Alexander McQueen is remembered as one of the most iconic fashion designers of the 21st century but when he first entered the scene, the fashion world turned their nose at the brute East Ender, who cursed and sloppily wore his shirt untucked, calling him l’enfant terrible (the terrible infant) and “the hooligan of English fashion.” And yet, McQueen’s contribution to fashion was unlike anything else before him, with his subverting tailoring techniques, deep introspective, and revolutionary theatrics in live presentations which transcended the brash designer beyond fashion to showman. On the anniversary of the designer’s passing, CR remembers the disruptive legacy of McQueen.
Born Lee Alexander McQueen, he grew up in East End, commonly regarded as the dark heart of London and the “tough” area of the city where poverty and disease often struck. McQueen would often draw and passed the time by bird watching, which later sparked his obsession with ornithology. He left school at 16 and went on to apprentice on Savile Row, a neighborhood in London known for men’s bespoke tailoring. While working at various shops he reportedly wrote “I am a c**t” into the lining of a suit he made for Prince Charles. After a brief stint working for costumiers, as well as fashion designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli, McQueen applied for a job as a pattern-cutter tutor at the prestigious Central Saint Martins arts school. Upon seeing his portfolio, Bobby Hilson, head of the masters program, recruited McQueen to apply as a student, flipping the enrollment process.
McQueen’s culminating thesis project titled Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims was the staring point of the young designer’s career. The highly autobiographical collection premiered in 1992 and referenced genealogy and the Whitechapel murders of East End serial killer, Jack the Ripper. One of McQueen’s relatives reportedly owned an inn that housed a victim of Jack the Ripper. His collection displayed a type of dark, twisted romance that was absent in fashion at the time, serving as a theme in his future work. Locks of hair was sewn into the lining of the clothing. McQueen later cut his own hair, put it in perspex, and sewed in into the labels of his early works as a nod to Victorian-era prostitutes who would sell their hair to lovers.
One of the people who saw McQueen’s graduate collection was the influential hat-obsessed stylist, Isabella Blow, who was struck by McQueen’s craftsmanship and bought the collection in it’s entirety for £5,000. The two became inseparable, and in many ways, Blow became his both his mentor and muse, even persuading McQueen to change his first name from Lee to his middle name Alexander to make it sound more grand.
McQueen started his own eponymous label with Blow by his side. As a true couturier, he would design by draping fabric over the mannequin and fitting from there. Models were apparently frightened when they saw him get the scissors out to do his signature cuts and slashes on a garment. He would also design from the side. “That way I get the worst angle of the body,” he said. “You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cut and proportion and silhouette that works all the way around the body.”
His first collection called Highland Rape was initially not well-received by the fashion press, who called it “aggressive and disturbing.” The collection’s name referred to the brutal clearances of the Scottish highlands by the British forces in the 18th and 19th centuries, drawing upon McQueen’s Scottish ancestry and his reoccurring theme of genealogy. “My father’s family originates from the Isle of Skye, and I’d studied the history of the Scottish upheavals and the Clearances,” he said. “People were so unintelligent they thought this was about women being raped—yet Highland Rape was about England’s rape of Scotland.”
The clothes themselves were also controversial. Blood-spattered models in ravaged lace dresses, Scottish tartan, and provocative tailoring appeared distraught on the runway strewn with heather and bracken. One garment, nicknamed the “bumster,” was an extreme low-rise pant that gained popularity during the early 2000s trend of low-rise jeans. To McQueen, the base of the spinal column was the most interesting part of the body. The “bumster” style were merely about elongating that part of the body, whereas the fashion world reportedly took offense to the crude display of derrière.
After producing eight collections, McQueen was offered the position of creative director at Givenchy in 1996, succeeding John Galliano. Upon his arrival, McQueen showed no restraint, calling the brand “irrelevant” to the founder, Hubert de Givenchy. His first couture collection, inspired by Greek antiquity, was unsuccessful (he himself called it “crap.”) McQueen was out of his comfort zone at the prestigious brand, after he was forced to tone down the rebellious aura he carried from his own label.
While he never fully represented himself at Givenchy, McQueen was able to unleash his avant-garde genius for his own line. In 1999, McQueen showed his 13th collection, titled No.13, calling it “the only [show] that actually made me cry.” The designer incorporated external mediums, including balsa-wood and raffia (a type of palm leaf), to create bodices and fringed skirts. The culmination of the show displayed ’90s supermodel Shalom Harlow on a rotating disk in a puffy white dress whilst being sprayed with paint by two robotic arms from a car manufacturing plant. It was one of the first uses of high technology at a fashion show, leaving the crowd speechless and wondering what McQueen would do next.
McQueen left Givenchy after four years and immediately threw himself back into his line. The designer debuted his Spring/Summer 2001 show titled Voss, named after a renowned Norwegian wildlife town. It was regarded as his most dramatic and celebrated show of all time. As guests entered the space, a mirrored box filled the center of the room, forcing them to look back at themselves for an hour before the show begun. Once the lights were turned on, the padded white interior of the box was revealed as Kate Moss walked out, clawing at the glass. During his shows, models were expected to deliver a performance by acting out the character of the show. The finale showed a nude model, her face obscured by a gas mask covered by live moths, inspired by photographer Joel-Peter Wilkin’s Sanitarium from 1983. “These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who wouldn’t be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within,” McQueen said. The show grappled with notions of sanity, but above all, the designer wanted his guests to feel something and his dream was to produce raw emotion through his visionary shows.
For his final collection, Mc Queen continued to delve into technology to push his shows above and beyond. His love for scuba diving sparked the Spring/Summer 2010 show, titled Plato’s Atlantis, based off of the idea of humanity, after living on Earth, returning to the oceans. McQueen debuted his signature armadillo heels, contorting the natural shape of the foot into an egg shape with an impossibly high platform heel. He also introduced his original kaleidoscopic Manta dress by mixing prints and color. McQueen teamed up with photographer Nick Knight in the first live broadcast of a fashion show over the internet, a revolutionary moment of bridging fashion and the digital masses. Lady Gaga tweeted out the link to the live stream, saying her 2009 hit “Bad Romance” was to premiere on the runway. The site crashed and the stream went down due to the influx of viewers. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes later called the show “the most dramatic revolution in 21st century fashion.”
McQueen tragically took his own life on this day in 2010 at 40 years old, shortly after the death of his mother and Blow, his lifelong friend and longest collaborator. The designer proved his legacy and iconic vision by constantly challenging the boundaries in fashion. His anti-establishment attitude offended the industry to which he belonged, but at the same time, McQueen brought something deeply visceral to the fashion world through unusual mediums and theatrical shows. His rapid ascent in fashion, as well as his long-lasting impact, showcases that when you go against the rules, you sometimes get the chance to rewrite them yourself.
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