Beauty By Unusual Means




Sometimes the stability of an individual's world is fatally rooted in the life of another. When that person dies the surviving entity is paralysed, and a state of emptiness consumes them. In the case of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen, his anchor was his mother, Joyce.

For all his bravado, swagger and attitude, and he had these aplenty to shower on the unsuspecting, her death heralded his own. Although he seemed to be coming to terms with his loss, McQueen hanged himself in his Mayfair flat on the eve of her funeral, a month shy of his forty first birthday. His suicide removes an inspirational figure, a maverick influence in the world of fashion, which supposedly thrives on individuality, but is largely conventional, with it's own rigid customs and constraints. McQueen had little truck with such niceties. Those who got in his way, or on his nerves were quickly told to "Fuck Off!" Conventions were there to be used, but only by their breaking as theatrical props. Openly gay he often described himself as "the pink sheep of the family."

Born in London on 17th March 1969, as the son of a taxi driver, he was an unlikely saviour of the rarefied world of pins and rags. Age sixteen, he became an apprentice to Gleves & Hawkes on Saville Row. From this traditional establishment, he learned his trade. The craft of cutting and stitching became his. The firm supplied Royalty, and their youthful tailor added some choice phrases beneath the linings of suits for Prince Charles. What was once hidden wouldn't remain so for long.

A more suitable home for his flair was Koji Tatsuno, a designer who reworked antique fabrics into startling contemporary creations. After a spell as a technician at St Martins, he became a student there, graduating in 1992. Present at his final show was the eccentric Vogue fashion stylist, Isabella Blow, who bought all of his creations. It was an act of foresight and faith that few young designers can afford to even dream of. Blow became part muse, part mentor, and in the November issue of Vogue was photographed resplendent in his designs. Lee McQueen had arrived, and Blow renamed him "Alexander the Great." The unlikely duo, a shocking amalgam of old world aplomb, and street-based swagger, set about frightening the clothes horses.

McQueen had the good luck to turn his iconoclastic lowering of the waistline into a High Street normality. The pre-dominance now of bum cleavage and thongs we can blame or praise him for, according to personal preference. He was named 1996 British Designer of the Year, and slagged off the opposition from Westwood to Galliano. His debut collection for Givenchy bombed, but he was shrewd enough to admit that it had been crap, and came back with a fresh set of designs that turned the tide of critical disdain.

When Isabella Blow, seated alongside Tom Ford, suggested her ascendant discovery to Tom Ford, the hallowed doors of Gucci opened to McQueen, but as he slipped through them, he closed the gilded opportunity on his rickety guardian angel. It was an act of supreme ingratitude that Blow, already in straitened mental circumstances', was ill-equipped to shoulder. As his star ascended, hers continued to wane, as her mental state deteriorated, although she continued to praise his work. He was granted a CBE in 2003. Blow committed suicide in May 2007. Although McQueen acknowledged his debt to her, dedicating his Spring 2008 collection to her memory, it was too little too late, He attended her funeral but not her Memorial Service.

Alexander McQueen was that curious mix of craft and flair, the old skills informing something startling and new. From suitcases that looked like ribs stripped of flesh, to fashion models with their mouths wired shut, he alarmed and informed in almost equal measure. His celebrity clients included Lady Gaga, Beyonce & Gwyneth Paltrow. Unashamedly and intentionally politically incorrect. he delivered beauty by unusual means. Rain on the catwalks, models on skates, a holographic image of Kate Moss floating above the heads of the assembled.

A visionary who turned his shows into events, but once they were over he simply preferred to leave the effect lingering, his absence merely adding to the sense of mystery and occasion. The film maker Sam Taylor Wood had the inspired, but now unbearably poignant idea a few years back, of having his mother interview her famous offspring. When Joyce asked him what he feared the most Lee McQueen replied "Dying before you" to which she added "Thank you, son." 

Sadly it was a fear he would only outlive for eleven days.