Essay: Alexander McQueen
Author and journalist Susannah Frankel profiles Lee Alexander McQueen in an intimate, frank and revealing essay on his life and work.
Author and journalist Susannah Frankel profiles Lee Alexander McQueen in an intimate, frank and revealing essay on his life and work.
'Anarchic, fun, thin, controversial, friend, loyal, charismatic, innovative, dark, determined.' Asked to sum up Alexander McQueen in the promotional brochure for the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards staged earlier this summer in New York, this is how Kate Moss described him. There's more: 'I first met Lee in New York City. He was doing a show in a church. It was chaos and he was loving it. And that is so typical. All of his shows are so exciting. There is always an element of surprise. My most vivid memory is of his show in the rain - it was so beautiful.' And it was. McQueen was honoured with the International Award, no mean feat given that the New York fashion establishment is hardly famous for taking risks. This pales into insignificance, however, with the news that, on home turf, Alexander McQueen is now proud recipient of the CBE.
Of course, New Labour's obsession with the cult of celebrity needs no explaining. Ever since the Prime Minister invited Noel Gallagher for drinks at 10 Downing Street in 1997 it has been apparent that, like Private Eye's Trendy Vicar (Stairway to Heaven on the acoustic guitar, anyone?), Tony Blair is intent on establishing himself as, well, as hip, for want of a less embarrassing word. Even still, McQueen's inclusion on the honours list is noteworthy. This is, after all, a man who has always rattled the establishment cage as if his very existence depended upon it. His attitude towards the Royal Family, in particular, is the stuff of urban mythology. McQueen trained on Savile Row, working at both Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes. The latter was, famously, tailor to the Prince of Wales at the time. McQueen, fashion legend has it, was responsible for scrawling 'I AM A CUNT' in the lining of one of his jackets. Presumably, this is something the recipient was - or indeed is still - unaware of.
When Alexander McQueen first emerged onto the fashion scene back in the early 1990s mayhem ensued. His was not only, clearly, a great talent - the stylist Isabella Blow bought his entire degree collection, immediately establishing him as the Next Big Thing - but also the man's life story, duly reduced to its bare bones by the press, read like Pygmalion with knobs on. McQueen was 'the working class lad from a family of taxi drivers', the irreverent upstart who could always be relied on where calling a spade a shovel was concerned. ('I don't give a shit what other French designers think of me. I'll bring French chic to Paris.') He was also - and the timing was perfect - the very essence of Cool Britannia, surrounded by an equally fashionable - and impenetrable - circle of friends. McQueen pioneered the bumster trouser - cut so low it barely covered the pubic bone - and preferred his lace ravaged and torn. Even the titles of his shows were wildly provocative: The Highland Rape caused outrage among the more politically correct fashion commentators, even though it was, like so much else about this man, widely misunderstood.
In 1996, it was announced that McQueen would take over as couturier at the venerable house of Givenchy in Paris and the response went from heated to apoplectic. Kicking up a storm in the very knowing world of British fashion was one thing; infiltrating the resolutely bourgeois Paris fashion establishment, quite another. And it didn't stop there. In December 2000 the Gucci Group bought a 51 per cent stake in the designer's business with the intention of establishing fashion's by now most famous agent provocateur into an international brand. There are now McQueen stores in London, New York and Milan, and even a McQueen fragrance: Kingdom. In only a decade, the designer has travelled the route from 'enfant terrible' to bona fide 'genius' with very little in between. And if this seems like an awfully long way to have come, it's worth noting that both monikers are equally cliched and so, ultimately, throwaway. Somewhere beneath it all, though, is the man born Lee Alexander McQueen, the same as he ever was: as brilliant, gentle, complicated, sensitive and charming as he can indeed be childish, arrogant and rude. Most importantly, this is a man who has demonstrated the determination to finally achieve the ambition he has nurtured ever since he was a small child.
McQueen grew up in East London, the youngest of six children (two brothers, three sisters). He uses his middle rather than his first name when he works because he was signing on when he started out and 'didn't want to walk into the dole office one day and be recognised because I'd been in the Sunday Times'. His father is a cab driver, his mother a genealogist who went to work teaching social history only after her youngest son turned sixteen. He went to school at Rokeby, the local all-boys comprehensive where, he says, he spent most of his time drawing clothes. 'I was literally three years old when I started drawing. I did it all my life, through primary school, secondary school, all my life. I always, always wanted to be a designer. I read books on fashion from the age of twelve. I followed designer's careers. I knew Giorgio Armani was a window-dresser, Emanuel Ungaro was a tailor.'
