The Legacy of King McQueen
On February 11 last year, nine days after the death of his mother, Alexander McQueen was found hanged in his wardrobe, leaving only a note reading: “Look after my dogs, sorry. I Love you, Lee.”
Photographer and friend, David LaChapelle said he “was doing a lot of drugs and was very unhappy”.
Cocaine, sleeping pills and tranquilisers were found in his blood, following other overdoses in May and July of 2009.
It was no secret that McQueen was a tormented genius.
In an industry as fickle as fashion, staying at the very top of his trade for as long as he did is testament to his mental and physical fortitude.
Judith Watt, Head of Fashion History at Central Saint Martins (CSM), and close personal friend of McQueen himself, explains: “Anyone that works in the fashion industry, particularly as a designer in London, understands the pressures he was under. Trying to succeed in the fashion industry is very difficult, and very, very few people can do it.”
McQueen didn’t have a glamorous background. Growing up in a council flat in east London, this was perhaps the root of the “split personalities” he mentioned in interviews. His cockney accent became conspicuous on the fashion circuits of Paris and Milan.
Aged three, he sketched his first dress and though a far cry from his revolutionary catwalk designs, this was the seed that would grow into a remarkable creative career.
Famed for the proficiency of his tailoring, he began in a very traditional manner, serving as an apprentice on Savile Row at tailors Anderson & Sheppard. He then left them for Gieves & Hawkes, and after that, went on to work for a theatre costumier – perhaps exploring his well-known theatrical side. Eventually, he became a pattern cutter for Romeo Gigli in Milan. During his time on Savile Row he infamously sewed ‘I AM A C***’ into the interior of Prince Charles’ jacket.
McQueen was always learning. His experiences were apparent in the way he constructed his own garments, mixing feminine, close-cut shapes with a dramatic theatre that very few could execute.
“I think his influence should be on original, creative designers, being able to fulfil your potential and bringing something new to the table. McQueen wouldn’t have wanted people to just follow him,” says Watt.
At 23 he applied for a job as a pattern-cutting teacher at CSM. Bobby Hilson, MA Fashion course director in 1992, invited him to show her his sketches, and ended up giving him a place on the MA course, instead of the job.
Hilson has since said that she immediately told a fellow employee that she had offered a place to a boy who was “enormously talented”.
McQueen didn’t gel perfectly with the establishment. He was frequently entering into lengthy discourse with his tutors and ardently standing his ground.
Once he found his feet, however, he excelled. Using this period to creatively ‘do it from the heart’, his entire graduate collection was purchased in 1993 by the late, legendary stylist and editor Isabella Blow
The relationship between McQueen and Blow has been well documented. Blow took her own life, and her death caused at least a portion of McQueen’s anguish – although, if she were alive, it may not have averted the tragedy.
“Things would only have been different if she was alive and happy. Their relationship has been somewhat romanticised. He had a lot of other very good people around him, and she was so damaged (that) a lot of the time she wouldn’t have been able to help anyone. It’s awful. A very sad story,” says Watt.
Blow’s influence on his early career is undeniable. Persuading him to call himself Alexander over Lee and championing him until he was offered the job as head designer at Givenchy.
In an interesting twist, McQueen ignored Blow, working only with stylist Katy England, even though Blow had been present when he signed his contract with Givenchy.
The new job represented a new battle for McQueen. He found himself struggling between the expectations of LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and his own creative ideology.
He was insolent in describing the late Givenchy as “irrelevant” and told Vogue that one collection was “crap”. Although his Givenchy work was tamer than previous designs, he was still not afraid of controversy.
“In 2000 (Alexander McQueen the brand) was financed by the Gucci Group, which took a great deal of pressure off him, but then added an extra strain by putting him so much in debt. It’s inconceivable that such a successful man could have so many money problems,” said Watt.
The backing propelled McQueen to new personal heights (and gifted the Gucci Group 51 per cent of the company), with stores across the world and a new, multi-story building in the down-trodden - but true to his east London roots – area of Hoxton.
Superficially, his life was great. He won many fashion accolades, was made a CBE by the Queen and the brand continued to expand.
“McQueen’s death asks questions of the industry. A man who was so financially and psychologically challenged is one of the very, very few who can last more than a couple of years in the industry. They’re not taught to conduct themselves properly, nor to create a successful international brand. The business side may seem bland, but creativity can’t flourish without it. Even at UAL, we’re producing too many fashion graduates. The industry simply isn’t out there to support them,” said Watt.
