Alexander McQueen – Luxury Iconic British Fashion
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Alexander McQueen Designer Fashion
Founded by Alexander McQueen, continued by Sarah Burton
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From Potboy to Paintballs: A History of Alexander McQueen
Lee Alexander McQueen was born on March 17 1969 at Stepney in London’s East End, the youngest of the six children of his taxi driver father and social scientist mother. He became interested in fashion at a very young age, getting into trouble with his father at just 3 years old for drawing a gowned Cinderella on his sister’s bedroom wall. Much ignored by his father and an outsider at school, McQueen escaped by daydreaming and drawing women’s clothes.
Alexander McQueen left school in 1986, armed with just a single O-level and A-Level, both in Art. He went on to attend a technical college, while also working as a potboy for a local pub. Things changed when he saw a television report about a shortage of tailoring apprentices – he consequently inquired about an apprenticeship at the Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard and was offered a job on the spot. After Anderson & Sheppard, McQueen moved on to Gieves & Hawkes and, later, the theatrical costumiers Angels and Bermans, where he mastered 6 methods of pattern cutting from the melodramatic 16th Century, to the razor sharp tailoring which has become a McQueen signature.
Aged just 20, McQueen gained more design experience when he was hired by the Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno, who also had his roots in British tailoring. The following year McQueen travelled to Milan where he was employed as Romeo Gigli’s design assistant. On returning to London, he completed a Masters degree in Fashion Design at Central Saint Martin’s. His graduate collection showed in 1992, which was famously bought in its entirety by Isabella Blow. This was to be the start of a long-standing friendship between the pair, before Blow tragically committed suicide in 2007, by taking an overdose of weed killer after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer; McQueen dedicated his Spring/Summer 2008 show at Paris Fashion Week to her.
In 1996, McQueen was named as British Designer of the Year for the first time (he was to receive this accolade three more times in 1997, 2001 and 2003) and he was appointed as Chief Designer at French fashion house Givenchy, succeeding John Galliano. McQueen became responsible for producing six collections a year, which he later admitting was too much to achieve real innovations, stating that Givenchy was “the biggest mistake of my life”. Unlike Galliano, McQueen took no interest in the French, their country, culture or language, and the appointment was regarded by some as a mistake for both parties. His first couture collection with Givenchy was unsuccessful, with even McQueen telling Vogue in October 1997 that the collection was “crap”. Critics believed that, in trying to meet the Givenchy style, McQueen had compromised his vision and failed as a result. The appointment with Givenchy ended in March, 2001.
In December 2000, 51% of Alexander McQueen was acquired by the Gucci Group, where he remained Creative Director. Expansion followed and included the opening of flagship stores in New York, London, Milan, Las Vegas and Los Angeles as well as the launch of Alexander McQueen fragrances. As of 2011, Alexander McQueen collections include women’s ready-to-wear, men’s ready-to-wear, McQ, accessories, eyewear and fragrance.
Buoyed by the deal with Gucci, McQueen had become the enfant terrible of the London fashion scene, so named-for his outlandish catwalk campaigns. Such outlandish campaigns have included paint-balling models during one of his Givenchy shows, a recreated shipwreck for his Spring/Summer 2003 collection, a human chess game for his Spring/Summer 2005 collection, and a holographic appearance of a then out of favour (due to a well publicised drug scandal) Kate Moss for his Autumn/Winter 2006 collection.
The Alexander McQueen catwalk shows are not only known for their controversy, they are also known for their emotional power and raw energy, as well as the romantic yet contemporary nature of the collections. Integral to the McQueen culture is the juxtaposition between contrasting elements: fragility and strength, tradition and modernity, fluidity and severity. Alexander McQueen collections combine an in-depth working knowledge of bespoke British tailoring, the fine workmanship of the French Haute Couture atelier and the impeccable finish of Italian manufacturing.
Alexander McQueen’s unique collections have earned the brand a host of celebrity patrons including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Rihanna. Music stars Björk, Ayumi Hamasaki and Lady Gaga have all worn Alexander McQueen pieces in their music videos.
Alexander McQueen’s genius with clothes catapulted him out of a grim East London estate into a world of glamour and wealth; however, he never fully shrugged off his outsider status. Perhaps this was why he was so affected by his mother’s death on the 2nd of February in 2010. McQueen tragically committed suicide just 9 days later on the 11th of February; he was found hanging in his wardrobe. He remained passionate about fashion right up until his death, while never losing his sense of perspective: “At the end of the day, it’s just clothes,” he would say. “Know what I mean?”
