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Friday, February 12, 2010

Lee Alexander McQueen: A Retrospective

Alexander McQueen, one of the most talented, creative and controversial designers of his generation was found dead yesterday in his London flat of an apparent suicide at the age of 40.

Awarded British Designer of the Year four times by the age of 34 as well as Council of Fashion Designer's International Designer of the Year, McQueen used his runway shows for storytelling and used his deft design ability to allow his clothes to tell stories that were typically shock-and-awe. Heavily polarized audiences were rarely, if ever, indifferent. One thing the fashion elite could always agree on was McQueen's incredible design ability and a consensus that few possessed his incredible technical skills. Because of his controversial and over-the-top shows and occasional brashness, he was labeled "l'enfant terrible".

Born in London to the son of a cabbie, Lee McQueen wanted to be a designer from a very early age. As a teenager he began his apprenticeship on Saville Row where he learned expert tailoring. Later working for Romeo Gigli in Milan, he returned to his native London in 1994 and enrolled at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design where he received his masters degree in fashion design. Friend and confidant, stylist Isabella Blow encouraged Lee to use his middle name, Alexander, upon entering the fashion world with his own designs. 

His shows in London were controversial from the beginning. One of his first shows mockingly played off the industry's latest craze of low rise trousers as he had his models wear "bumsters", cut so low that half their derriere was showing. That was only the beginning. His collections typically had historical references and later included Victorianism, falconry, "Macbeth", 60's fashion on Alfred Hitchcock's heroines, models as patients in a mental ward, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" with furs and animal horns and models positioned as a human chess match in a show titled, "It's Only a Game".

In 1996, McQueen was hired by Givenchy as head designer where he stayed until 2001. Many of the shows were a disappointment to long-time clients as he threw convention out the window and as a result were called disrespectful to the house of founder Hubert Givenchy- of whom McQueen said was "irrelevant". But then again should the House of Givenchy be surprised? It was only a year before he was hired that he staged a show titled, "Highland Rape", referencing the ravaging of Scotland. Even through all this, John Galliano, McQueen's Givenchy predecessor and current Christian Dior designer said he was "...daring, original, exciting. He was a fashion revolutionary". Indeed, McQueen's superb designs were often the choice of Hollywood starlets and celebrities; clients included Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rihanna and Lady Gaga to name a few.
Perhaps his quintessential show was for the Fall 2009 collection, unveiled in Paris. The show was somewhat a slap in the face to the industry and a statement about the absurdity of the race to build fashion empires. The runway was a garbage heap of props from his previous shows, surrounded by broken mirrors. The clothes were a parody of designs from the last century and included Dior's New Look, Givenchy's little black dress made famous by Audrey Hepburn and reinventions by new designers (including himself) in the last decade. Models wore hats made of trashcan liners and aluminum cans as well as other recycled household items. After the show, McQueen said, "The turnover in fashion is just so quick and so throwaway and I think that is a big part of the problem. There is no longevity". He went on to say that designers say that fashion is constantly being reinvented, yet they continue to show the same shapes and trends of the past. In all, the show was brilliant. The staging, props and incredible designs told the story he wanted to tell. As far as the clothes on the runway not being commercial and using the runway to challenge the status quo? "People don't want to see clothes. They want to see something that fuels the imagination." He certainly gave them something to think about.
So what happened? How did he get to a point that things seemed so bad that (alleged) suicide was the only remaining alternative? For starters, his much beloved mother died last week. Long time friend Philip Treacy said, "Creativity is a very fragile thing, and Lee was very fragile. He was a fragile person with a front of whatever you want to call it. It's not easy being Mr. McQueen. We're all human. His mum had just died and his mum was a great supporter of his talent. I don't really know what happened". 

Lee Alexander McQueen was indeed a very complex individual. Unfortunately, history is full of artistic genius that self-destructed. Perhaps the very same attributes that in the extreme makes such incredible talent possible; deep sensitivity, emotion, feeling and realness are the same attributes that are so hard to live with. It definitely wasn't easy being Lee Alexander McQueen. 


Blue Springs Blog said...

Thank you for posting this! His death is such a loss!! The pressure he must have felt must have been hard to deal with! Now he is a legend!

Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave said...

Nicely done.


A wonderful piece... and nice pics.... :) Fabiana Bronte, The Cabbage Tree Chronicles on Blogspot.


sorry, The Cabbage Tree Chronicles are on Blogger.com


scrap that last comment, it is blogspot