Although his work struck a balance between commercial and unique, selling huge amounts of his now classic skull motif silk scarves yet still provoking with his catwalk offerings, those close to him knew he was incredibly torn.
“I think a lot of fashion students will ‘want to be like him’. But much of his life wasn’t positive and much has been concealed. It’s an indictment of the fashion industry, and Lee was a tragic victim. It’s incredible that someone could achieve so much, and yet feel that they had so little,” said Watt.
In the aftermath of his death, there was one lingering question: how will the legacy continue?
Although the brand was in its infancy, compared to Dior or Chanel when their respective founders died, there was little chance of GG closing the brands shops and absorbing huge losses after their acquisition. One day after his death, the Guardian reported a 1,400 per cent boost in sales since McQueen’s death.
With the decision to keep the brand running came the next question: who would replace the man himself? GG didn’t have to look far to find his protégé: Sarah Burton, McQueen’s long term assistant and head of womenswear at the label.
A current employee at the Alexander McQueen headquarters, who started before McQueen’s death (but doesn’t want to be named), explains: “After he died it was an environment full of love. All of that came from Sarah, she became an emotional rock and she was giving people encouragement and appreciated everyone’s hard work.”
“McQueen worked in chaos. He was an incredibly fluid man, he could scrap developed projects on a whim, even when they looked very promising. The whole house relied on this single mind, but I also think Sarah was key, their connection was incredibly strong.
“The way he worked with fabric, he created emotion and drama with a drape, the way he used cloth floored me,” says the anonymous employee.
The first collection after McQueen’s death was near completion when he was alive, in conception at least.
“To put a collection together of that standard, even if it was only 16 pieces, with the emotion going on there was incredible. Although I think it played into her (Sarah’s) hands, there was certainly some candy-coating from the press, saying ‘well done just for getting a collection out’. There were faults in the fabric, errors in the design structure and these have become more apparent over time. If you really scrutinised that first collection you wouldn’t come to the same conclusion as most of the press,” says the employee.
McQueen was not only a creative genius, but technically precocious, with a great understanding of how to flatter the body and how to draw feeling from fabric – talents that don’t necessarily rub off on others.
The employee describes Sarah as ”more of a man-manager, she communicated his requirements in the design to other people. As head designer you’re liaising with huge amounts of people, she did it very well. A huge amount of his success, and the success of the company as a whole, is due to her”.
“It’s a global brand and with that, and its foothold in the market, there is a lot of money to be made, or recouped. Whether or not the decision has come from Sarah, the collections are more commercial. The theatre of the shows has been dumbed down and, to me and a lot of people that love the essence of McQueen, that’s the wrong thing to do.”
The brand has repositioned the McQ label to be more accessible, and is profiting heavily from accessory sales, especially with scarves and rings. “They have to keep the main lines going as they are, they have to keep showing at Paris, but are they trying to safeguard his legacy, or are they trying to wind it down, without making huge losses? People still want to wear his clothes, but it’s only a year ago, and the cycle of a range is about 18 months, so we’re coming to the end of his personal input, it’s still very uncertain.”
Worthy of praise
Vogue ran a superlative profile in their last issue, finding no faults with what Burton does.
This is typical of the fashion world, the world that glossed over the problems of McQueen’s life while he was alive, and it’s not representative of a true McQueen legacy.
Although it seems like an impossible role to fill, Chanel and Dior were replaced perfectly by Lagerfeld and Galliano respectively.
Each took their own skills and applied them to a template aesthetic, or ideology. They experimented with solo lines whilst remaining true to their inherited houses. The difference is that they are also technically gifted designers, worthy of praise in their own right.
This is not to insult Sarah, but to exalt McQueen. “There isn’t much technical comparison, she’s a politician, she’s brilliant and she’s personable, and she’s the ultimate right-hand person. She’s cut-throat, hardcore, and you have to be. I think she’s holding the seat warm for someone to step in. They need to look at enriching the design team. They’ve taken on no-one new since his death, which is good and bad in equal measure,” says the employee.
McQueen has undoubtedly influenced a huge majority of fashion students, and there must be young, talented individuals with creative flair of comparative potential.
Whatever happens, no one will ever truly replicate McQueen, a unique visionary, trapped in a world that he never quite understood, and that never quite understood him. A man of immeasurable talent, rest in peace Lee McQueen.