“I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists…” The truth was apparent to the world, however, that Alexander McQueen was unlike any other artist; he had no competitors other than himself. McQueen, the recent documentary tribute to the passed designer, captures the disparity between Lee McQueen and Alexander McQueen. “Lee,” the Lewisham born nobody, was a happy, passionate young man who was adored by family and close friends. On the other hand, “Alexander,” a title stemming from the designer’s theatrical middle name, was the world-renowned fashion genius who made headlines in the press for his provocative designs. So, in reality, who was Lee Alexander McQueen?
Those who say the American Dream is dead have not considered the life of McQueen. Part of his remarkable story includes the drastic transition from being a financially struggling fashion designer to a billionaire head designer for Givenchy (much to the despair of French designers). In the aforementioned documentary, Andrew Groves, former boyfriend and assistant of Alexander McQueen, recalls a particular memory of the two eating at McDonald’s: “This is a weird world, that you’ve just shown the finale of London Fashion Week but we haven’t got five quid to eat.” Little did he know that later on, Alexander would flippantly buy a £30,000 chandelier to decorate his Christmas tree. Still, McQueen’s dream had not come into full effect. Desperately trying to keep up with the pressure that came with fame and power, the young designer had liposuction to better “complement” his brand’s flamboyant, dramatic image. Instead, he regretted this physical change and believed it had altered his identity. He was no longer a designer for his brand, but the brand itself. Alexander McQueen was living his ideals, yet instead of relishing his accomplishments, he was haunted by the fourteen collections that dawned on him each year—to which he claimed: “There’s more to life than fashion.” The American Dream probably became part of the nightmares that initiated McQueen’s out-of-earth, dark, and unmatched designs, making his fashion shows a literal embodiment of the person, the mind, and the creator behind the clothes; so much so that fashion eventually consumed its King… or Queen. In 2010, a day before his mother’s funeral, Alexander McQueen hung himself, leaving the world stunned by the designer’s last act.
Alexander McQueen is far from dead nonetheless and still breathes an existence on the fashion world. The designer himself said, “If you want to know me, look at my work,” and sure enough, McQueen’s archives are the preservation of his soul. Visiting the Victoria & Albert museum’s Savage Beauty exhibition several years ago, I was lucky enough to experience who Alexander McQueen was. Each masterpiece took me aback, as I had never felt such a piercing discomfort from fashion before; robots, skulls, and sleek black gowns starring unexpected bloody embellishments, all wrapped up in creepy music fitting to the sights. I had never known him prior to this exhibition, but I felt his vision and to an extent, presence. I’m sure that the ghost of Alexander McQueen beamed upon my reaction, as it was everything he stood for: “I don’t want to do a show feeling like you’ve just had Sunday lunch. I want you to feel repulsed or exhilarated.” His American dream also lives on in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), where another Savage Beauty exhibition took place and broke the record as the most-visited show put on by The Costume Institute of the MET. This goes to show how far McQueen’s influences reached–so much so that the British designer seeded himself in the bed of America’s history.
Throughout Alexander McQueen’s life, many critics found his collections vulgar and disturbing. One collection that especially attracted a lot of criticism, going so far as to call the designer a “misogynist,” was Highland Rape, a show in which he exposed many female body parts and had the models stagger across the catwalk. His intentions, however, seemed to be from a completely different source of inspiration, and the collection was rather based on the “rape of Scotland by England.” Katy England, who worked as a stylist for Alexander McQueen’s shows for thirteen years, said a “McQueen look” has “a little bit of history in it and obviously Victorian… there’s a little bit of punk in it, there’s a little bit of destruction or rebellion, there’s an amazing silhouette and proportion in it.” Alexander McQueen admitted to not being great at school, but it did not mean that he completely disposed of all books. In fact, he based a lot of his designs on books, artworks, and historical events. Highland Rape then, despite what accusations it held, was more a tribute to his Scottish roots and ancestry. It would be entirely wrong to say that Highland Rape was disrespectful of women, as McQueen’s purpose was to empower females. “I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naïve… I want woman to look stronger… I don’t like women to be taken advantage of… I don’t like men whistling at women in the street. I think they deserve more respect. I like men to keep their distance from women, I like men to be stunned by an entrance. I’ve seen a woman get nearly beaten to death by her husband. I know what misogyny is… I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
After Alexander McQueen’s death, designer Sarah Burton took over and has since then produced beautiful garments that have kept the original designer’s spirit. However, no one will be able to fully recreate Alexander McQueen’s collections and fashion shows. It is obvious that McQueen knew this too, because when asked by a reporter, “So you’d never let anyone carry on the McQueen tradition or McQueen brand if you weren’t actively involved?” he answered, “I don’t think so… because that person will have to come up with the concepts from my show and my shows are so personal.”
Rest in peace, Lee.