The fashion genius and rebel left an inexhaustible legacy between avant-garde and transgression.
We look back at the highlights of his intense and impactful career with the fashion shows that changed the perception of contemporary fashion, forever.
Born in 1969 in the suburb of Lewisham, southeast London, Lee Alexander McQueen, the man who would become known for some of Haute Couture‘s most shocking creations. At age 16, he left the United Kingdom and moved to Milan, where he worked at Romeo Gigli‘s Maison for a few years. In the early 1990s he returned to London to finish his studies at the prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art, but it was in 1996 that the big break came: he replaced John Galliano as Givenchy‘s creative director in Paris, where he remained, between highs and lows, until 2001.
That same year considered charartical for his career, he left the Parisian fashion house – which he would call too limiting for his own creativity-dedicating himself solely to his own creations.
Alexander McQueen came to the public’s attention from his earliest creations, so much so that in the Summer of 1992, the London press was talking nothing but about the graduation collection of one Lee Alexander McQueen, called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims“: dark, sexy but also delightfully Dickensian creations by this rebellious and talented son of a taxi driver. Other standout pieces include a silk coat with a thorn print and three-pronged “origami” tail, and a tuxedo with a dagger-red bust and lapel, both with locks of human hair sewn into the lining.
McQueen built his reputation as the “Hooligan of Fashion” an example of a bad guy designer with outrageous attitudes, who refused interviews, even stood up Irving Penn, and, instead of bowing, bowed to the audience at the end of the show showing his backside.
One of her most groundbreaking collections is from 1995, dedicated to the abuse inflicted by the English on her Scottish ancestors, entitled ‘Highland Rape.’ Models walk the runway with shreds of lace and splashes of fake blood on their clothes, symbolic of all the violence by the English on Scottish women.
The collection features to the world his iconic Bumster pants, one of his trademarks, putting a fierce national pride in the spotlight in addition to his outrageous creativity. The show’s violent depiction ignites controversy: the bloody bodies and unzipped robes are not a trivial incitement to rape, as is being accused in the newspapers, but a visual denunciation of all the abuse inflicted on Scotland. McQueen is accused of misogyny by an obtuse and respectable public opinion, until the designer himself publicly declares:
“I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
For the next fashion show called ‘The Hunger,’ he keeps his previous word: “people must be afraid of the women I dress,” so he shows models wearing clear Plexiglas bustiers filled with real and mostly live worms.
His ideas baffled and intrigued but were not appreciated by the sponsors: the Spring/ Summer ’98, partly financed by American Express, initially entitled “The Golden Shower”, aroused indignation on the part of the American colossus, who promptly asked for the name of the fashion show to be changed.
McQueen agreed, but this did not prevent him from having the models parade on a catwalk formed by water tanks with rain falling from above, all wrapped in suggestive yellow glow lights.
For the following show, she abandoned the element of water and concentrated on fire, so his Fall Ready-to-Wear 1998 show, called “Joan”, was transformed into a theatrical show with a model in a red dress, her face covered, surrounded by a circle of fire: an image that refers to the inquisition and violence against women, once again.
The collection “No. 13,” in 1999, solidified McQueen‘s reputation as an absolute showman, while also enhancing his unmatched theatricality: he paraded Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins wearing prosthetics made of elm wood, which he had carved himself.
In closing, two robots sprayed paint on the white dress sported by supermodel Shalom Harlow: one of the most unforgettable moments in fashion history, also captured by Coperni in his closing performance of the SS23 show, during which the first dress in fashion history is created and sprayed on Bella Hadid‘s body.
Yet another revolutionary act of a rebellious genius will be the Spring 2001 Ready-to-Wear. An audience seated around a transparent cube admires models walking around what looks like a psychiatric hospital cell.
Models, including Kate Moss, with lost and demented expressions, wander along the cube wrapped around their heads by a medical band. The show ends in spectacular fashion, as McQueen has accustomed us to: from another cube inside the psychiatric ward reveals a stout, naked woman, her face covered by a mask, breathing through a tube, surrounded by fluttering moths.
But it certainly did not end there. In the years to follow, audiences at his fashion shows are lucky enough to see a circus troupe populated by sinister clows for the show at the Natural History Museum in London (2001)
A ‘living’ chess game for the Spring/Summer 2005 collection; a ghostly hologram of Kate Moss, like a ghost hovering in the air, otherworldly and ethereal.
Alexander McQueen leaves us, aged just 40, on 11 February 2010, a few days after the death of his mother. Sarah Burton, who worked at his side for 14 years and takes up his legacy, will continue his work, taking the brand from a dreamlike nightmare and accuser of the system to a wardrobe for the real world.