Alexander The Great: a maverick designer and his muse
Alexander McQueen dressed pop stars and screen gods but his final job was dressing his dead mother. With the designer's anniversary falling last week Donal Lynch looks back at the man fashion cannot forget.
On a cold February morning, five years ago this week, St Paul's Cathedral in London became the venue for what the following morning's papers would call "the saddest fashion show in town."
The dress code was unofficial but simple to surmise: black and Alexander McQueen. Kate Moss, clutching a photo of the designer, donned a form-fitting dress and fur stole, which he had given her. Daphne Guinness, her face entirely shrouded in lace, wore a dramatic black cape from the designer's 2002 winter collection. Naomi Campbell, her face ashen with grief, sported a sweeping black brocade and feathered decorative hat; suitably high couture to mourn a fashion god. The only glimpses of sartorial colour came from the people who looked, and felt, like they did not belong: McQueen's family, in his trademark tartan, sat uncomfortably in the front row. They did not know most of the celebrity mourners. At the time, there was uncertainty about what would become of McQueen's £16m fortune (eventually family members would each receive comparatively small bequests). And the funeral, McQueen's sister Janet would later say, "had basically been taken out of our hands."
She had dealt with a double blow of losing not only her brother but also their mother, who had been seriously ill with cancer for a number of years and passed away on February 2, 2010. McQueen had to be persuaded to visit his mother in hospital, seemingly unable to bear the pain of watching her waste away. After she died he phoned Janet to tell her he loved her and added that he was going to make their mother "an old-fashioned winceyette nightgown" and have it biked to the funeral parlour. She thought it was a sign that he was coming to terms with their mother's death. A week later he was found hanged in the wardrobe of his Mayfair flat. The designer would never have gone through with his suicide while his mother was alive, says the author Dana Thomas, who has written a soon-to-be-published book on McQueen's life and death. "But once she was gone, it was like he had been finally given permission. And he took it."
Ironically, the year before the designer's death had also seemed to mark one of the high points of his illustrious career. The previous spring his autumn-winter ready-to-wear show in Paris, entitled 'The Horn Of Plenty: Everything But The Kitchen Sink', had occasioned sensational reviews. The landmark spectacle, featuring outrageously over-the-top outfits on a set that looked like a landfill, was a daring parody of what he called the "rampant, indiscriminate consumption" of the industry. It was hailed by Miranda Almond, Vogue's fashion editor, as "the kind of show that puts your faith back in fashion." Five years later images from a book which documented the show, Working Process, will be displayed at the Tate Gallery in London. The exhibition also coincides with the Victoria and Albert Museum's show entitled 'Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty' which contains extra pieces from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art's exhibition from 2011, which to date is the most popular fashion-themed exhibition in history. New Yorkers queued around the block for the man who called himself "an East End yob."
It made sense in a way that McQueen's creative zenith would coincide with a period of intense pain in his life. Beside casting a sardonic eye over the excesses of consumerism, and 'trafficking in filth, raunch and perversion so heightened it was almost funny" (as writer Maureen Callaghan put it) his other great skill was in transmuting personal anguish into high art. He was a fashion superstar but also HIV-positive and suffering from acute paranoia due to a £600-a-day cocaine habit. He had told his former assistant and good friend Sebastian Pons that he planned to shoot himself in the head, and in the last year of his life McQueen twice overdosed on pills, in what his therapist later described as "cries for help." He had also cut open his wrists before eventually hanging himself in his wardrobe. In the immediate aftermath of his death the press said his suicide was a direct reaction to the death of his mother, but in truth McQueen had long struggled with the long shadows cast by childhood trauma. Growing up he had seen his sister, Janet, beaten by her husband, now deceased, and had been sexually abused by the same man. The women the designer sent down the catwalk, his biographer Andrew Wilson would later write, wore clothes that were also psychological armour. "I want people to be afraid of the women I dress", McQueen said. "I gave adults a lot of time in my life when I was young and some of them hurt me". This, he said, would be the emotional impetus for his designs: "Let's say I turned the negative into a positive … Anger in my work reflected angst in my personal life."
