A Look into Alexander McQueen’s Life and Creativity
Genius award-winning designer and remarkably experienced Alexander McQueen was renowned for pushing the boundaries of fashion.
Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) was one of the most influential, imaginative, and provocative designers of his generation. His clothing and jewelry both challenged and expanded the conventional parameters of fashion to express ideas about culture, politics, and identity. Rare among designers, McQueen saw beyond clothing’s physical constraints to its ideological and conceptual possibilities, addressing questions related to race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and the environment.
For McQueen, love was the most exalted of human emotions. Once asked in an interview what makes his heart miss a beat, the designer responded without hesitation, “Falling in love.” Fashion provided McQueen with a conduit for the conceptual expression of love – both its agonies and its ecstasies. Frequently, this expression was autobiographical.
McQueen’s runway shows, which suggested avant-garde installation and performance art, provoked powerful, visceral emotions. His friend and mentor Isabella Blow, the stylist whom the designer described as “a cross between a Billingsgate fishwife and Lucrezia Borgia,” believed McQueen to be “the only designer to make his audiences react emotionally to a show, be it happy, sad, repelled, or disgusted.
Through his runway presentations, McQueen validated powerful emotions as compelling sources of aesthetic experience. In equating emotion with aesthetics, he advanced a tradition that emerged in the last decades of the eighteenth century through the Romantic movement.
As a designer, he doggedly promoted freedom of thought and expression and championed the authority of the imagination. “What I am trying to bring to fashion is a sort of originality,” he once commented. McQueen expressed this originality most fundamentally through the technical virtuosity of his fashions. This technical brilliance was apparent as early as his graduation collection from the Fashion Design MA course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. Titled Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims (1992), it introduced iconic designs such as the three-point “origami” frockcoat. In his first collection after graduating, titled Taxi Driver (autumn/winter 1993-94), McQueen launched his “bumsters,” pants that sat so low on the hips they revealed the buttocks. Indeed, McQueen was such an assured designer that his forms and silhouettes were established from his earliest collections and remained relatively consistent throughout his career. Referring to his early training on Savile Row in London, McQueen has said, “Everything I do is based on tailoring,” an approach that became more refined after his tenure as creative director of Givenchy in Paris. It is this approach, at once rigorous and impulsive, disciplined and unconstructed, that underlies McQueen’s singularity and inimitability.
As it was for artists and writers of the Romantic movement, one of the defining features of McQueen’s collections was their historicism. While McQueen’s historical references were far-reaching, he was inspired particularly by the nineteenth century, drawing especially on the Victorian Gothic which combines elements of horror and romance. His collections often reflected paradoxical relationships such as life and death, lightness and darkness. The relationship between victim and aggressor was especially apparent within McQueen’s collections, particularly in his accessories. McQueen collaborated with a number of accessory designers, including the milliners Dai Rees and Philip Treacy and the jewelers Shaun Leane, Erik Halley, and Sarah Harmarnee.
McQueen’s collections were fashioned around elaborate narratives that were profoundly autobiographical, often reflecting upon his ancestral history, specifically his Scottish heritage. When he was asked once what his Scottish roots meant to him, McQueen responded, “Everything.” The first collection to introduce McQueen’s tartan was Highland Rape (autumn/winter 1995/96).
Nature was the greatest, or at least the most enduring, influence upon McQueen. “Everything I do is connected to nature in one way or another,” he explained. And true to himself, he continued in that vein. With a comparatively solid infrastructure underpinning it, Alexander McQueen label expanded into menswear, accessories, eyewear, and fragrance, and flagship stores opened in New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles to name a few.
Whereas today very few designers are responsible for executing their own patterns, McQueen could cut a garment, single handedly, in minutes, while crouching on his studio floor. His team- led by Sarah Burton, who had been working quietly in the background since 1996, formed an intimate circle around him, passing fabric, scissors, chalk, and so forth. The process appeared not unlike an elaborately choreographed dance.
Over the years, McQueen became less open to the outside world, both professionally and personally. In many ways, this was a result of circumstance. He wanted people to respect and believe in him because of who he was, not what he had become. Although, in terms of material wealth, the designer’s life had changed immeasurably, neither status nor protocol was of interest to him. Instead, he was concerned with communicating on a more direct level.
On February 2, 2010, Joyce McQueen died. Alexander McQueen took his own life just over a week later, on February 11. He was forty years old.
The coupling of McQueen’s respect for history – and especially the history of fine art and craftsmanship – with his passionate desire to push fashion into the future may well have reached its zenith in the autumn/winter 2010-11 collection he was working on at the time of his death. Completed by Sarah Burton and the designer’s team, it was nothing if not a testament to their extraordinary devotion to their mentor.
In our dreams, flight represents release and freedom. It also evokes angels, at once mischievous, manipulative and dangerous; noble, just, and true. To all who knew him, Alexander McQueen was a more down-to-earth creature than that. But his imagination- dark and light, deeply troubled and profoundly optimistic- soared to brave and beautiful heights.