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PARIS — Lee Alexander McQueen, one of the most acclaimed and incendiary designers of his generation, was found dead at his London home on Thursday. He was 40.
This story first appeared in the February 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Sources described the death as a suicide by hanging. London’s Metropolitan Police said the death is not being treated as suspicious, but a spokesman said, “We would not speculate on the cause of death before a postmortem. Next of kin have been informed, but we await formal identification.”
The disappearance of one of fashion’s brightest lights and consummate showmen will surely cast a shadow on the international collections as they get under way in New York this week. McQueen’s show, scheduled for March 9 at La Conciergerie Paris, would have been among the last of the fall season.
The London-born McQueen’s death unleashed a torrent of shock and anguish from designers, retailers and others in the fashion world. “In a world where every man and his dog is a designer, Alexander McQueen was the real deal,” said Milliner Philip Treacy, who created fantastical hats for the designer’s shows. “His talent was supersonic.”
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“McQueen was daring, original, exciting,” said John Galliano. “He shook up the establishment with his creativity and understood what it takes to be a great British ambassador for fashion. I admired him very much. He was a fashion revolutionary that, like me, made the journey from [Central] Saint Martins to Paris where he put his own unique mark on the industry. He will not be forgotten.” “It’s a loss for the fashion industry,” said Karl Lagerfeld, who didn’t know McQueen personally, but appreciated his designs. “His story was one of success and talent, but that may not be enough to keep you alive.” “I am really saddened by Lee’s passing on a human level, but also on the artistic one,” said Jean Paul Gaultier. “A great talent has left us and we will miss him and everything that he has done for fashion.”
McQueen’s death came only nine days after the designer revealed via Twitter that his mother, Joyce, had passed away. Her funeral had been scheduled for today, according to a McQueen spokesman. A recent convert to new media, who live-streamed his last women’s show, McQueen had recently tweeted: “sunday evening been a —-ing awful week but my friends have been great but now i have to some how pull myself together and finish with the…”
Details about funeral services were not available at press time. He is survived by his father and five sisters. The McQueen company issued a statement, saying, “We are devastated and are sharing a sense of shock and grief with Lee’s family.” It added, “Lee’s family has asked for privacy in order to come to terms with this terrible news.”
PPR, parent of Gucci Group and McQueen, called him “one of the greatest fashion designers of his generation. His genius, sometimes provocative, constantly brought new perspectives.” It added that François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of PPR, “would like to pay tribute not only to the man, but also to a friend for whom he felt respect, admiration and affection.”
It was not immediately clear Thursday how the McQueen company would move forward without its namesake founder and creative director. A Gucci Group spokeswoman said the company was not making any business-oriented or forward-looking statements. Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière recalled that he arrived at Gucci Group around the same time as McQueen. “I always had a big respect for his talent. My thoughts are with his family and his colleagues,” he said.
“Lee was a fashion genius. I don’t say that lightly, and it is a total shock that I am referring to him in the past tense,” said Stella McCartney, whose London-based fashion house is a joint venture with Gucci Group. “He was a real friend. I will miss him as a mate, a peer, and as a true British talent, full of life and energy in everything he ever did.”
“I have always admired Lee,” said Gucci creative director Frida Giannini. “He had a way of approaching fashion — both as a tailor and as an inventor — that was all his own. He was an enormous talent whose creative genius will forever remain in the history of fashion.”
The son of a taxicab driver and self-described “big mouth East English yob,” McQueen rose to the highest peaks of the fashion world. Ignited with his seminal and controversial Highland Rape collection of 1995, cobbled together with remnants from fabric shops, McQueen’s talent attracted the attention of Europe’s biggest luxury titans. In 1996, Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, tapped the then-27-year-old wunderkind to awaken Givenchy, one of the most storied names in French fashion, where he succeeded Galliano, who Arnault had shifted to Christian Dior. McQueen wrestled with the decision whether to take the Givenchy job, but eventually saw the opportunity it gave him to increase his expertise and raise his profile. Nonetheless, after five years at Givenchy, he eventually would have a major falling out with Arnault, at one stage even turning up to a press event wearing a Gucci hat.
Marion Greenberg, owner of Marion Greenberg Inc., who represented Givenchy before and during the McQueen era, recalled, “He [McQueen] was just coming off the success of his own label. He was a force. “I think he did have an addictive personality. He might have had some issues. He was so talented. The whole Givenchy thing was so complicated. I worked with John [Galliano] and they were grooming him for Dior. They brought in Alexander McQueen and he was really raw. He was very gutsy. He cared so much, and his manner was wild. He was outrageous,” she said.
