Lee Alexander McQueen, CBE (17 March 1969 – 11 February 2010) was a British fashion designer and couturier. He worked as chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001, and founded his own Alexander McQueen label in 1992. His achievements in fashion earned him four British Designer of the Year awards (1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003), as well as the CFDA’s International Designer of the Year award in 2003. McQueen died by suicide in 2010, at the age of 40, at his home in Mayfair, London.
Born on 17 March 1969 in Lewisham, London, to Scottish taxi driver Ronald and social science teacher Joyce, McQueen was the youngest of six children. It was reported that he grew up in a council flat, but, in fact, the McQueens moved to a terraced house in Stratford in his first year.
McQueen then attended Rokeby School and left aged 16 in 1985 with one O-level in art, going on to complete a course in tailoring at Newham College and serve an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard, before joining Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans. The skills he learned as an apprentice on Savile Row helped earn him a reputation in the fashion world as an expert in creating an impeccably tailored look. While serving his apprenticeship, McQueen attended the Rosetta Art Centre led by Yvonne Humble, who also wrote his reference that saw him go straight on to the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.
Because of the strength of his portfolio, Bobby Hillson, the Head of the Masters course at St Martins, encouraged McQueen to enroll as a student. He received his master’s degree in fashion design and his 1992 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. Isabella Blow paved the way for Alexander McQueen using her unique style and contacts to help him. She was in many ways his mentor. 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 the 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 Björk sought 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”. McQueen also collaborated with dancer Sylvie Guillem, director Robert Lepage and choreographer Russell Maliphant, designing wardrobe for theater show “Eonnagata”, directed by Robert Lepage. The film Sylvie Guillem, on the edge produced by French production company A DROITE DE LA LUNE, traces whole history of the creation of the show, from first rehearsals which took place in Quebec until world premiere which was held in 2008 at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London.
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 autumn 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.
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 2000, McQueen had a marriage ceremony with his partner George Forsyth, a documentary filmmaker, on a yacht in Ibiza. Kate Moss and Annabelle Neilson were bridesmaids. The marriage was not official, as same-sex marriage in Spain was not legal at that time. The relationship ended a year later, with McQueen and Forsyth maintaining a close friendship.
McQueen was HIV positive.
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.