Given the brute maleness of his environment, the young McQueen must have stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. 'No. People just ignored me. That was fine. I was doing it for myself. But I always knew I would be something in fashion. I didn't know how big, but I always knew I'd be something.'
After school, he passed the time bird-watching from the roof of the tower block where he lived. He was a member of the Young Ornithologists Society of Great Britain: this continues to be an interest to this day. He left with one 'O' level and one 'A' level, both in art. In 1986 his mother saw a report on television stating that Savile Row was threatened with collapse due to a lack of young apprentices. 'I went straight down there. I hardly had any qualifications when I left school. So I thought the best way to do it was to learn how to make the stuff, learn the construction of clothes properly and go from there.'
He was employed on the spot and spent two years making trousers at Anderson & Sheppard, before moving to Gieves & Hawkes to concentrate on jackets. To this day, McQueen's tailoring is second to none. Unlike the majority of designers, he learnt this particular aspect of his trade in the traditional manner and, however extreme his work may seem, it is nonetheless executed with all the precision of bespoke menswear.
From Savile Row, McQueen went to Angels & Bermans, theatrical costumiers, cutting clothes for major London shows including Les Miserables. It is from here, perhaps, that he grasped the more pyrotechnic potential of clothing. There followed a brief stint working for Koji Tatsuno until, aged only twenty, he travelled to Milan on a mission to work for Romeo Gigli, then at the height of his fame.
'There was nothing going on in London and the biggest thing at that time was Romeo Gigli, he was everywhere. I thought "this is the only person I want to work for". My sister was a travel agent. I got a flight, a one-way ticket to Milan.' Despite being in possession of what he has since described as 'the worst portfolio you've ever seen, full of costume design' Gigli employed him. And if there was one thing McQueen learnt from this particular designer, it was the power of the press. 'Gigli had all this attention and I wanted to know why. It had very little to do with the clothes and more to do with him as a person. And that's fundamentally true of anybody. Any interest in the clothes is secondary to interest in a designer. You need to know that you're a good designer as well, though. You can't give that sort of bullshit without having a back up. If you can't design, what's the point of generating the hype in the first place?'
Just under a year later and McQueen found himself back in London. Gigli split with his partner Carla Sozzani and the publicity machine that had previously showered Italy's favourite designer with unabashed hyperbole had gone sour. 'I was on holiday when I heard about it. I never went back, never said goodbye, nothing.'
Instead, this was the push that was needed for the designer to finally enter the hallowed portals of Central Saint Martins, the most famous fashion school in the world. Rather than attempting to enrol on a course - the irony is that, under normal circumstances, his lack of educational qualifications would never have made the grade - McQueen applied for a teaching position instead.
'He came for a job teaching pattern cutting,' Bobbie Hillson, founder-director of the postgraduate fashion course and teacher of, among others, John Galliano and Rifat Ozbek, has said. 'We didn't have one. I thought he was very interesting and he clearly had terrific talent.' More impressive even than this, though, was McQueen's drive. 'To have left school at sixteen, studied at Savile Row, gone to Italy alone and found a job with Gigli - that was incredible. He was also technically brilliant, even though he'd never actually studied design.'
'I don't think you can become a good designer, or a great designer, or whatever,' McQueen says, for his part. 'To me, you just are one. I think to know about colour, proportion, shape, cut, balance, is genetic.'
Six years later, and with only eight signature collections to his name, McQueen was the toast of London having earned a position both as internationally revered technician but also as the master of the fashion show as spectacle. He sent models out with their heads wrapped in nets of fluttering butterflies, made them walk through water in Perspex Venetian wedge heels and thought nothing of showing in a still consecrated church. His designs were equally remarkable, playing on the tension between softness and severity, power and romance and, most significantly, beauty and cruelty. Hard-edged tailoring and ruffled chiffon and lace had both become signatures by now, as had sexually-charged leather. More often than not models identities were masked by elaborate hair and make-up. It takes a steely nerve to disguise the faces that lesser designers would kill to have promoting their clothes. And McQueen had this in spades. He was accused of misogyny for his pains.
'We're not talking about models' personal feeling here, we're talking about mine. Models are there to showcase what I'm about, nothing else. It's nothing to do with misogyny, it's all about the way I'm feeling about my life.'
And then came the call from Givenchy who, wishing to move John Galliano across to sister company, Christian Dior, were searching for a replacement designer. Suffice it to say that the powers that be in French fashion were far from amused by the prospect of McQueen reinventing the house that famously had Audrey Hepburn as its muse. Bernard Arnault, however, the man behind the appointment, knew that the publicity attracted by McQueen even before he had officially taken to the helm was worth more than its weight in gold.