Greenberg said at times, McQueen went missing and she had to go find him. Often he would be located in New York at Miguel Adrover’s apartment, where he sometimes stayed. Adrover recalled, “He was with me at my home [in Majorca] when he got the contract for Givenchy.” McQueen rented a house in Majorca for two months every summer for about three years. “He was a very strong person, but at the same time very weak. When he’d come to New York, he’d be staying at the Four Seasons, but he’d spend the whole week with me in my basement,” said Adrover, who used to go to London three weeks before McQueen’s show and help him do research. “I learned from him a lot about the industry, the pressure, the creativity and being very true to yourself. He’s really like the person who changed the Nineties for me. Without him, London is nothing. He made London and made it really powerful. His presentations were not just about clothing. He made dreams come true and nightmares come true,” said Adrover.
McQueen’s tenure at Givenchy was a rocky one. His eclectic collections — space aliens one season, rockabilly the next — failed to galvanize the house, and the designer was often vocal about his discontent with large corporations and commercial fashion. However, the exposure to the capabilities of a French couture atelier would have a lasting impact on his business, with garments in his recent ready-to-wear shows resembling couture in workmanship and price, usually made-to-order.
LVMH’s rival, Gucci Group, then led by Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford, swept in in 2000 and bought a 51 percent stake in McQueen’s company, setting the stage for expansion via signature boutiques in London, New York, Los Angeles and Milan; a secondary line called McQ licensed to Italy’s SINV; men’s wear and leather goods, and collaborations with brands including Puma and Samsonite. (A McQ presentation slated to take place Thursday afternoon in New York was canceled.)
The designer was showered with accolades throughout his career. McQueen won the British Fashion Awards’ British Designer of the Year four times and won the Men’s Wear Designer of the Year award in 2004. In 2003, he received the CFDA Award for Best International Designer and was honored with a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the fashion industry.
While known for theatrical and transporting shows — aggressive one season, ethereal the next — McQueen was hardly disinterested in business. Even from his early days, he would talk about his desire to be known as much for commercial clout as for creativity. He was proud of the fact that he never went bankrupt and that his clothes amounted to more than just showmanship. In an interview with WWD in 2006, he trumpeted the fact that his firm was poised to beat a 2007 break-even deadline imposed by Robert Polet, Gucci Group president and ceo. On Thursday, Polet said: “I worked closely with Lee for the last five years. His creative force was inspiring to me and all those who were fortunate to know and work with him. He has left us too soon; he had so much more to give, but the legacy he leaves us is a rich one and one that we will cherish and honor.”
De Sole said, “I loved him. He used to come to the house for dinner — he knew Eleanor and my girls well. At the last McQueen show I went to, the fall 2004 collection, he came up to me and hugged me, and he was crying. He was very upset that I was leaving. He was shy, but once you got to know him he was very open and he had a great sense of humor — he used to make fun of people. He was also a very decent man: He was unbelievably nice to all of the seamstresses in the factory in Novara [Italy] who made his collection. He treated them well and they loved him. He was just a fabulous person.”
Despite his commercial mind-set — McQueen once told WWD, “I’m mad in the front of my mind, but business-minded in the back”—– his company would remain challenged throughout its existence. Even with shops worldwide, a secondary label, a linkup with Target last February with the McQ line and licenses, McQueen was never able to make the leap into the big leagues financially and his firm remained a small part of Gucci Group when compared with the likes of Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga or even Stella McCartney.
McQueen’s meteoric ascent in fashion mirrored some of the fairy-tale themes of his shows. “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment,” he said in an interview last year. “I wasn’t born to give you a twin set and pearls.”
Although he dropped out of school at age 16, McQueen went to work on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes and then Romeo Gigli. He eventually earned his master’s degree in fashion design from London’s Central Saint Martins (formerly Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) in 1994. McQueen was discovered by the late, legendary, fashion guru Isabella Blow, who purchased his entire graduation collection and helped him make industry connections. Blow’s suicide in 2007 “just left a big void in my life,” he told WWD’s sister magazine, W, in 2008. In her memory, he stated a tribute show, with angel wings as a backdrop and a poster-size invitation that depicted Blow riding to the heavens in a chariot pulled by winged horses.
“I have very happy memories of living together with Alexander and Philip Treacy on Elizabeth Street in 1993 — there was no money, but lots of laughter,” remembered Detmar Blow, Isabella’s widower. “At the time, Issy was mocked for supporting a cab driver’s son — and people were critical of Alexander because he was such a rebel — but he came through for Issy, and his success was a vindication. I hope they’re together now.”
Professor Louise Wilson, course director of the program at Central Saint Martins, recalled that McQueen’s commitment to fashion was total. “Lee had a set of skills before he came on the course. He’d worked as a cutter in Italy for people like Romeo Gigli, and because he had those skills, he could distort the woman’s body and push the boundaries in cutting and tailoring,” she said. “His seminal shows sent a shiver up the back of my spine and that doesn’t happen very often.”
