The sudden death of the iconoclastic Lee Alexander McQueen in February at the age of 40 shocked the fashion world. Known for his theatrical fashion shows and use of outrageous materials that range from human hair to fish scales, McQueen’s penchant for visceral drama and his boundless imagination has set him apart from his contemporaries.
Skulls, bones and images of death were often embedded in Lee Alexander McQueen’s work, and his intricate couture-like craftsmanship was always accompanied by an inexplicable sense of the macabre. His more recent women’s wear collections were based on mutant marine creatures, predatory birds and writhing snakes. From his humble beginnings as the son of a London cab driver, McQueen left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. By the time he was 21, he had also worked for Angels & Bermans, the theatrical costume company, and for the designers Koji Tatsuno and Romeo Gigli. McQueen then enrolled at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. His graduation collection in 1991 was bought in its entirety by influential fashion stylist Isabella Blow, who was later influential in his meteoric rise. The talented designer was made the designer for Givenchy in 1996, and was subsequently poached by the Gucci group, which supported and developed his eponymous label.
McQueen created designs for numerous celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Bjork, and his red carpet outfits have been worn by Cate Blanchett, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katie Holmes and Cameron Diaz. But it is his fashion presentations that were the stuff of legends. His most memorable pret-a- porter women’s runway shows involved model Shalom Harlow being attacked by two robotic arms spraying ink jets of paint onto her virginal white dress, models walking down the catwalk encased in glass with live butterflies fluttering around, a model dressed as Red Riding Hood leading leashed gray wolves toward horrified fashion editors seated in the front row, and models dancing in a ring of blazing asphalt channeling images of hell.
The elaborate—and frequently bordering on the operatic and bizarre—shows were always titled like movie productions. His fall 1995 collection was named “Highland Rape,” making a trenchant statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open. In spring 2004, the show was inspired by the Depression-era film, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, with men dressed up as sailors and laborers, performing dances with the girls in their magnificent dresses. The spring 2007 men’s collection was titled “Harlem” and was based on Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. His menswear fall 2009 collection evoked the British archetypes from Sherlock Holmes to Phileas Fogg with a sinister gothic twist, while his women’s wear collection, “Pluto’s Atlantis,” showcased a futuristic fantasy of an invasion of marine organisms.
Audiences and fashion aficionados will no doubt miss the McQueen shows. Guy Trebay, writing for the New York Times, recently commented: “Yet rarely did they come away disappointed by the spectacles conjured up by the designer. And now that it’s certain his shows will not be reprised, images summoned at random from past ones seem more surreal and more altogether marvelous.”
McQueen debuted his menswear collection for fall 2004 in Milan amid little fanfare, but later shows gathered momentum as he experimented with intricate embroidery and innovative fabrics. Although the men’s runway shows did not share the theatrical drama of his women’s presentations, they nevertheless drew inspiration from a kaleidoscope of influences such as Dracula (fall 2006), Lord of the Flies (spring 2006), La Haine and La Reine Margot (fall 2005). His final menswear show—the fall-winter 2010 collection that was unveiled in Milan in January before his death on February 11—featured mesmerizing patterns creating a trompe l’oeil effect on streamlined clothes that resembled melting ice, chain mail, Victorian tapestries and animal fur.
When presenting this spring collection for his menswear, McQueen eschewed the runway and collaborated with photographer David Sims on a short film depicting a nearly nude, emotionally agonized artist smearing clay on walls. The clothes were initially decorated with line drawings, and then progressively stained with paint, culminating in symmetrical abstract prints reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe—the entire cerebral collection referring to the painstaking struggle of making art.
The Gucci Group recently announced that the McQueen label would continue, but the brand has been so intertwined with the singular vision and dark personality of the designer that it will be difficult to identify any suitable successor. The world will certainly miss the uniquely creative genius of Lee McQueen.
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