McQueen spent four years at Givenchy and has since made no secret that his time there was far from happy. His shows were the high-points of the Paris season, if only for their extraordinary backdrops - caged ravens one season, a Japanese water garden the next - but Givenchy failed to allow him total creative control. While every Christian Dior ad campaign, every lipstick bore the signature of John Galliano, Givenchy was less courageous and, stepping into one of its stores at the time there was barely a whiff of the sensibility of the man (designer) who was, supposedly, presiding over the whole.
In the meantime, McQueen's creative energy was wisely focused more intently on his twice-yearly London collections which became ever more ambitious. His catwalk was showered with rain one season, then burst into flames the next. His models played out his fashion fantasies in a larger-than-life size snowstorm, inspired by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Aimee Mullins, a double amputee from the knee down, made her first ever catwalk appearance. Her legs were hand carved in wood and followed McQueen's own design. That same season, Shalom Harlow, danced, like a music box marionette, on a revolving wooden circle as her white ballerina's garb was sprayed vivid green, yellow and black by the most menacing machinery brought in from a car manufacturer for the duration.
In December 2000, McQueen's collaboration with Givenchy came to an end with the designer most definitely having the last laugh. Givenchy is owned by the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH which also owns Dior, Christian Lacroix and Louis Vuitton, among others. The directors of the world's most famous fashion conglomerate can have been none too pleased when it was announced that arch-rival Gucci Group had paid McQueen an undisclosed sum for a majority stake in the company that bears his name.
McQueen went for a walk on Brighton beach with his dogs to celebrate and then slowly but surely began to give Gucci just what they wanted. It's been a fruitful meeting of minds. Far from attempting to subdue the designer's fertile imaginings, Gucci have allowed him to develop them and all while offering him the infrastructure and, of course, capital to grow. His shows, meanwhile, continue to move: there are few in fashion history who have ever provoked such a powerful response, a sense of both exquisite loveliness and an underlying battle between strength and vulnerability, confidence and unease.
'The shows are what spur me on, make me excited about what I'm doing. When you start getting into that mindset where this is a business and you've got to make money, you can always lose your creativity, start battling between two sides of your consciousness. You're designing, on the one hand, for the buyer, and on the other for yourself and never the twain will meet. When that happens the collection comes out badly. Anyway, people don't expect me to change. They know I wasn't prepared to change for Givenchy and that I'm not prepared to change for Gucci'.
'I want people to see that this is what fashion is about, that this is what we are here for. There are people out there doing the clothes that you can wear every day but you finally find a niche in the market which is your own and that's to design unusual clothes that are unique. And they are unique. There isn't anyone else doing anything like I do. My clothes are seductive, they're very subversive, very dark. They leave a hidden mystery behind the person who's wearing them. It's a balance of sexuality and mystery.' It's perhaps unsurprising that he could be describing himself.
Of life before Gucci he says: 'I had no qualms about what I was doing. There was never any hidden agenda. It was always a cat and mouse game, you're running after the pennies and the press is running after you, they try and pin you down, pigeonhole you.'
This is, of course, almost impossible to do, not least because, there is a complexity to McQueen which, for all his relative financial security and worldwide recognition, keeps him still permanently on edge. This was amply demonstrated by a project showcased on this website last year. Nick Knight filmed McQueen transforming a male model in white Yohji Yamamoto trouser suit into a bride. 'You know,' Knight says, 'you hear all these stories about how the women in the Givenchy atelier were terrified when he got his scissors out, stories about how he hacks and cuts and slashes. So he cuts the suit up, pulls pieces down, gaffer tapes up the middle. Then he makes a train with the cloth. Then he gets white paint and throws it at the bottom half of the model and, with his hands, starts shaping it, moving the paint down the cloth. He's doing all this to incredibly loud techno music and he's sweating and slipping about in the paint and so focused, scarily focused, other-wordly. Finally, he puts a veil on him, ties his hands together and stuffs a tie into his mouth. There was a great sadness to it, I thought. I don't know how much of it was about Lee. By the end, this very handsome young man had been turned into a bride.'
Alexander McQueen's position may appear today to have changed immeasurably. He counts many of the world's most famous people as clients and mixes in moneyed circles. It's worth noting, however, that his closest friends, colleagues and collaborators have been with him from the start and remain unflinchingly loyal. There is, in the end, a restlessness at the heart of this man that is infinitely inspiring, that keeps him at the vanguard of culture all while he forges ahead to become one of the great fashion success stories of the millennium.