She asked him about his cottage in rural England on which he replies: “I don’t find inspiration there – it gives me a peace of mind, Mum. Solitude, and a blank canvas to work from, instead of the distractions of the concrete jungle.”
These distractions eventually meant the end for Alexander McQueen as a person, but not as a brand. Since McQueen’s death, his brand has become even more famous than during his life. It’s almost like Vincent van Gogh, although we wouldn’t say that McQueen didn’t get any recognition during his life. He was one of the youngest ever to win the British Designer of the Year award. He would win the title four times between 1996 and 2003. At the age of 27, McQueen was appointed by LVMH-president Bernard Arnault to succeed John Galliano as the creative director of Givenchy. It would mean a break through for this simple British man into the haute-couture glamour world of Paris.
McQueen was born in London as the youngest of six in a working class family. His Scottish father was a taxi driver in London, while his mother was a social science teacher. In contrast to his mom, school didn’t seem to be the place for McQueen, who dropped out of school at the age of sixteen to start an apprenticeship on the highly regarded Savile Row with Anderson and Sheppard. After a following apprenticeship on fellow Savile Row tailors Gieves and Hawkes, McQueen started working for Angels and Bermans, a costume couturier for film and theatre. This beginning of his career has been of great influence in his later work. Throughout his career, McQueen has made use of theatrical elements in both his collection and his shows. With references to his Scottish heritage and his love for theatrical imagery.
Not only were his shows theatrical, they were also very provocative. The critics would often call him an enfant terrible or even the hooligan of fashion, maybe also referring to his typical English football fan look. The things McQueen showed were unseen and often obscene. Models were wrapped in trash bags, breasts were often exposed, his bumsters (pants showing a rear cleavage) became a hit around the early 2000s. His fourth collection was named “Highland Rape”, and referred to the clearances (he called it genocide) in the Scottish Highlands of the 1800s. The show was not only controversial because of its title; many critics were merciless about the styling which showed the models as if they were just raped and deranged. In McQueen’s eyes, it was rather a feminist statement and a reference to his own ancestral history.
These controversies have surrounded him throughout his career, but it has contributed to his success. In his first collection, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”, as a graduate of Central Saint Martins MA course (for which he did not have the required bachelor’s degree) he used the story of the gruesome murders of Jack the Ripper as an inspiration. This was an immediate success as British Vogue editor Isabella Blow bought his entire collection for £5000,-. It meant the start of their friendship and McQueen’s career as a fashion designer.
Like Jack the Ripper and Highland Rape, many of McQueen’s shows were drenched in a broader message. Often with a societal critique as an undertone, or simply to elicit controversy. At Givenchy McQueen used models of color and even Aimee Mullins, a model who had both of her legs amputated.
One of his most remarkable shows was “Voss”, which was made out of a mirrored glass box that forced the press and audience around it look at themselves. The show started an hour later, which meant a confronting look in the mirror for the entire circus around the show. Of course, this was planned by McQueen as a message. During the show, the models moved freely inside the box and around another box. At the absolute climax, the box in the middle broke and revealed a masked large naked woman (later confirmed to be British writer Michelle Olley) laying on a bench covered with moths. A stark contrast with the fancy skinny dressed models around her. She lay there the entire show.
In the later years of his life, the messages in his collections and shows became louder and bolder while McQueen himself turned more introverted. His friendship with Isabella Blow cooled down during his tenure at Givenchy and after Blow committed suicide in 2007, McQueen personal struggles seemed to take the overhand. He had fat removed through liposuction and looked a lot skinnier than he used to. He no longer looked like Lee McQueen from East End London, he became Alexander McQueen, the fashion designer.
As an ode to his dear friend Blow, McQueen worked together with her other discovery, headwear designer Philip Treacy, on a collection named “La Dame Bleue” in 2007. Their shared love for the animal kingdom was apparent, with large birdlike figures, feathers, butterflies and horns.
Even though his label gained success (it sold 51% of its shares to the Gucci Group in 2000), McQueen seemed frustrated with the world he was living in. In his work and his personal life, flora and fauna were the only things of value for him. Death was also a recurring theme in his work. With the skull probably as one of his most iconic images. For the invitation of his spring/summer 2009 collection show “NATURAL Dis-Tinction, Un-Natural Selection”, McQueen made a hologram of his face transitioning into a skull. Later became clear, that McQueen was HIV-positive, and the invitation was maybe his personal warning for his near future.
McQueen was working on, what eventually became, his final collection “Plato’s Atlantis” when his mother died on 2 February 2010, McQueen was devastated. In preparations of the funeral his depression took over until the night before, on 10 February 2010, Lee Alexander McQueen hang himself to death, leaving a note saying: “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”
‘Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.’
‘Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.’
As the entire fashion world was shocked, McQueen’s heritage was left to his first assistant Sarah Burton, who worked alongside McQueen for over fourteen years. McQueen’s last personal collection was never finished by him, but had a huge impact. It showed his fascination with the afterlife, perhaps another warning for what was to come.
Under Burton, Alexander McQueen has had huge successes in the contemporary fashion industry. Alexander McQueen’s sneakers (a bulky reinterpretation of the iconic Adidas Stan Smith silhouette) have become a staple item seen in every metropolitan street imaginable. His sublabel McQ has had a major impact on ready to wear fashion as well, with collaborative collections with sportswear giant Puma, among others.
In honor of McQueen’s career and life, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art held a posthumus exhibition about Alexander McQueen. Savage Beauty became one of the museum’s best visited exhibitions, and after it moved to London, it had over one million visitors.
Again, it’s the classical tragic story of success. The romantic story of a tormented genius. But when looking at Lee Alexander McQueen’s life, one can’t help but think that the way it happened, was the way it was supposed to happen. It’s not easy to the eye, nor was it aimed to please. The title of the exhibition is therefore so excellently found: Savage Beauty.
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