His razor-sharp tailored looks fused the romantic with the edgy avant-garde, a fresh contrast that won international acclaim. McQueen’s technical virtuosity grew quickly from his vinyl “bumster” pants of yore to intricate feathered dresses and eye-popping engineered prints. McQueen long maintained that his shows were highly autobiographical. The men’s collection he showed last month in Milan was titled “The Bone Collector” and featured engineered prints of skulls on tailored clothing. Some models were muzzled, Hannibal Lecter-style. The show marked a return to the runway for his men’s line after the spring season, when in lieu of any modeled presentation, he issued a rambling statement about creative exhaustion and the relentlessness of the fashion system, and opted to screen a film about the anguish of making art. His last women’s show, in Paris in October, was dazzlingly futuristic, with models stalking the runway in otherworldly shoes and dresses as robotic cameras whirled around them.
The designer worked with a number of high-profile musicians throughout his career. With Nick Knight, McQueen art-directed the cover of Björk’s 1997 album “Homogenic,” and directed the music video for one of the album’s tracks: “Alarm Call.” He also designed the distressed Union Jack coat worn by David Bowie on the cover of his 1997 album “Earthling.” Rihanna and Sting count among other fans of McQueen, as well as Lady Gaga, who sported pieces from the designer’s current spring collection — including the notorious Armadillo shoes — in the music video for her single “Bad Romance.”
But the breadth of his appeal was exhibited by the fact that Sandra Bullock wore a McQueen gown to the SAG Awards in Los Angeles earlier this month. His fashion shows — first staged in London, twice in New York, but mostly in Paris — were always among the hottest tickets in any fashion capital, attracting the likes of Grace Jones, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
“I am truly devastated to lose my close friend,” said Campbell. “His talent had no boundaries, and he was an inspiration to everyone who worked with him and knew him.”
Among spellbinding moments were: Shalom Harlow twirling on a turntable as she was spray-painted by a robotic arm; a ghostly apparition of Kate Moss that appeared and vaporized in a glass pyramid to the haunting strains of “Schindler’s List,” and para-Olympian record-holder Aimee Mullins striding down the catwalk on hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs with integrated boots.
McQueen was known for his aggressive streak, and a fascination with dark subjects, from the Joel-Peter Witkin photos he collected to fashion shows that referenced witchcraft and bondage. Yet Franco Pené, chairman of Gibò, one of the first supporters and producers of McQueen, described him as “adorable, extremely sensitive and very fragile,” remembering how he would “cry for his troubled love stories” or his deep affection for dogs, for example. “While he projected a bad-boy image earlier on in his career, he was very shy and had an incredible humanity,” said Pené. Pené also said he was “one of the most incredible, naturally creative minds, who could even sketch an entire collection in one day.” And far from being a diva, he once insisted he and Pené should both attend a New York show of Adrover’s to support him.
Donatella Versace called McQueen a true icon. “His imagination had no limits and his strong personality, together with his strong creativity, made him unique.” “This news has come as a shock and greatly saddened me. The world has lost a very talented young man whom I have always respected for his outstanding genius,” said Giorgio Armani. “I am truly shocked and saddened by this tragic news and my thoughts are with Lee’s family. Lee was one of Britain’s greatest designers and was an inspiration to so very many people. His unique vision, charm and warm character will be greatly missed by everybody who knew Lee and by everyone touched by his extraordinary talent,” said Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry. “I think every designer’s dream is to have that talent, that vision and that integrity,”
Donna Karan said. “It’s shocking to think that something like this could happen to somebody of that ability, who has that creativity and expression and love inside of him. There are very few people you look at who are icons of creativity.” Karan recalled recently seeing Daphne Guinness wearing one of McQueen’s futuristic shoes. “He had that ability to not only create beyond the limits, but also keep it accessible. He was able to do both, to dream the creative dream and deliver a product that you could embrace, and that is very unique,” she said.
Guinness recalled the first time she met McQueen. “He spotted me across Leicester Square. I was wearing his Givenchy kimono with the dragon on the back. We became good friends. He was the kindest, shiest, funniest person. And when the chips were down, he was there. He wasn’t a flake. You could count on him. I will miss him. “He was an aristocrat in the true sense of the word,” she added. “He had a natural grace, natural patrician instincts. And he had so much compassion and a big heart. We would go to his studio and do simple things — sit and have a cup of tea — and just have fun. We’d play around like kids and imagine that we were in a world that wasn’t so cynical and money-driven.”
Marc Jacobs was friendly with McQueen, sharing many mutual friends over the years, and running into him from time to time. “He is such a great guy and such an amazing talent that it is so devastating to know he is gone,” Jacobs said. “We have a lot of mutual friends and some of them are working here, and everybody is walking around crying today, so it’s been a little sad. “I will miss him, and I will certainly miss the beauty that he created, and his vision and his world,” Jacobs added.
