By Julia Milet
Lee McQueen, in a parallel world, was an ancient skinhead from London’s trashy suburbs, who used to draw and make princess dresses for his sisters. Now, he is known as Alexander, the name he chose in order to enter the aristocratic fashion industry.
While his farther was convinced he was going to work in plumbing, his mother Joyce, supported Lee to become an apprentice at Savile Row, a street in Mayfair famous for bespoke tailoring. This is where he learned the basics of fashion. He then became a MA student at the regarded fashion university of Central Saint Martins in 1994, which after that, helped him being named at the head of Givenchy in 1996.
From that point, he was included in a group of designers in the late 90s, who shocked most of the respected names in the fashion industry such as Anna Wintour or Suzy Menkes. In fact, McQueen’s objective was to crack the diktats imposed by the fashion business. Innovation, creativity, originality, these were his criteria in order to be able to stand out from other designers.
Speaking to Laura Cochrane, a fashion writer for the Guardian, she explains: « He defined an era of British fashion and was perhaps one of the first working class designers to really make an impact, and become an international brand.»
In 1998, every A-lister in London requested to be dressed by McQueen, even the Royal Family such as Prince Charles. Kate Moss, Bjork and Grace Jones, all these women cherished the designer, complimenting his work after his fashion shows. This glittery admiration was exactly what McQueen’s was looking for.
While this was almost twenty years ago, today, five years after his death, Alexander McQueen still has an enduring influence over the fashion industry, comparing to other stylists.
During the Fashion week, editors, artists, actors, designers were all impatient to attend his shows: « McQueen’s work and shows in particular were always a highlight of a season because you never knew what he would do next, » said Laura Cochrane. She adds: « His shows were nothing alike the other ones.» Each season, McQueen was presenting a theatrical event, giving goosebumps to the front row. The themes of the shows were often inspired of literature or cinema. Each cloth was a piece of art, contemplated and soon after, idolised by the audience.
McQueen was not looking forward to create a cloth that would universally be approved by the fashion industry. Lucile Guilmard, a first year student fashion student at Central Saint Martins, said: « He did not care about selling his cloth, he wants his creations to represent who he was and that was it. No other point of view was bothering him!»
He was always digging deeper into the truth of humanity such as with his Autumn/ Winter 2009-2010 collection ‘The Horn of Plenty ‘, which was dedicated to his mother Joyce McQueen and invoked exoticism, or ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, his final collection, exploring through fashion the future of humanity and inspired by Charles Darwin On the Origins of the Species.
While McQueen’s first shows were mostly criticised, especially because they mixed provocative subjects such as pornography or horror, his creations succeeded in loosing up an environment who used to be posh and conservative.
However, while the originality of his work was world-wide applauded because the designer triumphed in plunging the audience into his art, he was also trying through fashion to heal his childhood scars.
Lee McQueen, grew up in East End London, in a working class neighbourhood. Neither his sisters or his father, who used to be an homophobic taxi driver, comprehended his passion for fashion. The only family support came from his mother, Joyce Barbara McQueen, who shortly died before the stylist committed suicide, and could be one of the explanation why he killed himself.
But one of the most important thing that traumatised him during his youth was when he was abused by his sister’s husband. The provocation done on the catwalk was a way to cop with this traumatising experience. However, his outstanding creations did not help McQueen to recover from this childhood trauma. Unfortunately, by entering the glamorous world of fashion, McQueen consequently followed the jet-sets luxurious habits and became a drug addict, by regularly taking cocaine.
The fashion industry was aware of his addiction, but could not care less about his personal issues as long his designs were impressive. In a recent biography Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath The Skin (2015), written by Andrew Wilson, one the designers’ colleague, Sebastian Pons, revealed the stylist was planning to kill himself on the catwalk.
“He told me he’d have a Perspex or glass box, and in the middle of that another glass box, » said Sebastian Pons in the book, and at the end of the show, « he’d come out from under the ground and shoot himself, so all his brains would drip down the glass.» This revelation and the fact McQueen also told his friend he was designing his last collection, alerted Pons.
While Sebastian Pons tried to alarm the designer’s press office, no signs of concerns were raised. Naomi Campbell, Anna Wintour or Kate Moss all claimed to be fan of the designer and friends with him, however, it was all about the image. McQueen plunged himself into a narcissistic world, focusing only on the mass market and the image its rejecting. Lucile adds: « His death impacted the fashion world because, the fact he killed himself was a symbolic way representing the pressure your are going through in this world, even though you are massively famous.»
However, today Alexander McQueen himself is more than ever celebrated. Looking back at his work, McQueen did not romanticised the woman like the French brands Dior or Chanel. According to Josephine Collin, a French student passionate about fashion, McQueen proved there were « no limits » and « no rules » to follow in the fashion industry, and explains as a French girl: « In my opinion the French fashion industry needed that disruption as it has always been really classical and conditioned, although it is obviously overall remarkable.»
He was the first one to hire lesbian models, the first ‘Haute Couture’ creator who refused to give each season an entire feminist twist to his creations. Alexander McQueen’s designs were considered as suits of armour. Overall, he wanted to give power to women.
The fact the stylist was only interested in the strength and vulnerability of the lady was because of the unconditional love and the admiration he had towards his mother. Joyce McQueen was the only lady who was entirely in the possession of the designer’s heart. His mother’s death, but also Isabella Blow’s suicide (who was McQueen’s closest friend), was for many journalists the causes of Lee’s fall.
McQueen was not just a designer with a troubled past but an icon with a pure soul that did not survive the fashion industry vulgarity. Today, through exhibitions and biographies, this industry understands and regrets Lee McQueen’s honest and hard working creations, where money was in no way in the centre of his interest.
His beautiful twisted soul inspires now future designers, hoping to be as challenging and brilliant as he was. Lucile is considered as one of them: « Nowadays I am massively inspired by him, he is a genius, everything he has accomplished while he was on stage is a masterpiece. I feel that I haven’t seen enough of his work, I want more, but that’s impossible. »