This month, Cicilia illustrates the history of one of the most famous British fashion houses, Alexander McQueen. Many of you probably know this name very well. For those who have recently landed on the fashion planet, this brand’s fame spiked as their oversized trainers were the most popular womenswear item in 2019.
Lee Alexander McQueen, founder of the eponymous company, was born in 1969 in Lewisham. His father was a Scottish taxi driver who instilled in him a deep love for his homeland, and his mother was a social science teacher. In addition to Scotland, one of his passions and artistic inspirations was birds. In fact, as a young man, he was a member of the Young Ornithologists’ Club.
McQueen was not very keen on school, and at the age of sixteen, he dropped out to devote himself to tailoring. He immediately landed in the famous Saville Row by chance or talent, where he did an apprenticeship. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he had many work experiences. For example, he worked as a theatrical costumier for Angels and Bermans, where he created the costumes for the Les Misérables show. After that, he moved to Milan working for Romeo Gigli and later returned to attend Central Saint Martins.
In fact, given his innate talent, he coveted the position of pattern cutter tutor; however, he was too young to teach. In 1992 he enrolled in an MA. His graduation collection, called Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims, was a reckless success. In fact, the stylist Isabella Blow bought all the outfits. She had a massive influence on the future success of the British designer; she persuaded him to use his middle name, Alexander. This was a marketing strategy and, at the same time, a trick to prevent the job centre he was affiliated with from finding out he was working. Blow was a mentor for Alexander McQueen, and she offered him her home basement. According to her, this would have given Alexander a safe working and living space without struggling financially and losing his focus on fashion.
McQueen initially took inspiration for all of his collections from famous films. Taxi Driver, his first post-graduation collection, was based on Martin Scorsese’s film. This was a real success, as it introduced the ‘bumsters’, also known as low-rise jeans.
McQueen’s runways have always been bold and provocative. So, it’s not a coincidence that he was called ‘the hooligan of English fashion’. The designer, creative but with a complex personality, presented the fashion show Nihilism featuring models covered with fake blood and bruises. In 1994, McQueen met Katy England and decided to make her his right-hand man, or rather his adviser. The first collection they worked on together was The Birds, a roadkill themed catwalk featuring tire marks, paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s film. McQueen’s fame, a misunderstood genius, collected many negative reviews over the first years. However, his fame spiked when Madonna wore her ‘bumsters’ jeans in an MTV advert in 1994.
Fake blood appeared very often on McQueen’s catwalks. In fact, Highland Rape, a collection aimed at exposing Scotland’s ‘rape’ at the hands of England, was a mix of fake blood and torn apart clothes. Unfortunately, not everyone understood the show’s true meaning, and McQueen was accused of misogyny as many thought it referred to the rape of women.
Creating a stir seemed like a hobby for McQueen, who was later accused of exalting slavery, sexualising women, and being a lover of horror.
After the first few years of controversy, McQueen landed in the graces of musical celebrities. He designed the wardrobe for David Bowie’s 1997 tour, which includes the Union Jack coat. He also worked with Björk, directing her music video ‘Alarm Call’ and designing a topless dress.
At the age of thirty, McQueen was named Head of Design for Givenchy, following the departure of John Galliano. The Count Hubert de Givenchy was by no means happy with this, considering McQueen utterly inappropriate for his fashion house. McQueen’s debut for Givenchy was with the Spring / Summer 1997 collection, a homage to ancient Greece. As refined as it was, teeming with white and gold, it differed from Galliano’s lavish collections.
Back in London, he designed the It’s a Jungle out There collection, inspired by gazelles daily hunted by lions. He empathised a lot with these savannah victims. Although he felt oppressed by the fashion industry with its negative reviews on his past collections, the new one was a success. He rode the wave of positive reviews and started to play a lot also with set design. Indeed, his Spring/Summer 1998 collection, Untitled, was presented on a catwalk made of water and yellow lights, while the next one had a masked model standing in a circle of fire.
McQueen didn’t actually leave Givenchy peacefully; in fact, he was fired. In 2000, he signed an agreement with Gucci selling 51% of his own company. The Italian and French brands were rivals, and for this reason, Givenchy dismissed him.
This was the only strategy to revive Alexander McQueen’s brand, which soon opened boutiques worldwide, expanding to perfume, eyewear accessories, and menswear. With considerable financial backing from Gucci, McQueen continued with his bold and provocative runways.
His last public appearance was during the Paris Fashion Week in February 2009, when he presented Plato’s Atlantis collection. The show was supposed to be broadcast live on the internet, but the site crashed when Lady Gaga tweeted about the upcoming show.
McQueen had a twisted personality, often felt misunderstood by others, and was almost pathologically introverted. He committed suicide, as did his mentor Isabella Blow who died in 2007, at his home in Mayfair in 2010.
At the time, he only had very few uncompleted pieces for his Autumn/Winter 2010 collection, which were finished by his team.
A handful of fashion editors attended that show and then reported how creepy it was to perceive McQueen’s obsession with the afterlife just by observing those sixteen outfits. Gucci’s financial support ensured the continuation of the brand and by Sarah Burton, McQueen’s assistant, who was appointed Creative Director. Burton designed Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress and won the prize Designer of the Year during the 2011 British Fashion Awards.
Although McQueen’s ready-to-wear is now much more famous than his first runways, I recommend you to check out the incredible shows created by McQueen himself. His shows’ setting was not just a contour to his clothes but an externalisation of the designer’s disturbances and obsessions that could not be recreated in fabric and haberdashery.
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Images by Cicilia Brognoli from the Roses exhibition held in the Alexander McQueen flagship store in Bond Street from November 2019 to May 2020.