“We are devastated to learn of the death of Alexander McQueen, one of the greatest talents of his generation,” Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, said. “He brought a uniquely British sense of daring and aesthetic fearlessness to the global stage of fashion. In such a short career, Alexander McQueen’s influence was astonishing — from street style, to music culture and the world’s museums. His passing marks an insurmountable loss.”
Ed Filipowski, president of public relations firm KCD Inc., said, “We worked with Lee for 10 years, and during that time, he took us to the most wonderful places fashion could go. It’s a testament to his talent and spirit that he has created such a legacy that will endure.”
Camilla Nickerson, the fashion stylist and senior contributing fashion editor at W magazine, had worked with McQueen over the past year. “The staggering thing about him was that he literally cut fabric off the bolt, folded it very perfectly on the floor, and asked for the scissors from his very attentive assistant. He would then think about it and attack the piece of fabric and hold it to the girl, and there was the dress or the jacket in place. I hadn’t ever watched anyone work so fluently and so directly.” Nickerson recalled their first meeting, when McQueen arrived in New York, and with him, brought “these carpets of ideas that he just laid out on my floor, and he spoke for two hours without drawing breath. He just floored you every time.”
“I remember my first time I saw Alexander McQueen,” said Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. “He was in a tatty little apartment in the East End, so small you could hardly swing the proverbial cat. The whole floor was chaotic with bits of fabric and things lying around, bits of thread.…It looked like a kind of joke-Victorian vision of a fashion designer. And that was his roots, where he came from. He was so fascinated with his work then. I watched him working and I just knew at that moment that this was an extraordinary talent. “My other great memory of him was after the show when he mooned, as we say in British English, showing his butt to the world at the end of the show. I went backstage and he was crying and he said, ‘I’ve blown it, I’ve blown it,’ meaning he’d made a mess of everything, and I said, ‘You haven’t. It was a wonderful show and you just have to pick up and go on.’ And he did.”
Fashion editor and stylist Katie Grand recalls attending McQueen’s first show at the Bluebird Garage in London. “There was no seating, and it was all incredibly cool. The girls came out covered in terra-cotta makeup and that weird proportion with the bumster, which is now so famous. There were so many beautiful things in that show — it was just relentless,” she recalled. “Some of my favorite shows ever have been by Lee, and early on, it was always such a bloody drama getting in — that was half of the fun.”
Retailers contacted Thursday said the McQueen business was on a solid growth track. According to the company’s Web site, his collections are distributed through 194 wholesale accounts in more than 39 countries. Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Lane Crawford, Hong Kong, cited “huge” sell-throughs. “I’ve been growing this business solidly season-on-season for six seasons now,” she said. “Lee gave something to fashion that was unique and, I often felt, not of this world. He evoked strong emotions, and a brutal honesty in everything that he did.” “It is a great loss,” said Joan Burstein, owner of Browns in London. “Having been with us from the beginning, I am extremely sad to hear this news. We will mourn the loss of him and his growing talent.”
“Like all artists — and he really was an artist — he needed love, and I loved him deeply,” said Chantal Roos, who developed fragrances with McQueen when she headed YSL Beauté. While directional, McQueen’s forays into fragrance didn’t add up to a blockbuster business at counter. He introduced his first fragrance in 2003 with YSL Beauté, then a division of Gucci Group. Dubbed Kingdom, the scent was packaged in a flacon resembling a heart and was accompanied with a poem he composed with Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham. “I am a melancholy type of person,” McQueen said at the time. “I’m feeling deep and romantic at heart and this fragrance comes from my heart.” Kingdom was followed in 2005 by My Queen, which worked on a fairy-tale concept. When L’Oréal acquired YSL Beauté in 2008 and with it beauty licenses for Stella McCartney and other brands, McQueen’s beauty business was not part of the transaction.
Recently, the designer was energized by the prospect of new media, and in September began posting messages on Twitter.com/mcqueenworld. “I do it so much that someone needs to get me a gag,” he said. Via the Internet, and live-streaming of his show, the designer expressed a desire to reach a wider audience — for people in Australia, Asia and Middle America who didn’t have a seat at the show. “Really, what I’m aiming for is world domination!”
The designer said he hoped to create special capsule collections so the public could buy clothing right off his runway. He was also dreaming of setting up glass pyramids, “anywhere in the world,” he said, and beaming holograms of his fashion shows into them. “This is the birth of a new dawn,” McQueen said and, perhaps in a comment that perfectly captured his entire career, he added, “There is no way back for me now. I am going to take you on journeys you’ve never dreamed were possible.”
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