Alexander McQueen: A short history of the fashion genius who rewrote the rules

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Lee Alexander McQueen is best known for his work as chief designer for Givenchy from 1996 to 2001 and for founding his own Alexander McQueen label.

Born on 17 March 1969 in Lewisham, London, to Scottish taxi driver Ronald and social science teacher Joyce, McQueen was the youngest of six children and started making dresses for his three sisters at a young age – announcing his intention to become a fashion designer one day.

McQueen later left school in 1985, aged 16, with one O-level in art and went on to serve an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, before joining Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans. The skills he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert in creating an impeccably tailored look.

While on Savile Row, McQueen’s clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles.

While on Savile Row, McQueen’s clients included Mikhail Gorbachev and Prince Charles. At the age of 20, he spent a period of time working for Koji Tatsuno before travelling to Milan, Italy and working for Romeo Gigli.

When he returned to London in 1994 he applied to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, to work as a pattern cutter tutor. Because of the strength of his portfolio he was persuaded by Bobby Hillson, the Head of the Masters course, to enroll in the course as a student. His graduation collection was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who was said to have persuaded McQueen to become known as Alexander (his middle name) when he subsequently launched his fashion career.

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It was during this period that McQueen relocated to Hoxton, which housed other new designers, including Hussein Chalayan and Pauric Sweeney and it was shortly after creating his second collection,“McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty”, that he met Katy England, his soon to be “right hand woman”, outside of a “high profile fashion show” trying to “blag her way in. ” He promptly asked her to join him for his third collection, “The Birds” at Kings Cross, as his creative director. England continued to work with McQueen thereafter, greatly influencing his work, becoming his “second opinion.”

McQueen designed the wardrobe for David Bowie’s tours in 1996-1997, as well as the Union Jack coat worn by Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album Earthling. Icelandic singer Björk also sought McQueen’s work for the cover of her album Homogenic in the same year.

McQueen’s early runway collections developed his reputation for controversy and shock tactics (earning the title “l’enfant terrible” and “the hooligan of English fashion”)

McQueen’s early runway collections developed his reputation for controversy and shock tactics (earning the title “l’enfant terrible” and “the hooligan of English fashion”), with trousers aptly named “bumsters” and a collection titled “Highland Rape.” In 2004, journalist Caroline Evans also wrote of McQueen’s “theatrical staging of cruelty”, in 032c magazine, referring to his dark and tortured renderings of Scottish history. The designer was known for his lavish, unconventional runway shows: a recreation of a shipwreck for his spring 2003 collection; spring 2005’s human chess game; and his fall 2006 show “Widows of Culloden,” which featured a life-sized hologram of supermodel Kate Moss dressed in yards of rippling fabric.

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McQueen’s “bumsters” spawned a trend in low rise jeans and attracted many comments and debate. Michael Oliveira-Salac, the director of Blow PR and a friend of McQueen’s said, “The bumster for me is what defined McQueen.” He also became known for using skulls in his designs. A scarf bearing the motif became a celebrity must-have and was copied around the world.

Openly gay, he realized his sexual orientation when he was six years old and only told his family when he was 18. He described coming out at a young age by saying, “I was sure of myself and my sexuality and I’ve got nothing to hide. I went straight from my mother’s womb onto the gay parade.”

The designer has been credited with bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk. He used new technology and innovation to add a different twist to his shows and often shocked and surprised audiences. The silhouettes that he created have been credited for adding a sense of fantasy and rebellion to fashion. McQueen became one of the first designers to use Indian models in London. The president of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, caused a stir when he appointed McQueen head designer at Givenchy in 1996, succeeding John Galliano.

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Upon arrival at Givenchy, McQueen insulted the founder by calling him “irrelevant.”

Upon arrival at Givenchy, McQueen insulted the founder by calling him “irrelevant.” His first couture collection with Givenchy was unsuccessful, with even McQueen telling Vogue in October 1997 that the collection was “crap.” He toned down his designs at Givenchy, but continued to indulge his rebellious streak, causing controversy in autumn 1998 with a show which included double amputee model Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on intricately carved wooden legs.

McQueen’s suicide was announced on 11 February 2010 after his housekeeper found him hanging at his home in London. It followed the death of his mother nine days earlier from cancer. He left a note saying, “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.”




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