“Clothes and jewellery should be startling, individual. When you see a woman in my clothes, you want to know more about them. To me, that is what distinguishes good designers from bad designers.” – Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen: A Timeline Snapshot
Throughout his career, McQueen was no stranger to controversy and employing shock tactics, particularly in his runway collections. It all started in 1994 with the infamous ‘Bumster’ trousers; a tight fitting trouser that were cut scandalously low on the hips, exposing the models’ backs and a sneaky flash of bum cleavage. The ‘Bumsters’- a trend in low rise jeans soon followed. Despite the comments and debate the risqué trousers attracted, Michael Oliveira-Salac, the director of Blow PR and a friend of McQueen’s said that “The Bumster for me is what defined McQueen.”
While working at French label, Givenchy (1996-2001) McQueen toned down his designed, but continued to indulge his rebellious streak on the catwalk for his own collections. For his Spring/Summer 1999 collection, McQueen started with a single model, Shalom Harlow, introduced to the runway in a strapless white dress. She was rotated slowly on a revolving part of the runway while two robotic ‘guns’ sprayed her gracefully in paint. She left the audience in shock and awe and the runway dripping in paint. The piece was inspired by an installation by artist Rebecca Horn of two shotguns firing blood-red paint at each other. A video of the event can be seen here.
McQueen was one of the first designers ever to use Indian models on the catwalk, and was never one to shy away from using ‘unconventional’ models. In 1998 he sparked yet another debate when he used double amputee model Aimee Mullins in his London catwalk show. She strode down the runway on a pair of hand-carved wooden prosthetic legs made from solid ash, with integral boots. He was at it again for his Spring/Summer 2001 collection; editors waited for hours in front of a vast mirrored box. When it finally broke open at the end of the show, it revealed a naked plus-size life model wearing a macabre mask while thousands of live butterflies flew into the spectators.
When model Kate Moss featured in a well publicised drugs scandal in 2005, she lost many of her high profile contacts and she was disowned by many within the fashion industry – but not McQueen. Rather than snub her, he instead featured her in his Autumn/Winter 2006 catwalk show, at Paris Fashion Week, in a very special way. Models walked the runway in romanticized Renaissance-looking pieces, such as voluminous ball gowns, plaid prints, and tiers of lace and ruffles. Suddenly the lights dimmed, and a shimmering Kate Moss appeared via hologram, swimming in fabric and floating before an amazed audience.
In 2009, as part of his Spring/Summer 2010 collection, McQueen created the ‘Armadillo’ and ‘Alien’ shoes. The Alien was covered in satin, while the Armadillo boasted scaly animal skin. Both style boasted 10inch heels prompting three of his models refusing to wear them, fearing that they might break an ankle or fall over on the runway. One of the models to refuse was Abbey Lee Kershaw, who earlier in 2009 had fainted after McQueen had poured her into a minute corset. Fears over the safety of the space-age shoes didn’t put off pop-singer Lady Gaga who managed to strut and dance, successfully in a pair of gold Armadillos in the video for her single, Bad Romance. She also wore a pair of snakeskin armadillos to the MTV video music awards.
McQueen was always at his best when he was controversial or confrontational, be if from setting new trends with his ‘bumster’ trouser, using unconventional models, using daring prints (a man being executed in the electric chair being a particularly controversial example), spray painting his models, giving his collections provocative titles (such as Highland Rape) or creating shoes from out of space. Controversy or not, there is no doubt that McQueen was a visionary and brought drama and theatre to the runway.
Alexander McQueen Tragedy and Tribute
It was tragically announced on the afternoon of the 11th of February that Alexander McQueen had hanged himself at his luxury flat in Mayfair, central London, just 9 days after the death of his mother. McQueen had left a note saying “Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee.” the Metropolitan Police stated that the death was not suspicious but soon confirmed it was in fact a suicide. McQueen, who had been diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depression, took an overdose prior to hanging himself. Coroner Dr Paul Knapman reported finding “a significant level of cocaine, sleeping pills, and tranquilisers in the blood samples taken after the designer’s death.”
Soon after his death on the 18th of February 2010, Robert Polet, the president and chief executive of the Gucci Group, announced that the Alexander McQueen business would carry on without its founder. McQueen’s long-term assistant Sarah Burton was named as the new creative director of Alexander McQueen in May 2010. A memorial was finally held for Alexander McQueen at Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the 20th September 2010. It was attended by many of his celebrity fans and friends including Björk, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, Stella McCartney and Anna Wintour amongst 2,500 other invited guests.
Just over a year after his death the on the 2nd May 2011, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art paid tribute to Alexander McQueen with the ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibit. The exhibit featured 100 McQueen creations and 70 accessories from throughout McQueen’s career, including signature designs such as the infamous ‘Bumster’ trousers, the kimono jacket, and the Origami frock coat, as well as pieces reflecting the exaggerated silhouettes of the 1860s, 1880s, 1890s, and 1950s that he crafted into contemporary yet romantic silhouettes. Speaking to the assembled guests, Sarah Burton, McQueen’s protégé and successor, gave a heartfelt tribute to her former mentor saying that the exhibition was a fitting tribute: ‘When I walked into the exhibit, I thought of Lee…the passion, inspiration.’
