A fable of fashion, a world that discards its past in an instant and drives its creators relentlessly in search of the next best thing.
Told as a retrospective, with interviews from his friends, family, as well as fashionistas, the story of Alexander McQueen starts surprisingly in London. Son of a taxi driver, eating baked beans on toast and sleeping in all day, and more importantly partying in the 1990s to Acid House. It was dressing up at the clubs, taking inspiration from Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, that avante garde costumes came about, starting something big from McQueen, an apprentice tailor working on Saville Row.
“I know I couldn’t survive in a place like that for the rest of my life, cluttered in a small workshop, sitting on a bench padding lapels. But I did have a passion and I was good at it. I was good at tailoring a jacket. I was quick at learning. I wanted to learn trousers. I wanted to learn everything. Give me anything, anything.” Lee Alexander McQueen.
From Saville Row McQueen took a chance, wanting a job at St Martins, before being accepted on talent alone into the MA program. And it was there, whilst putting on his part of the St Martin’s show, that his work was seen by fashion journalist and icon Isabella Blow.
Working from an East End warehouse space and on the dole McQueen spent all his benefit money on fabrics, and at the age of 24 started putting on his own shows in derelict warehouses, using unknown models and giving them their break, like Jodie Kidd. Through those shows he brought a rawness, setting everyone on the edge of their seats wondering what is going to happen next for Lee McQueen.
The first thing, and on Isabella Blow’s advice, was to use his middle name, Alexander as this would be better for selling clothes, and she was right.
Everything he touched turned to gold. There is a lovely little anecdote from one of his friends about finding a piece of bubble wrap outside Isabella Blow’s mum’s house. They put a zip up the back and the next thing it was being pushed down the runway at one of his shows. Then it was in Vogue with a price tag of £750 and available from Browns. Such is the demand for Lee’s fashion, a statement given inches in the press thanks to Blow’s influence.
Part of the Cool Britannia! wave of Rock and Roll that took over the world in the mid to late 90s, McQueen was the spearhead of the UK fashion industry. His showmanship gaining him a notoriety that the press would slate, but never ignore. He was taking tea with the Prime Minister, drinking champagne with Lady Di. Alexander McQueen had arrived and, with just 8 collections under his belt, was soon taken across the channel to French couture house Givenchy.
Here he shocked the traditional fashion house and it’s expert atelier staff with his methods. His team of street urchins, though, with their raw talent, soon won over one of the oldest names in fashion, even if they did insult them sometimes. McQueen himself, when asked about Givenchy’s talent replied “what talent?”
And with his second season he reinvented the label, bringing it to the younger audience. 27 shows in a five year period, he had to maintain a standard, each show surpassing the season before. The pressure on McQueen was astonishing. And in 2000 in London he puts on a show in front of all the world’s fashion press. He makes them wait for 2 hours, staring at their own reflecting in a mirrored glass box before bringing another show where his depiction of women made them inaccessible. He was again distressing and disturbing. Words used to describe his early tortured days. This happening in conjunction with Blow being fired from her job. McQueen was starting to fall apart and hate the gratuitous form his life had taken. He could and would ask for anything, the most expensive caviar then not eat it. He had enough of Givenchy and then did the unheard of. While another of Isabella Blow’s proteges took over at Givenchy (Julian MacDonald) McQueen went to Gucci.
Gucci was different for McQueen. On the catwalk he was king but this is a global brand. McQueen was asked to design jeans, sunglasses, menswear, a perfume, trainers. The collections never stopped. You are constantly being judged. The bigger it gets the harder it gets. He would cry in public when his work was commented poorly upon. At the same time Blow tried to commit suicide a 6th time. They then meet for a weekend and it was clear both needed each other to be a support and neither were up to the task.
A sad story of tragedy, after Blow’s suicide McQueen and another of her findings, milliner Philip Treacy, put on a show in to honour his muse. And despite being a global brand, shops in London, LA, New York, producing new clothes and collections all the time was an incredible pressure. He had a global following. His last show being beautiful, “McQueen had never been better.” But the death of his mother hit him hard. He withdrew. On the eve of his mother’s funeral he took a cocktail of sleeping pills, left a note and hung himself in his wardrobe, stunning the fashion world.
Lee Alexander McQueen
1969 – 2010
“When you fly too close to the sun, it’ll burn your wings and melt the wax.” The sad and tragic end of both the vulgar, contradicting genius that was Lee “Alexander” McQueen and the woman that discovered him, Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl, Isabella Blow.
This is a tragic tale and a must watch for fans. It is a story of striving for greatness, and achieving based on talent alone. But it is dark. McQueen suffered loss and from the pressure. He talked of his family accepting his sexuality. His muse, Isabella Blow, was both creative and destructive in her behaviour toward him. The loss of his mother the final tipping point that caused a prince among paupers to take his own life and deny the fashion world more of his greatness.
Running time: 110 Mins
You can see the documentary on YouTube for free here.