Fashion Diary: Alexander McQueen, an appreciation
Alexander McQueen, the fashion world's reigning provocateur, was found dead Thursday morning at his home in London. He was 40. The police have not released an official report on the cause of death, but his press representatives at KCD Worldwide said it appeared to be suicide.
As a designer, he was not only a technical genius -- as comfortable tailoring an Edwardian-inspired suit as draping a kimono with a 25-foot train -- but a creative genius too. His theatrical runway productions were frequently controversial, casting models as witches and mental patients.
"A gifted iconoclast, who could just as easily be creating art as fashion" was how Mimi Avins, then the Los Angeles Times' fashion editor, described McQueen upon seeing his clothes for the first time in 1996.
An East Ender and the son of a London cabbie, the designer -- whose first name was Lee -- completed his studies at London's Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in 1994. He apprenticed on Savile Row, where, legend has it, he sewed a subversive message into the sleeve of a jacket destined for Prince Charles.
From 1996 to early 2001, he had a rocky tenure as head designer of the French fashion house Givenchy. It was so rocky, in fact, that he sold a stake of his own business to the rival Gucci Group. Soon, McQueen's gothic aesthetic became a favorite of Hollywood celebrities who wore his skull-print scarves as often as his evening gowns. Cameron Diaz wore a fuchsia dress by the designer at the recent Golden Globe Awards.
With his runway collections inspired by influences such as Dante's "Inferno" and the Salem witch trials, McQueen always thumbed his nose at convention (and, occasionally, the fashion industry). And lately, he was at the forefront of combining fashion and new technology.
For the women's runway show in Paris in October, he webcast his sci-fi fantasy live through a collaboration with director Nick Knight and ShowStudio.com, turning it into an unmediated international event that included the debut of a new song by Lady Gaga.
The season before that, he presented an absurdist piece of theater with a touch of gallows humor, a send-up on the whole fashion system, just as it teetered on the brink of collapse with magazine closures, declining ad and retail sales and a burgeoning class of cyber critics.
Drawing on the theme of "reinvention," the collection was presented on a runway of broken mirrors, around a trash heap of props from past McQueen shows, old car parts, a broken merry-go-round horse, even a kitchen sink. McQueen shook the very foundations of a top-down industry that expected designers to reinvent every few months to keep the wheels turning.
"It's a tragedy, Alexander McQueen has been a tremendous resource for us," said Eric Jennings vice president and men's fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. "Especially recently, we'd just taken on the Fall '09 McQ collection and there was a lot of demand." Jennings, who was among the buyers and press in attendance at McQueen's Milan menswear show last month, described the designer as "an icon."
Death seemed never to be far from McQueen’s mind, both on the runway and off. In a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times the day before his 39th birthday, when he sat down to talk about his new Los Angeles store, he said the suicide of a longtime friend and mentor, eccentric stylist Isabella Blow, had had a profound effect on him.
After she died, McQueen went on a pilgrimage to India (he was Buddhist). There, in addition to finding inspiration, he seemed, despite the cliché of it all, to find his center.
"The reason I got into this business is because I love what I do," he explained at the time. "After I was at Givenchy, I lost that feeling. But after my friend died, I found a new love for it because she loved it and she found me because of what I was good at. I had to slap myself about the face and say, 'Pull yourself together. This is what you love doing, so do it properly.' It was a wake-up call, and I actually do love it more than I ever have."
What turned out to be his final runway show, the presentation of his fall menswear collection last month in Milan, was called "An bailitheoir cnámh," a Gaelic phrase that means "the bone collector," and it was based around the lives of the seafaring folk who dwell in the harsh conditions near the North and South poles.
The macabre was manifested as a repeating photo-realistic print pattern that evoked the neatly stacked piles of bones found in underground catacombs. That same print was used to paper the floor and some of the pillars in the cramped venue, which helped create the feeling of actually being in a catacomb.
McQueen's death comes days after his mother's death on Feb. 2 and just a few weeks before he was due to present his fall women's collection in Paris.
-- Booth Moore and Adam Tschorn
Top photo: McQueen at the end of his Autumn/Winter 2007-08 ready-to-wear fashion show in Paris in March 2007. Credit: Francois Guillot / AFP/Getty Images. Bottom photo: On the runway at Alexander McQueen's Spring/Summer 2010 show. Credits: Peter Stigter & Jonas Gustavsson / For The Times