Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London in 1969. He took a tailoring course at age 16 and went on to a two year apprenticeship with Saville Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard. He then worked as a pattern cutter for Gieves & Hawkes. The skills he perfected during these years earned him a reputation later as an expert tailor.
He worked briefly for world renowned costume house Angels & Bermans before being snapped up by experimental designer Koji Tatsuno. His next move was designing for Red or Dead under John McKitterick, who left to start his own label, bringing Lee with him.
In 1990, McQueen went to work for Romeo Gigli in Milan for a few months before returning to London to enroll in the masters fashion course at Central Saint Martins. He presented his graduate collection, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, in 1992 and it was bought in its entirety by fashion editor Isabella Blow. She grew to become his mentor and immensely helped his career. He launched his label while living in the basement of Blow’s house.
His first collection in A/W ’93 was Taxi Driver, inspired by the film of the same name. It introduced the iconic Bumster, which later started a trend for low rise trousers. As the story goes, when the show was over, he packed his clothes into bin bags and headed out clubbing, leaving the bags behind the club. When he woke up the next morning hungover and remembered, he returned to the club to find his collection was gone. It was never recovered.
His early collections developed a reputation for controversy. Nihilism featured bruised models and The Birds had a roadkill theme. One of his most famous collections was undoubtedly 1995’s Highland Rape, the name a reference to the 18th and 19th century Scottish Highland clearances. Models wore clothes that were slashed and torn and splattered with blood. In typical fashion, the media immediately took it at face value and assumed it was about the sexual rape of women rather than England’s rape of Scotland. Scandal ensued. Almost all of his early collections were criticized by the media.
He won British Designer of the Year in 1996 (and went on to win it 3 more times). With his increasing prominence, he designed for David Bowie and Bjork in 1997.
He was appointed head designer of Givenchy in 1996 to replace John Galliano. Hubert de Givenchy was less than pleased to have such a controversial designer design for his house which was so well known for its elegant couture. In retaliation McQueen called him irrelevant. His debut collection for Givenchy was inspired by Greek mythology and McQueen later admitted that he thought it was “crap”. He left the house in 2001 when his contract ended.
His nature themed collection ‘It’s a Jungle Out There” was a response to all the criticism he received, saying “Fashion is a jungle full of nasty, bitchy hyenas." Amy Spindler of New York Times who had criticised his Givenchy debut, wrote that McQueen was "fashion's closest thing to a rock star. He isn't just part of the London scene; he is the scene."
His 13th collection was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and received widespread media attention after double amputee model Aimee Mullins appeared in prosthetic legs intricately carved in ash. Shalom Harlow closed the show by having her white dress spray painted with yellow and black paint by robotic arms from a car manufacturing plant. It is one of the most dramatic and memorable finales in fashion history.
Many of his shows were lauded for their theatrics. Photographer Nick knight said that the 2001 VOSS show was one of the best pieces of fashion theatre that he had ever witnessed. The centre piece was a glass box within a larger glass box. At the end of the show, the walls of the inner box smashed to the ground revealing a naked model sitting on a chaise lounge wearing a gas mask surrounded by moths.
Gucci bought 51% of McQueen’s company in 2001 which allowed him to expand into perfume, menswear, accessories and more.
He became known for using skulls in his designs. A skull printed scarf became a celebrity must have in the mid 2000s and was copied around the world.
He was named Designer of the Year by the CFDA in 2003.
Janet Jackson was wearing an outfit designed by McQueen when she performed at the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2004 which created a controversial moment when Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of her costume, revealing her breast.
Isabella Blow died from suicide in 2007 and McQueen dedicated his bird themed La Dame Bleue collection to her. It featured works by his longtime collaborator, the Irish milliner Philip Treacy, another of Blow’s Protégé’s.
His last appearance at a fashion show was for 2009’s evolution-inspired Plato’s Atlantis which featured 46 looks with sea creature and reptile prints. It was the first fashion show ever to be streamed live over the internet although the website crashed after Lady Gaga tweeted about it just before it started. The models wore the now famous armadillo shoes. The show debuted Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance single and she wore the final look from the collection in her music video for the song.
On 3 February 2010, McQueen tweeted that his mother had died. On 11 February, his housekeeper found him dead in his home. His funeral was attended by 2,500 guests including Bjork who performed Gloomy Sunday.
His March 2010 final (36th) collection Angels and Demons was completed by his team and presented to a select group of fashion editors. Gucci announced that the company would continue under designer Sarah Burton. There are currently 100 Alexander McQueen stores worldwide with revenues estimated at 500 million euro.
The Met hosted an exhibition of his work entitled Savage Beauty in 2011. It was one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history. It travelled to the V&A in 2015 becoming the most popular show ever at that museum. A second exhibition entitled ‘Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse’ was staged at LACMA in 2022. A version of this came to Quebec City in 2023.
In 2015, a play entitled McQueen was staged in London and in 2018 a documentary with the same name was released to universal acclaim.
Truly one of the greatest designers of all time and one of our personal favourites.
What is your favourite McQueen collection?