At age 16, McQueen dropped out of school. He found work on Savile Row, a street in London’s Mayfair district famous for offering made-to-order men’s suits. He worked first with the tailor shop Anderson and Shephard, and then moved to nearby Gieves and Hawkes.
McQueen decided to further his clothes-making career, and moved on from Savile Row. McQueen began working with theatrical costume designers Angels and Bermans. The dramatic style of the clothing he made there would become a signature of his later independent design work. McQueen then left London for a short stint in Milan, where he worked as a design assistant to Italian fashion designer Romeo Gigli. Upon his return to London, he enrolled at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, and received his M.A. in fashion design in 1992. The collection he produced as the culminating project of his degree was inspired by Jack the Ripper, and was famously bought in its entirety by the well-known London stylist and eccentric Isabella Blow. She became a long-time friend of McQueen, as well as an advocate for his work.
Soon after obtaining his degree, Alexander McQueen started his own business designing clothes for women. He met enormous success with the introduction of his “bumster” pants, so named because of their extremely low-cut waistline. Only four years out of design school, McQueen was named Chief Designer of Louis Vuitton-owned Givenchy, a French haute couture fashion house. Although it was a prestigious job, McQueen took it reluctantly, and his tenure there (from 1996 to 2001) was a tumultuous time in the designer’s life. Even as he was pushing the limits of what people expected from fashion (one of his shows featured a model who was an amputee walking the runway on carved wooden legs), McQueen felt he was being held back. He would later say that the job “constrain[ed] his creativity.” However, he also made the following admission: “I treated Givenchy badly. It was just money to me. But there was nothing I could do: the only way it would have worked would have been if they had allowed me to change the whole concept of the house, to give it a new identity, and they never wanted me to do that.” Even with his reservations about his work, McQueen won British Designer of the year in 1996, 1997, and 2001, all during his time at Givenchy.
In 2000, Gucci bought a 51 percent stake in Alexander McQueen’s private company, and provided the capital for McQueen to expand his business. McQueen left Givenchy shortly thereafter. In 2003, McQueen was declared International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and A Most Excellent Commander of the British Empire by the Queen of England, and won yet another British Designer of the Year honor. Meanwhile, McQueen opened stores in New York, Milan, London, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. With the help of Gucci’s investment, McQueen had become even more successful than he was before. Already known for the flare and passion of his shows, McQueen produced even more interesting spectacles after leaving Givenchy. For example, a hologram of model Kate Moss floated ethereally at the showing of his 2006 Fall/Winter line.
Alexander McQueen was also known for not being shy about his lack of traditional good looks or his lower class background. One acquaintance described that during a first encounter, McQueen was “wearing a lumberjack shirt with the most low-class kind of schlubby-looking jeans falling down with a long key chain…[and was] quite podgy.” Another friend said that his teeth “looked like Stonehenge.” According to those who knew him closely, McQueen was proud of breaking the traditional mold of a successful designer.
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.
McQueen returned to London in 1994 and 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. He received his masters degree in fashion design and 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.
It was during this period that McQueen relocated to Hoxton, which housed other new designers, including Hussein Chalayan and Pauric Sweeney. It was shortly after creating his second collection,“McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty”, that McQueen met Katy England, his soon to be “right hand woman”, when 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 “creative director”. Katy England continued to work with McQueen thereafter, greatly influencing his work – his “second opinion”.
McQueen designed 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 Björksought McQueen’s work for the cover of her album Homogenic in 1997. McQueen also directed the music video for her song “Alarm Call” from the same album and later contributed the iconic topless dress to her video for “Pagan Poetry”.
Camilla Belle in a 2009 dress by Alexander McQueen, listed among “100 Best Dresses of the Decade” by InStylemagazine
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. McQueen 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.
McQueen’s “bumsters” spawned a trend in low rise jeans; on their debut they 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.” McQueen 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.
McQueen 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. 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”. McQueen 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 most celebrated and dramatic catwalk show was his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, named VOSS. The centre piece tableau that dominated the room was an enormous glass box. But because the room outside the box was lit and the inside of the box was unlit, the glass walls appeared as large mirrors, so that the seated audience saw only their own reflection. Finally, after an hour, and when the show began, lights came on in inside the enormous glass case and revealed the interior to be filled with moths and, at the centre, a naked model on a chaise longue with her face obscured by a gas mask. The glass walls then fell away and smashed on the ground.