McQueen was always oblique about his upbringing in interviews. He wanted to write an autobiography but felt that could only happen after his parents were both dead. He was ultra conscious of the disjunct between his modest East End upbringing and the wildly excessive fashion world where most of his adult life played out. The designer, naturally shy, naturally chubby but gifted with a phantasmagorical imagination, was the link between these two worlds. His father was a lorry driver who had a breakdown shortly after McQueen was born in 1969. The elder McQueen was institutionalised for two years and when he returned reigned over a household of six kids in the East End of London. Even at an early age McQueen knew he was gay, telling later interviewers that he never felt any shame about his sexuality, and began designing dresses for his sisters as a small boy. As a child he was molested by his brother-in-law, Terence Anthony Hulyer, and saw him beat his sister Janet "near to death." He would later say that the experiences had robbed him of his innocence.
He left school at 16 with just one O level, in Art, and became an apprentice on Savile Row in London, where his clients included Gorbachev and Prince Charles, into whose suit he discreetly embroidered the sentence "I am a c**t", or so fashion legend has it. In his later teens and early twenties he left London and went to Milan where he worked for the Italian couturier Romeo Gigli, who he would later credit with helping him to "polish" his design aesthetic.
McQueen returned to London in 1994 and enrolled at Saint Martin's College Of Art And Design, where he used Jack The Ripper as the inspiration for his master's portfolio. It was during that year that he met a woman described as a "blue-blooded star-maker" - Isabella Blow. She pursued him from afar. His mother would tell him, "there is this crazy woman who keeps ringing up about your clothes." Finally, Blow and McQueen met and she asked him how much he wanted for a particular jacket in the Jack The Ripper collection. He said £300 to which she responded that was "rather a lot" for a student piece, but she paid anyway and in the end bought the entire collection.
McQueen brought her the clothes stuffed into bin liners and then walked with her to the ATM while she took out the money in cash to give to him. It was a turning point for both of them. They would become muse and mastermind and it was she who suggested that he ditch his given name - Lee - in favour of the much grander sounding Alexander. He had the creative vision, but Blow, the child of an aristocratic family and an early champion of Philip Treacy, could articulate this vision better than McQueen ever could. "What attracted me to Alexander," she once told Harper's Bazaar, "was the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cut to make them thoroughly new. . . . He is like a Peeping Tom in the way he slits and stabs at fabric to explore all the erogenous zones of the body." McQueen would characterise himself and Issie, as he called Blow, as "lovers without sex." They also shared a dark insight into human nature and both had unresolved issues from their childhoods.
In 1995 McQueen moved to Hoxton Square and set up his workshop, and by now, especially with Blow's benediction, was becoming known as the coming man of fashion. Still, it was a surprise in 1996 when he was appointed creative head at Givenchy. McQueen had wanted the job, even if label founder Hubert de Givenchy called it "a total disaster" - there were doubts as to whether a fashion wild child could be the figurehead for such a thoroughly commercial brand - but Blow always believed in him and it was assumed that where he went Issie would follow. When he returned to London from Paris, however, contracts signed, Blow got short shrift. "She gave Lee everything," Julien Macdonald told Vanity Fair. "All her money, all her time, all her energy. She introduced him to everybody. And then, when he went to Givenchy and he had money, he just told her to piss off. He had millions, she was penniless, and he gave her nothing. He just shut the door." McQueen's new muse, or "second opinion" as he called her, was Katy England, whom he had met trying to blag her way into London fashion week.
Blow wanted to cut him off, but she was, by her own admission "addicted" to the clothes, which he still gave her. Like a spurned lover she tried to taunt him by ostentatiously moving on. Her new protege was the American designer Jeremy Scott, and when the following year The Independent ran a feature on Scott entitled Move Over McQueen, Here Comes The Kansas Ranger, she was quietly thrilled. No longer a part of each other's daily lives however, both muse and mastermind teetered out of control. Increasingly depressed about her looks, she hid her face behind ever wilder Philip Treacy creations and McQueen buckled under the enormous pressure of producing several collections a year as well as designing for the tours of stars like David Bowie and Bjork. His use of drugs, marijuana and cocaine, intensified, and he struggled to establish any lasting relationships. McQueen "wanted partners he could control," Richard Brett, a former boyfriend would observe, but he was attracted to people who were resistant to that."
