Designer File: Alexander McQueen

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Last year, the V&A hosted “Savage Beauty”, a retrospective celebration of Lee Alexander McQueen’s work and life, five years after his death. In 2011, the same exhibition was shown at the Met in New York where people queued for up to two hours to see it. The Duchess of Cambridge may have worn McQueen for the royal wedding, but that couldn’t be further from where McQueen started out.


Lee McQueen was born in Lewisham, the son of a taxi driver. He left school with only one O-Level in art and began an apprenticeship at a Savile Row tailors. Whilst there, he famously claimed to have sewn, “I am a cunt” into the lining of a suit made for Prince Charles, which makes you wonder what he would have thought about the royal wedding dress. Though McQueen likely made up this story to fit in with the rest of the legend he created, it does reflect his early anti-establishment attitude. He applied this to everything from politics to fashion itself.

McQueen’s first collections were purposefully provocative. His Central Saint Martins graduate debut was titled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” It revealed his fascination with Victorian culture and London, where he was raised. It also set a narrative precedent for his work; a narrative that was often underpinned by violence and tragedy.


McQueen’s most controversial collection was called “Highland Rape.” The shocking and harrowing show featured garments that ranged from ripped, disarrayed, nudity displaying tartan to chic blouses and pencil skirts. Everything came together to create this conceptual world that was far from a heavenly vision but displayed McQueen’s raw, multifaceted genius. Some saw it as an offensive, insensitive comment on sexual violence against women, but McQueen claimed that the show title was not referring to literal rape, but to England’s exploitation of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he focused on because of his Scottish ancestry.


Though the fashion world was initially slow the accept McQueen’s radical designs, by 1996 he was fully immersed in the industry as he was appointed creative director at Givenchy. Despite this prestigious position at a Paris couturier, McQueen did not bow down to pressure or become more conventional. He stayed at Givenchy until 2001, by which time he had changed the landscape of Parisian couture. For five years, he had been designing ten collections a year; a great feat for any designer, let alone one as imaginative as McQueen.

Whilst his career was going from strength to strength, behind the scenes, things were not going as smoothly. In 2010, McQueen committed suicide, leaving behind a legacy that set him apart from any other designer before or since. One last collection designed by him was shown at Paris Fashion Week a month after his death. Editors who attended the show were moved by the collection’s obsession with the afterlife.


Later the same year, Sarah Burton was announced creative director. Her designs are pretty and ethereal, but do not touch on the romantic genius of McQueen himself. It is common for new creative directors to take the aesthetic of a brand in a different direction. What made McQueen special was its unique creative vision. How could anyone other than Lee Alexander McQueen make what he made? The brand’s real turning point came in 2011 when Burton designed the dress for the royal wedding. As much as McQueen is an idiosyncratically British brand, Lee McQueen would most likely have been against a holiday as jingoistic as the royal wedding.

Though founded less than thirty years ago, McQueen is one of the world’s most iconic high fashion brands. It unites industry insiders as well as a broader spectrum of artists. It is the label for romantics, for dreamers with a taste for the tragic.



Words by Sophie Wilson

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