The model chosen by McQueen to be the centre of the show was the British writer Michelle Olley. (The show also featured Kate Moss and Erin O’Connor). McQueen said that the tableau was based on the Joel Peter Witkin image Sanitorium. The British fashion photographer Nick Knight later said of the VOSS show on his SHOWstudio.com blog:
“The girl in the box was Michelle Olley. She modelled for me in a story I did called Sister Honey… She was a writer and I remember she wrote a great piece on being the Butterfly Girl in the middle of that (McQueen) Glass Box show. I was sat on the front row, inbetween Alexandra Schulman and Gwyneth Paltrow. It was is probably one of the best pieces of Fashion Theatre I have ever witnessed.”
Alexander McQueen later described his thoughts on the idea used during VOSS of forcing his audience to stare at their own reflection in the mirrored walls for over an hour:
“Ha! I was really pleased about that. I was looking at it on the monitor, watching everyone trying not to look at themselves. It was a great thing to do in the fashion industry—turn it back on them! God, I’ve had some freaky shows.”
In Spring 2011, Michelle Olley was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to contribute to their Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty She was interviewed by The Met about VOSS for the audio guide to the show. Olley’s detailed diary/journal of modelling for McQueen – written between 18–27 September as the show was being planned and staged – was included in the Met Museum website coverage of the Savage Beauty exhibition. The VOSS diary relates details of the show and encounters with McQueen, ending with how Olley returned home after the show to find:
“…a MASSIVE bouquet of flowers has arrived, with a note [from McQueen] saying, “Thank you for everything – you were beautiful! – Lee xxx” “
Some of McQueen’s accomplishments included being one of the youngest designers to achieve the title “British Designer of the Year”, which he won four times between 1996 and 2003; he was also awarded the CBE and named International Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers in 2003.
December 2000 saw a new partnership for McQueen, with the Gucci Group’s acquiring 51% of his company and McQueen’s serving as Creative Director. Plans for expansion included the opening of stores in London, Milan, and New York, and the launch of his perfumes Kingdom and, most recently, My Queen. In 2005, McQueen collaborated with Pumato create a special line of trainers for the shoe brand. In 2006, he launched McQ, a younger, more renegade lower-priced line for men and women.
McQueen became the first designer to participate in MAC’s promotion of cosmetic releases created by fashion designers. The collection, McQueen, was released on 11 October 2007 and reflected the looks used on the Autumn/Winter McQueen catwalk. The inspiration for the collection was the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra, and thus the models sported intense blue, green, and teal eyes with strong black liner extended Egyptian-style. McQueen handpicked the makeup.
McQueen boutique in London (2013)
By the end of 2007, Alexander McQueen had boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan, and Las Vegas. Celebrity patrons, including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Rihanna, and J-pop queens, such as Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie Amuro, and Koda Kumi, have frequently been spotted wearing Alexander McQueen clothing to events. Björk, Ayumi Hamasaki and Lady Gagahave often incorporated Alexander McQueen pieces in their music videos.
McQueen was openly gay and said he realized his sexual orientation when he was six years old. He told his family when he was 18 and, after a rocky period, they accepted his sexuality. 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”
In the summer of 2000, McQueen had a marriage ceremony with his partner George Forsyth, a documentary filmmaker, on a yacht in Ibiza.
The marriage was not official, as same-sex marriage in Spain was not legal then. The relationship ended a year later and McQueen and Forsyth maintained a close friendship.
McQueen received press attention after the May 2007 suicide of international style icon Isabella Blow. Rumours were published that there was a rift between McQueen and Blow at the time of her death, focusing on McQueen’s under-appreciation of Blow. In response to these rumours, McQueen told an interviewer:
It’s so much bollocks. These people just don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know me. They don’t know my relationship with Isabella. It’s complete bullshit. People can talk; you can ask her sisters … That part of the industry, they should stay away from my life, or mine and Isabella’s life. What I had with Isabella was completely dissociated from fashion, beyond fashion.
McQueen was an avid scuba diver and used his passion as a source of inspiration in his designs, including spring 2010’s “Plato’s Atlantis”. Much of his diving was done around the Maldives.
