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One of a kind is a hackneyed phrase, but how else to sum up Alexander McQueen?
From the moment in 1994 the designer burst on to the London scene with his graduate show at Central Saint Martins, he seized the spotlight with a creativity, showmanship and iconoclasm that almost single-handedly put the British capital back onto the fashion map. It was the declining years of the post-Thatcher era, and Britain was going through a recession that had sent its fashion into one of their cyclical doldrums after the burst of excitement seen in the mid-Eighties. Few overseas buyers bothered to attend the London shows and even fewer overseas press. The feeling was that London fashion was a backwater.
McQueen generated a buzz that forced everyone’s attitude to change. From his studio in a basement off then-far-from-cool Hoxton Square in the East End, the designer would conjure up one extravagant collection and show after another. His imagination seemed to know no boundaries, and for him the show was as important a statement as the clothes themselves. His inspirations came from almost anywhere — Hitchcock, Africa, Catherine Deneuve, the disfigured dolls of Hans Bellmer, the circus, religion and nature — but he forged them all to his own devices.
There was The Birds collection, shown in a dingy space (weren’t they all?) north of King’s Cross that forced attendees to weave their way through a dicey neighborhood to a building lit up with spotlights, up some rickety stairs to a breath-squeezing crush at the door and, once inside, a wait of more than an hour on a cold, hard wooden bench. The models wore white contact lenses, stuffed birds on their shoulders, and in their hair and jackets, tops, dresses, skirts and his famous “bumster” pants inspired by British builders that were so sharply cut they looked like razors.
Others had Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and their ilk walking down stairs in a horticultural hall to a runway that was a pool of water; one under train tracks in the freezing cold with a dirt runway, crashed cars and huge fires burning; several at a Nicholas Hawksmore church in Christ Church, and then the infamous Highland Rape show, which caused him to be labeled a misogynist and which McQueen forever contended was misunderstood.
The rape he referred to was that of England of his native Scotland, a heritage of which he was militantly proud — almost as much as he was his East End upbringing. His mother Joyce, who died last week, was at every show, beaming proudly from the front row.
The shows became only more elaborate once McQueen was granted a $1 million sponsorship by American Express, a partnership that lasted several seasons. His shows, by now events, shifted to a garbage depot — literally — off the King’s Road, which would be cleared out a week beforehand so the designer would have time to build his complicated sets. One show had flaring fire, another a rainstorm, yet another a carousel in the middle as models, like windup dolls, paraded in intricately cutout leathers. There were models in a giant glass house with the last covered in fluttering butterflies that had suddenly hatched, and in yet another they were in an ice house, with some on skates.
There was always an edge, a seething anger that caused him to be viewed as aggressive, a bully, a foul-mouthed son of a taxicab driver who was antiestablishment and said whatever he wanted. He was certainly that, and there was always a dark side to the designer, who always had a chip on his shoulder and who could become depressive and anxious over the smallest perceived slight. McQueen would rail against those he didn’t think understood his ideas or praised him when they didn’t mean it. He preferred people who were blunt, like him.
But there was a flip side. He was shy, had an impish sense of humor and a guffaw of a laugh that always left him slightly red in the face. He was also a boy inside with a soft heart. Those who knew that were the ones he shyly asked to call him “Lee” rather than “Alexander” because those were the ones he trusted.
Sure, he would drive his workers crazy by locking himself out of his house seemingly three times a week, or losing one of his prized dogs — which were always huge and always seemed to be some blend of pit bull — or be late for an appointment after he overslept because he’d been out partying and taking drugs (in the early days) until all hours of the morning. The staff and friends would gladly coddle him through those incidents — as well as his losing weight and broken romances and marriages (he “wed” and “divorced” other men at least twice) — because McQueen was immensely loyal to them. After each show in the early days, he would give every one of his workers a diamond to thank them, diligently picking each one out himself in the London diamond district of Hatton Garden.
And even as his fame grew and he would go to Paris — first for Givenchy, an experience he admitted taught him a lot but one he eventually loathed — and then to show his collections during Paris Fashion Week, he would always return to London because there were his roots, his friends and his family.
McQueen helped make London cool again, but it was London that made McQueen. It forged in him the ultimate British attitude that never let him back down or compromise his imagination. As he once told WWD: “I do what I do, and people can take it or leave it.”