Second Generation of Alexander McQueen: Sarah Burton
A week after McQueen’s death in 2010, the Gucci group, majority shareholder of the Alexander McQueen brand, announced that the label would go on without its founder. In May of the same year, the announcement came that Sarah Burton, McQueen’s protégé and long-time assistant, would succeed Alexander as the Creative Director of the brand. Speaking to Vogue in January 2011, Burton confessed that at first she found the role an intimidating prospect, “I thought: how would I ever begin to begin? Lee’s mind was so different to anyone else’s. I knew there was no way I could pretend to be him; but I had to ask myself, what did Lee work for? For all this just to close down?”.
Sarah grew up and was educated in Manchester, where she studied a foundation course at Manchester Polytechnic before moving to London to study Print fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. On the recommendation of a tutor and friend of McQueen’s, Simon Ungless, Burton completed a placement year with Alexander McQueen in 1996, rejoining again upon her graduation the following year. She was appointed head of womenswear in 2000 during which time she created dresses for Michelle Obama, Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow and acted as McQueen’s aide up until his death in February 2010.
Sarah became Creative Director in May of 2010 and her first collection for the Spring/Summer 2011 season was debuted in Paris Fashion Week in September of 2010. The sparse, stripped back presentation of a standard catwalk, on bare floorboards with grass emerging from between them, immediately set an entirely different approach to the McQueen spectaculars for which he was so well known, – Burton was bringing something new. The collection featured regal dressed made up with gold painted corn ears with pheasant feather trains, butterfly print dresses with feathered butterflies clustered at the neckline, bandaged chiffon dresses, gold brocade suits, white military frock coats and white broderie anglaise dresses featuring sculpted corset belts of stiff golden leaves. The collection was well received by fashion critics and it paid homage to her predecessor’s dramatic aesthetic, yet with a more feminine edge.
As of 2011, Burton supervises the creative direction and development of all collections of the brand which includes women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and accessories as well as the contemporary line, McQ which is also made up of women’s, men’s and accessories collections.
Fashion by Royal Appointment
On the 29th of April 2011 it was announced that Sarah Burton had designed Kate Middleton’s wedding dress for her wedding to Prince William. The official statement stated that ‘Miss Middleton wished for her dress to combine tradition and modernity with the artistic vision that characterises Alexander McQueen’s work’. The dress consisted of a bodice and skirt featuring a delicate floral lace appliqué detailing that was hand-made by the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace. The Hand-cut English lace and French Chantilly lace was used throughout the bodice and skirt, and has been for the underskirt trim. The whole process was overseen and put together by hand by Burton and her design team.
The skirt was designed to be reminiscent of the opening of a flower and the train measured around three metres long. The ivory satin bodice, which as narrowed at the waist and padded at the hips, draws on the Victorian tradition of corsetry and is a hallmark of Alexander McQueen’s designs. The underskirt was made of silk tulle trimmed with Cluny lace.
“It has been the experience of a lifetime to work with Catherine Middleton to create her wedding dress, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. It was such an incredible honour to be asked, and I am so proud of what we and the Alexander McQueen team have created. I am delighted that the dress represents the best of British craftsmanship. Alexander McQueen’s designs are all about bringing contrasts together to create startling and beautiful clothes and I hope that by marrying traditional fabrics and lacework, with a modern structure and design we have created a beautiful dress for Catherine on her wedding day.” – Sarah Burton on creating Kate Middleton’s wedding dress.
Future of the Alexander McQueen Brand
After Alexander McQueen’s death there was no doubt that the future of the brand was in jeopardy. Rumours circulated that the Gucci Group were sure to abandon the brand as the label was not profitable enough to survive in the highly competitive world of haute couture without the legendary McQueen at the helm. The rumours proved to be unfounded and a week after McQueen’s death, the Gucci Group announced that the brand would continue on. In May of 2010, Sarah Burton, McQueen’s protégé, was announced as his successor as Creative Director, a role in which she doubted she could take on McQueen’s creative responsibilities. However, she needn’t have worried; her first two collections for Alexander McQueen were a complete success and 3 billion people worldwide witnessed Kate Middleton walk down the aisle in a wedding dress that she designed.
That wedding dress has catapulted Sarah Burton out of Alexander McQueen’s shadow and firmly into the limelight. But this raises the question whether she will leave Alexander McQueen for a bigger fashion house. There are rumours that Bernard Arnault, the chairman of Louis Vuitton, has said recently that her name has been mentioned for the Dior job, which is expected to be filled soon. Burton may reject such a notion, recalling McQueen’s unhappy experience at Givenchy, but it will be a test of her loyalties to the brand that made her career.
Visit the official Alexander McQueen website here.