Death and memorial
McQueen’s death was announced on the afternoon of 11 February 2010. In the morning, his housekeeper found him hanging at his home on Green Street, London W. Paramedics were called and they pronounced him dead at the scene.
McQueen died days before London Fashion Week, though he was not scheduled to appear there, and nine days after the death of his mother, Joyce, 75, from cancer. ]David LaChapelle, a friend of the designer, said that McQueen “was doing a lot of drugs and was very unhappy” at the time of his death.
McQueen left a note saying, “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.” The Metropolitan Police stated that the death was not suspicious, but did not confirm that the death was a suicide. On 17 February 2010, Westminster Coroner’s Court was told that a post-mortem examination found that McQueen’s death was due to asphyxiation and hanging. The inquest was adjourned until 28 April 2010, where McQueen’s death was officially recorded as suicide. McQueen, who had been diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, took an overdose prior to hanging himself. He had taken drug overdoses in May and July 2009.
Prior to hanging himself with his “favourite brown belt”, the inquest recorded that he had slashed his wrists with a ceremonial dagger and a meat cleaver. Coroner Dr Paul Knapman reported finding “a significant level of cocaine, sleeping pills, and tranquilisers in the blood samples taken after the designer’s death.”
Right before Alexander McQueen’s death, he had an eighty percent unfinished Autumn/Winter collection, 16 pieces, presented during Paris Fashion Week on 8 March 2010, to a select handful of fashion editors in a mirrored, gilded salon at the 18th-century Hôtel de Clermont-Tonnerre.
On behalf of Lee McQueen’s family, Alexander McQueen [the company] today announces the tragic news that Lee McQueen, the founder and designer of the Alexander McQueen brand, has been found dead at his home. At this stage it is inappropriate to comment on this tragic news beyond saying that we are devastated and are sharing a sense of shock and grief with Lee’s family.
Lee’s family has asked for privacy in order to come to terms with this terrible news and we hope the media will respect this.
On 3 February 2010, McQueen wrote on his Twitter page that his mother had died the day before, adding: “RIP mumxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.” Four days later, he wrote that he had had an “awful week” but said “friends have been great”, adding: “now i have to some how pull myself together”.
His mother’s funeral took place on 12 February 2010. McQueen is survived by his father, three sisters, and two brothers.
McQueen’s funeral took place on 25 February 2010 at St. Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, West London. His ashes were later scattered on the Isle of Skye.
A memorial was held for McQueen at St. Paul’s Cathedral on 20 September 2010. It was attended by Björk, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, Stella McCartneyand Anna Wintour amongst 2,500 other invited guests. On 18 February 2010, Robert Polet, the president and chief executive of the Gucci Group, announced that the Alexander McQueen business would carry on without its founder and creative director.
The BBC reported that McQueen had reserved £50,000 ($82,000) of his wealth for his pet dogs so they could live in the lap of luxury for the rest of their lives. He also bequeathed £100,000 ($164,315) each to four charities; these include the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in south London, and the Blue Cross animal welfare charity in Burford, Oxfordshire.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted a posthumous exhibition of McQueen’s work in 2011 titled Savage Beauty. The exhibition’s elaborate staging includes unique architectural finishes and soundtracks for each room.
Despite being open for only three months, it was one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history. The exhibition was so successful that Alexander McQueen fans and industry professionals worldwide began rallying at Change.org to “Please Make Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty a Traveling Exhibition” to bring honour to McQueen and see his vision become a reality: to share his work with the entire world. The exhibition is set to appear in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum between 14 March and 19 July 2015.
McQueen is also given homage in the popular MMO World of Warcraft. There is an NPC dedicated to Alexander McQueen that is a Tailoring Trainer. This trainer is also the only one on the horde side that gives a special quest Cloth Scavenging.
Fashion editors picked his final designs. Editors said the show was hard to watch because it showed how McQueen was obsessed with the afterlife. The clothes had a medieval and religious look. Basic colours that were repetitively used were red, gold and silver with detailed embroidery. His models were accessorised to show his love for theatrical imagery. “Each piece is unique, as was he”, McQueen’s fashion house said in a statement that was released with the collection.
After company owner Gucci confirmed that the brand would continue, McQueen’s long-term assistant Sarah Burton was named as the new creative director of Alexander McQueen in May 2010.
In September 2010, Burton presented her first womenswear collection in Paris.