Fearful that men he met out in clubs would want him for his celebrity, he began using rent boys. He also began experimenting with crystal meth. Like Blow, he was also deeply unhappy with his appearance, and in 1999 spent £3,000 having a gastric band fitted so that he would lose weight. Over the following years McQueen became almost gaunt looking, but the dramatic weight loss was not just down to the surgery. He had contracted HIV - "the bug", as he called it. It would be several years after the diagnosis before he would tell his family, who were devastated, and his biographer, Andrew Wilson, writes that, "there is little doubt that (the diagnosis) contributed to McQueen's mental health problems."
Professionally too, things were going less than swimmingly. McQueen left Givenchy in 2001, shortly after his landmark VOSS show (in which he forced the audience to look at a reflection of themselves), saying "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 … They never wanted me to do that." He established established his own label - Alexander McQueen - and collaborated with make-up and sporting-goods brands.
Meanwhile, Blow, his one true love, sank further and further into despair. She was taking antidepressants, and drew up a will, which, according to a profile in the New Yorker, included provisions for her head to be severed and sent to her father's estate, and her heart to be mailed to her husband. McQueen paid thousands for her cycles of lithium and electroshock treatment as well as a stint at London's exclusive Priory, the fashion world's mental health facility of choice (she was reportedly frustrated when nurses didn't recognise her: "Google me!"). It was all to no avail. Her suicide in 2007 - she drank weed killer - was a further nail in McQueen's coffin. His sister said "he had lost Issie and nothing would be the same." At her funeral, McQueen sat behind her husband and watched as she was buried in one of his own designs (he dedicated his collection the following year to her). "It was the most valuable thing I learned in fashion, her death," McQueen would tell the New York Times. "Isabella was so strong in her public image but couldn't stand her ground in her personal life. I know the other side. She would say that fashion killed her, but she also allowed that to happen in a lot of ways."
They were words that seemed to presage McQueen's own doom. Over the next two years he would try to kill himself twice. He felt isolated by his fame, depressed by his success - he felt he had artistically sold out - and his psychiatrist would later testify that he had said he had "very little left to live for." In the days before he died he had conducted internet searches about different methods of suicide, and in the end he tried several methods at once. When his slashed, drug-addled, asphyxiated corpse was finally discovered, there was a note alongside it which simply read, 'Please look after my dogs. Sorry, I love you, Lee.'
Whether whimsically or seriously - nobody at the time could quite be sure - McQueen had once discussed plans to die onstage during a show. It demonstrated, perhaps, that even through his pain he understood that there could be collateral artistic benefits to an early death. He's since been described as "fashion's Kurt Cobain" and, like the Nirvana frontman, the manner of McQueen's demise has only increased his lore: since his death, Kate Middleton and Amal Alamuddin have worn wedding dresses from his label.
Along with Isabella Blow, the wider fashion industry had (his final collection aside) ceased to regard him as the ultimate in cutting-edge innovation and McQueen himself had lost faith in the direction he had taken. His friend, the photographer Nick Walpington, who had documented the creative process behind The Horn Of Plenty, said that McQueen was "looking for a way out of fashion."
He died the creative head of a luxury goods brand, and was reincarnated as one of the great artists of our time. But if the Horn Of Plenty, with its ironic excess, and VOSS with its high theatre, were the collections that historians focussed on, it was perhaps a little-known sketch from McQueen's 2008 collection which showed the true love of his life: it depicted Isabella Blow wearing one of his own flamboyant creations, in a horse-drawn carriage being pulled heaven-ward. McQueen might have known he would not be far behind her.